Walking the sidelines – Vikings chaplain brings faith to the field

| September 11, 2013 | 0 Comments

Vikings chaplain brings faith to the field

Minnesota Vikings chaplain Father Michael Van Sloun, center, watches the last preseason game from the sideline at the Metrodome in Minneapolis Aug. 29. Father Van Sloun has been one of two chaplains to the team since 2002. Dianne Towalski / The Catholic Spirit

Minnesota Vikings chaplain Father Michael Van Sloun, center, watches the last preseason game from the sideline at the Metrodome in Minneapolis Aug. 29. Father Van Sloun has been one of two chaplains to the team since 2002. Dianne Towalski / The Catholic Spirit

For Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, the daily schedule is packed.

Each week of the football season is filled with team meetings, practices, workouts and weight training. Even meals with teammates are scheduled for appointed times.

For players serious about their spiritual life — like Walsh, who grew up Catholic and attended Mass regularly with his family — it can be hard to find time to pray and nurture a spiritual life.

So, when he was drafted by the Vikings last season, he didn’t expect to see a guy wearing a Roman collar on the sidelines with the team during games.

For the past 11 years, Father Michael Van Sloun, pastor of St. Bartholomew in Wayzata, has been helping Catholic players, like Walsh, as well as coaches and other team staff members to keep their lives focused despite the pressures of the NFL. He helps them, he says, to “be men of God.”

One of two chaplains, Father Van Sloun’s primary jobs is to preside at Mass on Saturdays before Sunday games.

“I didn’t expect this to be the case in the NFL,” Walsh said. “The fact that they basically bring Mass to you is just awesome.”

Time to focus

Even though their time is at a premium, several players and coaches gather for Mass on Saturday evenings. The arrangement is ideal, not only because of the time constraints, but because players and coaches don’t have to worry about being recognized by autograph seekers in the pews. “This allows them to worship without distraction,” Father Van Sloun said.

He also knows that players and coaches have a lot on their minds when there’s a game coming up.

He said he tries to keep hold of their attention by talking about things relevant to their lives, but he doesn’t talk too much about football.

“They’re getting sports every minute,” Father Van Sloun said. “I want to let the Scriptures speak their full power. And Scripture speaks to every facet of life all the time anyway, so it doesn’t end up being a problem.”

Walsh said Father Van Sloun is very good at relating the Gospel to the lives of the players.

“In his homily last week, Father Mike talked about not making rash decisions and not keeping promises that are evil,” said Walsh, who like other professional athletes faces numerous temptations that come with the high-profile lifestyle.

“What I can offer to them is prayer and helping them to be good people,” Father Van Sloun said. “Everybody needs that, but pro athletes really need it, and one of the things that I talk to them about is that they live in this world swirling with temptation. When you have money, fame and opportunity, the chances to misstep are tremendous and the scrutiny on that is tremendous as well. If I can help people stay on the right track, that’s a great blessing.”

Father Van Sloun is also available for anyone in the organization — players, coaches or staff — who might need someone to talk to.

“Father Mike is more than a priest to our players — he’s a friend to them as well, and that means a lot,” said head coach Leslie Frazier. “Sometimes, things can be overwhelming in this business, with the pressure to succeed and perform, and to have Father Mike available for our players to sit down and talk to him about very intimate subjects and things that pertain to them . . . it helps our football team.”

It’s important to the team’s management to have the services of a chaplain as part of its program.

“We are very fortunate to have a priest that is accessible, especially with the time constraints that we have,” said Rick Spielman, the team’s general manager. “People in this organization know that if they have issues, we really try to have the support staff around.”

That support staff also includes player programs staff members, the legal department and medical staff.

Game day

During games, Father Van Sloun takes his place on the sideline, standing inside a white line between the 30- and 31-yard lines. From there, he sees what happens on the field and on the bench. But, he also hopes that people see him.

“The fact that the Vikings would have a priest stand with the team on the sideline is a remarkable thing,” he said. “Most people don’t know who I am, but everybody recognizes the Roman collar. When people see the priest and wonder what he’s doing there, they are immediately led to see that spiritual values are important to the organization. So, it’s the witness value of me standing on the sideline.”

He gets to enjoy the game, too. He hangs out with “the doctors,” the team medical staff who are there in case of an injury. And, occasionally, he’ll get a text from a parishioner in the stands. He tells them that if they text, he’ll wave from the field.

Father Van Sloun has been into sports his whole life. He was a runner and played basketball in high school and went on to coach basketball and cross country at Crosier Seminary in Onamia, Minn.

His career as a chaplain began in 2002, when Breck Spinner, then Vikings head of on-field operations, got married. Spinner’s fiancé Laurie played basketball in college and is in the University of St. Thomas Hall of Fame. They went to Father Van Sloun for marriage preparation, and the conversations often moved to basketball.

Then, when former coach Mike Tice took over the team, he asked Spinner if he knew a priest who liked sports who could serve as team chaplain. Spinner knew that Father Van Sloun would jump at the chance.

Father Van Sloun said he likes that his job allows him to be with the team and make a difference in the players’ lives.

“If these guys can live good and holy lives and give a good example, the amount of people that they’re able to touch is remarkable,” he said. “So being able to offer something to people that are in that public of a venue and help them in that venue when they’re under that kind of scrutiny, that’s a blessing for them, and for all of us, really.”

Tags: , , , ,

Category: Faith and Culture, Featured