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Father Jim Baraniak: Green Bay Packers Chaplain—and More
By Susan Hines-Brigger
Father Jim Baraniak ministers to college students, prison inmates and football players. For him, it's a perfect balance.

Q U I C K S C A N

Called at a Young Age
Hit the Ground Running
A Prank Phone Call?
Out of Balance
A Typical Day?
To Everything There's a Season
Leaving His Mark

 

Father Jim Baraniak and Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre

Photo by Jim Biever, Courtey of the Green Bay Packers

Listening to Norbertine Father Jim Baraniak’s schedule is enough to make anyone tired. He serves as campus minister at St. Norbert’s College in De Pere, Wisconsin, pastor of the college’s parish, chaplain for the Green Bay Packers football team, vocation coordinator for the Norbertines and sacramental minister at Green Bay Correctional Institute. But don’t expect him to trim anything out of what he calls his “dead-by-40 plan,” because he can’t. He needs them all, he says, to keep his life in balance.

St. Anthony Messenger spent two exhausting days with Father Jim last October, talking with him about his many ministries, and why he can’t—and won’t—give any of them up.

On this weekday night, Father Jim is sitting in St. Norbert’s gym cheering on the girls’ volleyball team. He can only stay for a while, he says, because he’s still got other things to do tonight. But he had to come. It was a promise he made to the students when he became pastor at the college: If you take an active role in the parish, I’ll take an active role in your activities. It’s a promise he’s worked hard to keep, even if it means dropping by the gym between other commitments.

Before the match is over, he’s off again. He has to meet one of the students to do blessings of dorm rooms. He admits that it would be nice to have a few nights off, but as he points out, “If you’re on a college campus, they’re up at night.”

Before the night is over, he’ll celebrate Mass at 10 in the dorms. Those Masses often lead to one-on-one or group discussions with some of the students, often ending about 11 when he heads back to his room.

An evening like this has pretty much become the norm for him, he says, since he became campus minister at St. Norbert and pastor of the college’s parish, Old St. Joseph, in July 2004.

But the road to here has also had a lot of other adventures along the way.

Called at a Young Age

Jim is the youngest child of Jack and Jackie Baraniak. He grew up in Antigo, Wisconsin, with a brother and two sisters.

His call to the priesthood actually came at a young age. He jokingly says that the Norbertines claim he was delivered and his opening words were, “May the Lord be with you.”

But Father Jim says he first felt a calling to the priesthood around the age of five on the day his grandpa died. The parish priest, who was new to town, came to visit the family “before he even unpacked.” That visit made such an impact on Jim that when he was asked in the first grade what he wanted to be, he was one of three kids who said “a priest.” Two of them stuck to that ambition.

Of course, there were sidetracks along the way, such as dating. But “something always kept bringing me back to that original call, that original attraction to the priesthood—throughout grade school, throughout high school, throughout college. It’s just always been there even though I deliberately looked elsewhere.”

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Hit the Ground Running

On August 28, 1986, Jim entered the Norbertine Order, which was founded on Christmas Day 1121 by St. Norbert in Premontre, France. (Because St. Norbert followed the Augustinian rules, all Norbertines enter and profess their vows on the feast of St. Augustine.) Two years later, Jim professed temporary vows of poverty, consecrated celibacy and obedience. Finally, on August 28, 1991, he professed solemn vows.

He was ordained on January 3, 1993—the feast of the Epiphany that year—and was assigned associate pastor of Old St. Joseph Church and associate director of campus ministry at St. Norbert’s College.

After two years, the abbot asked him to take on the role of vocation coordinator for the Norbertines, a position he still holds today. He also became part-time associate pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in De Pere, where he helped oversee the building of a new church.

And then he got the call.

A Prank Phone Call?

One night while at a Chicago Bears football game in 1997, he recalls that he and a group of friends were joking about what they wanted to be when they grew up. Father Jim says he pointed to the chaplain on the Bears’ sideline and said, “I want that guy’s job.”

A few days later he was in his office when he received a call from the Green Bay Packers. He thought it was a prank.

The Packers’ representative said the team wanted Father Jim to say a couple of Masses for them in Detroit and Chicago. Because he didn’t think it was for real, Father Jim says he responded, “Are you kidding? You want me to go to those places? Send me to Tampa Bay or send me to California and I’ll think about it.” It was then that he noticed the telephone display that read “Green Bay Packers, Inc.” It wasn’t a prank. He was sure he wouldn’t be invited back.

But he was invited back. And after serving as chaplain for the team for the rest of the season and into the playoffs, he was asked to be the Packers’ only Roman Catholic chaplain.

When he went to the prior to ask for permission, he at first met with resistance. But Abbot E. Thomas DeWane saw things differently. He encouraged Father Jim to take the opportunity. But, Father Jim recalls, the abbot did have one concern.

“‘Jim, you’ll be wonderful. They’ll love you. You’ll love them. But I have one question: What the hell do you know about football?’

“And I responded, ‘What the hell do they know about Mass?’” Father Jim says. “‘They have their job to do, I have my job. If we stick to that we’ll be fine.’”

In his role as chaplain, Father Jim celebrates Mass before every game during the season—even Monday night games. Up until 2000, saying Mass was the extent of his responsibility. But when current head coach Mike Sherman, a Catholic and daily Mass attendee, took over he asked Father Jim to take on a bigger role.

So in addition to saying Mass, Father Jim says he now does a lot of “pastoral care that you would experience in any parish church in the United States. I do sacramental prep, marriage prep. I have done Baptisms. I have done weddings.”

The coaches will often give him a heads-up if there’s an issue with one of the players. That was exactly the case in December 2003 when quarterback Brett Favre’s father, Irv, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 58. Irv had regularly attended Father Jim’s Masses before home games. Brett was golfing with fellow players when the news came. Coach Sherman asked Father Jim to be available to meet with Brett after he broke the news to him. Father Jim did, and also accompanied Brett back to Kiln, Mississippi, for Irv’s funeral. He was one of six priests and two bishops who concelebrated the funeral.

Situations like that remind him that the Packers are just like everyone else: “They have needs, they have pastoral issues and they have the right to the sacraments and pastoral care.”

But he also reminds the players each year of the responsibilities they have because of their careers by reciting the quote from the Gospel of Luke, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (12:48).

And while he says there’s a closeness between him and the players, he’s quick to point out it’s not a “let’s go golfing” type of relationship. “[They’ve] got teammates to do that with. I’ve got Norbertines to do that with.”

Out of Balance

But a year after he accepted the job as the Packers’ chaplain, Father Jim says he started to notice that his life and ministry felt out of balance.

“I’m thinking, I’m serving a parish right now, which is a slice of life—young, full, rich, balanced. The Packers—young, energetic, on top of the world—were tipping the scales.”

Auxiliary Bishop Robert Morneau of Green Bay offered him some advice.

“He said, ‘How about going to Green Bay Correctional (GBCI) [an all-male maximum-security prison]? We can’t get priests to go there because they don’t have time; they are too busy with their parishes; they’re intimidated by the place. They just don’t want to go there. If you want to get your life back in balance, go there.’”

And so Father Jim did. For the past several years, he has been saying Mass at the prison a couple times a month, as well as making pastoral visits or celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The importance of this prison ministry was reaffirmed one morning on his way to the jail. He was in his habit at a gas station when a woman overheard him telling the station owner where he was headed. The woman said to Father Jim, “You Catholics, when will you ever learn? You’re closing parishes, you’re merging parishes and all of a sudden you’ve got a young guy like you running around spending time in a prison. Get a life. Take a parish.”

Father Jim says, “That statement made my ministry there all the more important and all the more beautiful. I think maybe that’s what Bishop Morneau was getting at.”

And that is why going to GBCI is often the high point of his week. “What I like about these men is that they appreciate the ministry and they let you know. When they’re sitting there in their uniforms, there is no mistaking who they are. There is no hiding, and thankfully, they don’t have to hide. They don’t have to put on airs. And it’s the same with the Packers and the same with vocations.

“Be yourself. You know that I will be myself and all that’s beautiful about that, and all that’s tarnished about that—and that is what we give to each other. It’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for us.”

Mike Donovan, the chaplain at GBCI for almost six years, says Father Jim is effective at his GBCI ministry for a number of reasons.

“His cheerfulness and sense of humor are refreshing for an environment that is not overly so. His jokes are a welcome change of pace in an environment that is short on humor and long on tension and seriousness,” Donovan says.

“His treatment of the inmates as human beings, not as murderers or drug pushers or other names inmates are given to make them objects, is also a dimension that is sorely lacking in a prison environment. Jim is honest about the person he presents to the inmates, not hiding behind masks or false personas.”

That is so important, Donovan says, because “it is virtually impossible for inmates or staff to be their true selves and survive in this environment. They have to stuff a lot, suck it in and not let anyone see the real person. Because of this realness, Jim is easily approached by people without anyone feeling highly defensive or needing to be overly cautious.”

A Typical Day?

So with all the different hats Father Jim wears, what does a typical day—if there is such a thing—look like for him?

Each day, he starts with Morning Prayer—“which I take extremely seriously”—before he heads to his campus office, where he spends the better part of the day in pastoral care and pastoral counseling. Because of his role as pastor, there are also administrative meetings he must attend, even though he readily admits this is not where his energy lies.

At some point in the day, he checks in at the Campus Ministry Center, attends noon Mass, walks the campus to see what’s going on and attends any number of student activities.

He will not, however, schedule anything between 5:00 and 6:30 p.m., which is community time.

“That’s family time. And when you start whittling that away, there are problems,” he says.

Then with the exception of maybe one night a week, he’s off again to attend more student activities on campus.

But, he points out, “there are certain days when I spend more activity focused on vocations than on college and parish. Or if there’s an issue with the Packers, I need to get over there.”

For instance, the two weeks prior to our interview, he recalls, were “very heavy with major pastoral issues” on campus, including the death of a student. That means other things take a backseat.

To Everything There's A Season

His energy to keep going, he says, is a lot like “being in the Midwest and enjoying the four seasons. Just as you love to see them come, you love to see them go. I can’t wait until the school year begins in August. I can’t wait until December when the students leave. And then after a month off, thank God they’re back.

“Prison is the same way. If I was there every day, I’d probably go nuts, but it’s something I really gear up to. In January, the end of the football season, that’s really O.K., you know.”

And it’s that cycle that helps him juggle his many ministries. “My life has always had so many different things—a variety of things—that they all feed each other,” he says.

He also, however, says he gains strength from the companionship of his fellow Norbertine brothers, phone calls to home and even his travels with the Packers.

“Even though that’s work doing pastoral care, in their own way they are ministering to me also. It’s getting out of the office, getting out of town,” he says.

“People always say, ‘Jim, you’re doing too much. Isn’t it time to give something up? Give up the Packers or give up the prison.’ But I can’t have one without the other, because it’s life in the balance.”

Leaving His Mark

But whether he’s ministering on campus, at GBCI or Lambeau Field, Father Jim says he wants people to say one thing about him: “I’m real. What you see is what you get.”

And that realness is something Father Jim says he hopes carries over into all of his ministries. “I will try my best to represent the Church and the Order and my family name as best I can—sometimes doing it really well, sometimes not as eloquent as possible. But I would think [they] would say that I’m authentic, that I’m real and that I have integrity.”    


Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of this publication and a diehard football fan.

 


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