A local pastor ends his unique ministry to Catholic team members on a high note
When the Seattle Seahawks step onto CenturyLink Field, the fervor of the “12th Man” may cause small earthquakes. But over the last 12 years, Father Tom Belleque made sure that the team’s Catholic members also had the force of their faith with them on the field.
That’s because Father Belleque celebrated Mass for Catholic Seahawks players and coaches the night before every home game. “When I first went in I thought, ‘Oh, I can work that into my schedule, a Mass,” he recalled of juggling being pastor of St. Louise de Marillac Parish in Bellevue with the Seahawks commitment.
He found that the role had an impact far beyond that. “There’s a real strong fraternal bond between the guys who pray together each week,” Father Belleque said. “In that sense it’s like a small Christian community.”
Among the Catholic Seahawks are tight end Luke Willson, general manager John Schneider, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, assistant strength and conditioning coach Jamie Yanchar and tight ends coach Pat McPherson. Father Belleque says he keeps in touch with past team members as well.
The priest, who was ordained for the Archdiocese of Seattle in 1985, describes the team members as “a spiritually mature group of men” who “love their faith and deeply appreciate the fact that there’s priests who come” to say Mass for the team.
Simple Mass, deep impact
On home game weekends, the team gathers at their hotel for a pep talk, dinner and, for those who choose, the chance to go to Mass or a Protestant service. There in a hotel meeting room, the small group of Catholics gather chairs around a table used for the altar and have a simple Mass. It’s only a short period of time in the Seahawks’ game weekends, but the Catholic team members say it makes a big impact.
“In playing and coaching there’s a lot of routine that goes into the game in terms of getting ready … to prepare and perform,” Quinn said. “And for us, going and celebrating Mass, that’s a big part of that preparation, where it really gives you a chance to stay connected spiritually.”
“The relaxing factor for us to get in there and spend some time to unwind and think about something else outside of football is a huge thing,” Yanchar said.
Father Belleque built a lot of silent prayer time into the Masses he celebrated for the Seahawks, so the team members could “bring in whatever they need to prepare themselves for the next day.”
Home game homilies weren’t “like Knute Rockne and ‘Win one for the Gipper,’” the priest said. But he often wove in a theme of “what it means to be a man of God and practical ways we live that out.”
The team members said they especially appreciated that Father Belleque’s homilies didn’t become motivational game speeches. “In that 30 minutes that we have, we’re just Catholics at that time,” McPherson said. “We’re not coaches or Seahawks or anything like that.”
Father Belleque tried to be visible and available to all the Seahawks, whether Catholic or not, as they came and went in the hotel hallway on game weekends. He said with a chuckle that wide receiver Ricardo Lockette made sure to always shake his hand before every game, “kind of like his pregame ritual.”
Father Tom Belleque. Photo: Corky Trewin
Father Belleque’s services to the team didn’t stop at Mass. He has helped Seahawks with baptism preparation for their children, godparent preparation and counseling. He took prayer requests, presided at McPherson’s parents’ vow renewal, and recommended parishes to team members new in town. Father Belleque also often got calls from visiting teams looking to have Mass while they were in Seattle, and he’d find a priest.
“It’s not just about celebrating Mass,” he said. “It’s really about forming community and being available for the spiritual needs of that group. And it changes every year.”
For example, in December 2013 then-rookie Luke Willson asked Father Belleque where he could volunteer on Christmas Day since he wasn’t going home to his native Ontario for the holiday. The priest pointed him to Tent City 4, a temporary homeless encampment being hosted at Mary, Queen of Peace Parish in Sammamish.
Willson helped prep for the Christmas meal — he was sent on a milk run — and chatted with Tent City 4’s homeless residents. The player later joked with Father Belleque that there were many “armchair quarterbacks” among the attendees.
Willson also said that Mass time on game weekends was a way to calm his rookie nerves and gave him perspective on his larger life, faith and family. “[Mass] was something I felt really affected my mentality of how I approached games and really helped me play a lot better as well,” he said.
Super Bowl celebration
In July, after Father Belleque became the pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Vancouver, he handed over his Seahawks role to two priests who live closer to Seattle (see sidebar). But he left the role on a high note — getting to see the Seahawks win the Super Bowl last February.
On Super Bowl Sunday, Father Belleque said an extra prayer to Our Lady of Victory at all of St. Louise’s Masses, which is a game day tradition he plans to continue at St. John the Evangelist. When the Seahawks won, he thought about how excited his late father, who was an original season ticket holder, would have been.
As for himself, Father Belleque was euphoric. The Des Moines-raised priest, who grew up playing baseball, basketball, golf and throwing the discus, and had rooted for the Seahawks since their first season in 1976, now got to text a Super Bowl congrats to the Catholic team members he had spiritually supported.
Even though he won’t say Mass for the Seahawks now that he’s at St. John the Evangelist, he hopes to stay involved in Catholic athletics through Catholic Athletes for Christ. And he helped archdiocesan vocations director Father Bryan Dolejsi arrange to celebrate the first Mass at Safeco Field Aug. 31.
He plans to keep in touch with the Catholic Seahawks team members. “I just think the world of the guys,” he said. “I really do appreciate them, their deep faith and their desire to celebrate their faith together.”
New Seahawks priests
Taking over the responsibilities of serving Catholic Seahawks are Father Joseph “Jay” DeFolco, pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Lake Stevens, and Jesuit Father David Anderson, Seattle University’s chaplain for alumni and athletics. Neither are strangers to the role.
Father DeFolco preceded Father Belleque in saying Mass for the Seahawks. He is looking forward to sharing the role again and said it’s important for Catholic team members to have Mass as an outlet away from the stress of being on the team. “You think about the intensity before a game, they need the quiet time in Mass,” Father DeFolco said.
Father Anderson had previously filled in for Father Belleque when he was unable to say Mass for the team and has also presided at Mass for visiting NFL teams.
He said he’s glad to bring Mass to the Seahawks, who because of a demanding weekend game schedule, might otherwise miss Mass for four or five months at a time during the football season. Father Anderson also sees athletics as one of the “frontiers of culture” to which his Ignatian spirituality calls him to serve.
“I love the Seahawks and I want to see them win, but my primary interest is how can I go to those places where the Eucharist is not being offered,” he said.
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Northwest Catholic - October 2014