The night before the Cincinnati Bengals square off against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI, Bengals chaplain Father James Thomas Wray will celebrate Mass for coaches, staff and players.
The Bengals’ trip to the Super Bowl marks the franchise’s first appearance in the big game since 1988; if the team wins, it will be their first victory in the Super Bowl era.
With the city’s hopes pinned for glory on the gridiron, one might expect the top priority of the team’s Catholic chaplain to be praying for a win. As a Bengals fan who even owns a rosary in the team colors, Father Wray sincerely hopes for victory, but not as the ultimate prize for the players, coaches and staff he ministers to.
“We don’t pray for victory, we pray that God will grant these men their heart’s desire,” Father Wray said. “These men have given their lives for this. If this will make them better men, more generous, more sacrificial, more virtuous, then absolutely grant their heart’s desire.”
Father Wray, a member of St. Margaret of York Council 13429 in Loveland, Ohio, has been the Bengals’ chaplain for the past two years. He is one of several Knights of Columbus members currently serving as chaplains in the NFL. His work has been mostly remote thus far due to the league’s COVID-19 protocols, but that has not hindered his pastoral outreach to those in the organization.
“He relates so well to life’s situations with real and genuine connection,” said Mark Duffner, a senior defensive assistant for the Bengals. “I think that his awareness of the struggles that people face, and his Catholic approach to assist and direct us, has been great.”
Coaches and staff have expressed to Father Wray their desire to keep players grounded when faced with massive wealth and immense pressure to perform on Sundays.
“You just see the spiritual battle in a man’s heart and soul when you have that kind of resource,” Father Wray said. “But you just see these coaches mentoring these young guys to be the best version of themselves.”
The road to Father Wray’s NFL ministry was long and winding. A husband and father of two, the chaplain served more than 20 years as an Episcopal minister before converting and becoming a Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2015. A few years after his ordination, he became one of several priests who rotated in celebrating Mass for the Bengals.
“One thing led to another and they said, ‘Hey, we really would like to have some continuity and stability, so it’s not a different priest every Mass or every game,” Father Wray recounted. With a love of sports, and noting a connection between sports and Scripture, he felt drawn to serve as chaplain on a more permanent basis.
“St. Paul likens the spiritual life to an athletic contest and endurance,” Father Wray explained. “We see athletics are a showcase for the formation of virtue, generosity, selflessness and sacrifice.”
He sees such sacrifices made by players and coaches who struggle together on the football field throughout the grueling season, which is now culminating in the biggest game of their careers.
“It’s not enough just to have a friendship, we need something, as St. Thomas Aquinas said, to anchor the friendship: a vision of mission, team, a company, a family, something together that we can focus on,” he said. “That’s just male spirituality and I think Catholicism speaks into that.”
As the Bengals departed for Los Angeles to vie for NFL glory, Feb. 8, Father Wray blessed the team and entrusted them to the mediation of Our Lady of Victory. Alluding to a well-known team chant, he also imparted on them a final message:
“As we priests might say in Latin, ‘Who dey ?’”
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