TUPELO • Father Burke Masters of Joliet, Illinois, was in Tupelo recently, speaking at a Catholic Charities fundraising event at St. James Catholic Church.
Even in a black suit and white clerical collar, the 52-year-old Masters looked youthful, fit and athletic, which shouldn’t surprise those who know his background. And it should come as no surprise that while he was here, Masters found his way to Starkville to watch the Mississippi State Bulldogs play baseball.
“It worked out great,” he said in an interview at St. James. “Being here gave me an excuse to stop by Starkville.”
Before he became “Father Burke,” Masters played second and third base at Mississippi State University from 1987-1990, during the tenure of legendary former head coach Ron Polk. Masters said those were especially good years for baseball for the Bulldogs.
“This is the 30th anniversary of the ‘89 team,” he said.
Masters said the Bulldogs were particularly strong that year, narrowly missing a national championship.
“That was my junior year,” he said. “We were ranked first or second all year long. That team was loaded with talent and a lot of guys got drafted that year. We had a good chance to win the national title, but we got upset in the finals by North Carolina.”
Masters said while the ‘90 squad lacked the star power of the ‘89 team, it made up for it in team cohesion.
“My last year we weren’t really picked to do anything,” he said. “We started the season unranked but we really came together as a team. We wound up going to the College World Series that year.”
Masters said he converted to Catholicism in high school, but he had no interest in a religious vocation after college.
“I practiced my faith in college, but I had my whole mind set on being a professional ball player,” he said.
It was only after a stint in the Minor Leagues and a brush with the world of business that Masters began to feel a tug toward the priesthood.
“After college I played briefly with a Minor League team affiliated with the White Sox,” he said. “Then I worked as an actuary for an insurance company. I made a lot of money but I was bored to death.”
Masters said after baseball and insurance, he moved on to a new goal: to become the manager for a Major League team.
“My new dream was to become the general manager for the Cubs or the White Sox,” he said. “I got my master’s in sports administration from the University of Ohio and worked for the Kane County Cougars, which is a Minor League team in Illinois. I loved it, but it was during that time that I started to feel a call to priesthood.”
Like many called into ministry, Masters said he surrendered slowly, reluctantly.
“I was 27 when I seriously started considering priesthood,” he said. “I was 30 when I went to seminary. It took me a few years; I didn’t want to do it.”
Masters said once he took the plunge, he had no regrets.
“When I walked through the seminary doors, something inside me said, ‘This is right,’” he said. “It fit like a glove. I’ve never looked back.”
These days Father Burke wears many hats. He is the Secretary for Christian Formation for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, a daily blogger (http://frburke23.wordpress.com), and Catholic chaplain for the Chicago Cubs.
Masters said his days at Wrigley Field start long before the gates open and the announcer’s familiar ‘Play ball!’ is heard throughout the stadium.
“I go down for home games,” he said. “I get there at about 9:30 and celebrate Mass for the Cubs and the visiting team and any employees who want to come. Then I just stick around and make myself available. Sometimes I get to stay for the game and sometimes not. My life is pretty busy.”
Masters said he sees himself as part of a new generation of priests with a new mandate.
“I see my role as trying to change the image of the priesthood,” he said. “We can love sports and be fit and health-conscious. I work out every day and I still love baseball. I tell young seminarians that it’s mind, body and soul – the whole package.”
Masters said though it’s not the life he would have predicted for himself, priesthood has been surprisingly rich in rewards.
“I thought I was leaving everything to live a life of sacrifice,” he said. “I thought I’d be poor, lonely and bored, but it’s been quite the opposite. I have the life God created me for.”