It’s only about 300 yards from St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church to the main gates of Nationals Park in southeast Washington, DC, which means that when the Washington Nationals play at home—and especially when the Nats are in first place, as they are now—throngs of fans walk past the parish on their way to each game.
Fr. Drew Royals, the pastor at St. Vincent de Paul, decided he’d make the most of this evangelical opportunity. So on Sundays, when the Nats are playing a day-game at home, Fr. Drew added a special noon Mass for folks on their way to the game: a “Nats Mass.” He started promoting it on Facebook and Twitter (#NatsMass) and people started showing up.
“For me, it was kind of a no-brainer,” Fr. Drew told the Washington Post for a recent story about his efforts, “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.”
As refreshing as it is to have positive stories about the Catholic Church in the media–and the Post story was definitely positive–this is more than a story about a Church making itself “relevant” in contemporary culture.
When I spoke to Fr. Drew by phone yesterday, he said he was really pleased with the turnout at last Sunday’s Nats Mass. Some of those in attendance had read about the Mass in that morning’s paper. In all, about 100 people showed up. That might not seem like a big turnout for a Sunday Mass, but I asked Fr. Drew how many total parishioners St. Vincent de Paul has? His response: “Let’s call it: ‘Fewer than a hundred.’” In fact, the parish is small enough, that, when Fr. Drew was assigned to the parish in 2012, he was simultaneously assigned pastor of another small parish a few miles away (and very close to RFK stadium, as it happens).
Fr. Drew was quick to add that Nats Mass is about much more than the numbers. As pastor, he’s responsible for all the souls within the parish, not just those who are members. And most people who walk past the Church aren’t parishioners of St. Vincent de Paul.
The parish, like the neighborhood around it, has long been predominantly African American and middle class. Like many DC neighborhoods, it has recently seen some significant changes, becoming more diverse both racially and economically. It was long speculated that the construction of Nationals Park would provide an economic boost to the neighborhood. The Great Recession, which arrived just as the stadium was completed, put a damper on things. But in recent years, upscale apartments and condos have sprung up, with trendy restaurants on the ground floor and views of the ballpark, Capitol, and Anacostia River from the rooftops. New residents tend to be younger, with more disposable income.
And of course, there are the game-day crowds.
In other words, Nats Mass isn’t simply some liturgical gimmick–you’ll find no Curly W chasubles here–it’s a way of addressing the unique pastoral challenges of the parish by making the most of unique opportunities. Nats Mass succeeds in that regard, not because it’s clever, but because it presents an opportunity for visitors to the neighborhood to meet Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. No amount of social-media savvy, no amount of mere packaging, can obscure–let alone replace–what the Mass really is.
Fr. Drew wrote a letter to his parishioners this week putting the Nats Mass, and the attention the Washington Post story brought to their little parish, into the proper perspective. It’s worth reading what he had to say:
Dan Steinberg from the Washington Post called me last Wednesday wanting to write the story on the Nats Mass. He said someone had mentioned our hashtag to him and he had been meaning to learn more about it for several weeks. He thought is was a positive story that folks would really enjoy hearing. He also said he wanted to let the story run on the Sunday of a Nats Mass. We’re glad he did! There were several folks who made it yesterday because they read the article.
Nats Mass started in May with four of us—six if you count me and Jesus. Yesterday we had almost a hundred people there. But Nats Mass is not about the numbers. It’s about sanctifying Sunday by participating in Mass. We’re pretty good at remembering to relax and enjoy the downtime that the weekend affords. We love spending time with our family and we love the Nats. Nats Mass reminds us of the obligation we all have to thank God. Sundays are not just about down time, our families, or our favorite team. They’re about remembering the new life we have thanks to Jesus’ own death and resurrection to new life.
Hopefully those who join us for Nats Mass will leave with the sense that they’ve participated in something Holy—that they just shared in the act of worship which makes all things new. Nats Mass, and every Mass, is the chance for us to share the one sacrifice which brings us all home. It’s our chance to show the Lord we remember what he did for us and thank him so much for it.
It’s a thrill to see the red jerseys in the congregation. It’s a joy to share a quick hot dog right after Mass. It’s fun to be with fellow fans who are all praying for a win. But the most wonderful thing about Nats Mass is the communion we share through Jesus Christ, whom we honor above all things. This means that even if you can’t join us for a Nats Mass, we can still be united in Christ.
Thanks for the likes, shares, comments and good wishes about the Steinberg article. What a boost it’s given us in spreading the word about Nats Mass! Here’s hoping it continues to help bring more people to Mass not just here but everywhere. That would be the victory that Jesus would really like.
Rev. Andrew Royals
For anyone who’s wondering, there are two more Nats Masses scheduled this summer: September 7 (Phillies) and September 28 (Marlins).The parish family of St. Vincent de Paul. (Photos courtesy of stvincentdepauldc.org.)