PROSPECT HEIGHTS — In the span of a few hours at Comerica Park in Detroit at a May 31 Detroit Tigers game, Father Casey Cole heard a confession, and had a conversation about the faith with some tipsy young Catholics who noticed his Franciscan habit.
By his side for the latter experience was Father Roberto “Tito” Serrano. Together, they’ve dubbed themselves the “Bleacher Brothers,” and they’re in the middle of a nationwide evangelization mission built around visits to all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums.
It’s a trip that’s been eight years in the making for the two Franciscan priests that was inspired by St. Francis of Assisi.
“Years ago we were told by one of the friars that [St. Francis of Assisi] didn’t necessarily go to churches to preach,” Father Casey said. “He went to city streets, he went to where people were and preached the language that they could understand.”
“People don’t necessarily gather in the city streets anymore, so being baseball fans I thought it’d be great to go to stadiums to meet in the other cathedral, the other place of worship in some ways this summer,” he continued.
The journey started in Miami on May 20 at a Marlins game where Father Tito threw out the first pitch. From there they traveled to Tampa for a Rays game, where Father Casey threw out the first pitch, describing the moment as the “cherry on top of the journey.”
In the weeks since, they’ve attended 14 games in 14 different cities. Through June 13, teams have an 8-3 record when the Bleacher Brothers are in town.
For the first 20 stops, the Bleacher Brothers will drive in a rented truck through the Northeast, Midwest and South. Then they’ll fly out to the West Coast and visit the remaining 10 ballparks, finishing the journey on July 30 in Colorado.
With evangelization as their purpose, at each stop they do far more than watch a ball game. In each state they have scheduled events at schools, parishes, and dioceses. Father Casey said some of the talks have focused on vocations, and “inspiring people to be faithful citizens and be engaged in the world.” Others will focus on the Beatitudes and how Father Casey believes “they’re the answer to a divided and despairing world.”
“A lot of people have taken us up on that topic, which is how to be reconcilers, and how we make sense of the suffering and afflictions we’ve gone through with COVID-19, and racial upheaval and all of these things,” Father Casey said, noting two talks that have stood out are in Pittsburgh and Toronto, where 90-100 and 120-150 young adults respectively participated.
“It’s been really great at these events to see a lot of young faithful people,” he added.
Father Tito explained that they also encounter as many people as possible at the games, noting that their brown Franciscan habits make them stand out.
“We want to make ourselves available,” Father Tito said. “We want people to come up to us and be curious because we are curiously dressed, so we want them to come up to us, and that gives us an opening to share our life, to share our fraternity, and to share the gospel message in a different way.”
As their travels have continued, Father Casey said they’ve tried to adjust their approach at the ballparks. Instead of waiting for people to come to them, they’ve started approaching people for conversation on faith, baseball, and whatever else.
“I wanted in the spirit of synodality to start asking other people questions,” Father Casey said. “I think we have a great opportunity to get a little sample size of the Church across many regions.”
The shift fits right in with his belief from the start that this was an evangelization mission.
“We’re on a mission from God,” Father Casey said referencing the Blues Brothers. “We’re the Bleacher Brothers.”
“It also fits really well with the synodal process of listening and going out to people and people who aren’t coming to the churches and seeing what’s wrong, why aren’t they coming, what are they struggling with and how can we be of service to them,” he added.
In terms of baseball, Father Casey roots for the Chicago Cubs, and Father Tito is an Arizona Diamondbacks fan. Of the ballparks left, they’re both most excited for Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, was the other stadium at the top of the bucket list, which they got to visit on June 14. Father Casey also highlighted a four-day stretch at the end of June into July where his dad will fly out. Together they’ll go to a St. Louis Cardinals game. Then they’ll drive up to Iowa to go to the Field of Dreams site to see it and have a catch. And from there they’ll drive to Wrigley Field in Chicago to see the Cubs play.