If you had told a 14-year-old Burke Masters that he was going to be a Catholic priest, he might not have laughed so much as asked if you were feeling well. Masters was going to be a baseball player, and besides, he wasn’t Catholic.
It wasn’t that he didn’t know priests. He was a freshman at Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, Illinois, a school he chose for two reasons: academics and baseball. But Masters — now Father Masters — had been raised in a home that was filled with Christian values but with parents who did not want to force their children into any particular church.
For the next several years, it looked like his plans would come to fruition. He won NCAA academic honors playing baseball at Mississippi State, where he once went 6 for 6 and hit a ninth-inning grand slam to win an NCAA regional game and appeared in a College World Series.
He went undrafted but played briefly in the White Sox organization in Utica, New York. He eventually switched his dream to running a major-league club instead of playing for one. He started in the front office of the Kane County Cougars, a minor-league team west of Chicago.
But all along, there were signs. By the time he graduated from high school, he had become Catholic, and he took his faith seriously.
During his time at Providence, a religion teacher told him he was looking for something and recommended that he read the Gospel of Matthew. “It wasn’t something I was looking for, it was someone,” he said. “And that was really my introduction of the Gospel of Matthew.”
He learned about the Catholic faith at school and sat and watched and listened at school Masses. He accidentally received his first Communion at a retreat — the group was small, and when the priest approached Masters with the host, he opened his mouth to explain that he wasn’t Catholic. The priest thought he opened his mouth to receive the host and placed it on his tongue.
That experience made him think again about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Father Masters said.
“I learned about it in school, and I thought it was nice in theory, but not reality,” he said. “But when I received that host, it wasn’t just bread. There was definitely more going on.”
He went home and told his parents he wanted to become Catholic, and they told him to take a year to think and learn, and if he still wanted to, he could enter the Church when he was 18.
On May 26, 1985, he was baptized, received his second holy Communion and was confirmed in the chapel of his high school.
Nine years later, at 27, his girlfriend brought him to Eucharistic adoration for the first time. “I had never heard of adoration before,” he said.
But it was at adoration when he started having persistent thoughts about being called to the priesthood.
“I didn’t want to do it,” he said. “I fought with God. I said, ‘You’re going to have to make this clear.’ So people started coming up to me and saying, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a priest?’”
After a long talk with his girlfriend, he decided to enter the seminary to “get God off my back.”
He entered the seminary in the fall of 1997 and was ordained in 2002. He served as a parish priest for four years and then began working in the vocation office for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, where he is now the director.
He meets with young men who come and say, “I can’t get priesthood out of my mind,” and he tells them his story. He tells them to pay attention if “God is gently, persistently calling them” and offers some tips on discernment and finding a spiritual director.
And the girlfriend he had to break things off with to enter the seminary? The second wedding he celebrated after he was ordained was hers, to his best friend.
As for baseball aspirations, it would seem God covered that base too. He keeps contact with the game by serving as chaplain for the Chicago Cubs.
Looking back, he said, it seems apparent that he was being led along a path to the priesthood. But while he was on the journey, the way was anything but clear.
“Looking back on it, I just kind of shake my head and smile,” Father Masters said. “There definitely was confusion about whether I was called to marriage or the priesthood. But it’s all God’s providence.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.