Fans who stream into the Navy Yard district before Nats games are now greeted with increasingly varied entertainment choices, from Yards Park for fresh air and views of the Anacostia River to the Fairgrounds for frat-rock music and adult refreshments to a variety of neighborhood restaurants and taverns, with more to come.
On Sunday afternoons this summer, they’ve had another option: a Catholic church service. Or, as the local St. Vincent de Paul church calls it, “Nats Mass.”
“For me, it was kind of a no-brainer,” said Rev. Andrew Royals, 34, a Montgomery County native who became the pastor at the South Capitol Street church about two years ago. “On game days we had thousands of people walking right in front of our church. I was like, ‘Well, I’m sure some of these people would like to go to church.’…And we thought there’s no reason people can’t do both.”
And thus, Nats Mass was launched in May, a noon service that runs about 40 or 45 minutes, getting attendees out the door in plenty of time for a 1:35 first pitch.
The first session, a trial run that wasn’t publicized, attracted a crowd of five. But then the church – which is located at the corner of South Capitol and M streets – put up a sign touting the Nats Mass service. It publicized the service on Facebook. It used the #NatsMass hashtag on Twitter. And the crowd has grown at each successive mass.
— Jake Russell (@_JakeRussell) July 9, 2014
Royals is expecting between 75 and 100 people for Sunday’s service, the seventh of nine scheduled Nats masses this season. By next season, he hopes to reach the church’s capacity, which is about 150. The church has long held an 8 a.m. Sunday mass for regular parishioners, and it recently added a Sunday evening mass for the younger demographic, but Royals expects that Nats Mass will eventually be the parish’s biggest event of the week.
“We’re shattering attendance records each Sunday,” he said. “That’s what gives me hope. I’m pretty sure at some point I’m going to start mass one Sunday, and I’m going to look out and see a church filled with Nats fans.”
How could he tell? Well, for one thing, the Nats fans typically wear red casual baseball gear – “we kind of lighten the strictures up a little bit,” Royals joked, when asked about the dress code.
There are other things that make Nats Mass unique. Royals tries to keep the service a tad briefer than normal, so anxious fans don’t get distracted by the approaching gametime. And he will include references to baseball or to the Washington nine in his homilies – “it makes it easy when you know that everyone has something in common even beyond our religion,” he said. Baseball “kind of gives you an extra set of things that we can all relate to.”
And then there are the games themselves. Royals accompanied a group of churchgoers to a Sunday matinee against Milwaukee after a Nats Mass in July; the home team recorded a walk-off win. In fact, the Nats are 5-1 thus far after Nats Mass services. Playoff schedules, of course, are weeks away, but Royals said he might add an extra Nats Mass if there are any Sunday postseason games at home, “so people can come and actually pray for a win.”
Before launching the baseball-linked service, Royals consulted with several priests and neighboring pastors; everyone he asked had positive feedback. Three months later, that hasn’t changed.
“If I don’t start this Nats Mass, somebody else is going to,” he remembered thinking. “I think it’s a winner for the parish, and it’s a winner for the fans, and hopefully it’s a winner for the Nats.”