The Packers, the Prisoners and the Priest Who Unites Them
More than three hours before the Packers kicked off against the Texans in Week 13, Jim Baraniak led the usual game day mass inside a lecture hall. On this Sunday, the Catholic chaplain asked the players and coaches, including Mike McCarthy, who never misses mass, to pray not for a win but for a specific inmate at the Green Bay Correctional Institution—a maximum-security prison just three miles across the Fox River from Lambeau Field.
“He asked us to pray for a guy who was in a tough spot and needed someone to believe in him,” receiver Jeff Janis says. “A guy who had lost all hope.”
Father Jim is in his 20th season as the Packers’ chaplain and his 16th as a chaplain at the prison. From the bell tower of his home at the St. Norbert Abbey, the 50-year-old priest can see both of his flocks. “I have the players pray for my inmates, and I have my inmates pray for the Packers,” he says. “And right from the hill that the prison is on, you can see Lambeau Field, and yet the inmates have no clue as to where that stadium is. They never see outside, so they never see that.” A loud cheer from Lambeau would never penetrate the prison’s fortress-like walls, Father Jim says, but he believes a prayer just might have a shot.
The Packers’ connection to the Norbertine priests dates back to the days of Vince Lombardi, who attended mass every day at St. Willebrord’s, a Norbertine parish in downtown Green Bay. And it was Lombardi who chose St. Norbert College as the Packers’ training camp home.
Father Jim travels with the Packers and has a close relationship with about a dozen players on this year’s team who are Catholic. In 2003, after Brett Favre learned that his father had died unexpectedly, Father Jim was the first person to be with the quarterback back at the team hotel in Oakland. Father Jim took control of Favre’s phone, screening his calls that night as Favre wrestled with his grief and whether he should play the next day.
“We had some decent talks about living and dying,” Father Jim says. “This was a total, unprepared shock.” And when the two went their separate ways that night, Favre thanked Father Jim for being by his side. Favre told him, “I will never forget this and I will be there when you confront these issues.” Six years ago, Father Jim’s dad died. Three hours after he got the news, his phone rang. It was Favre.
Father Jim gives mass at Lambeau Field before home games or at the team hotel at away games, whether it’s Sunday, Monday or Thursday. (When the Packers play in Green Bay on Thursday nights, Father Jim will tend to both of his flocks in the same day. He’ll start with mass for the inmates at 8:30 a.m., which he considers a dress rehearsal for the Packers mass at 4 p.m. “There are times,” Father Jim says, “when the inmates will help me tweak my homily.”) At Lambeau Field, Father Jim says players’ attendance at mass increases later in the season, and particularly this season, as the Packers (6-6) could use some divine intervention to make the postseason.
When the Packers were in the midst of a four-game losing streak that carried them through most of November, the inmates at Green Bay Correctional Institution called out Father Jim when he visited the prison. We hope you do better with us than you do with them, they said. They need a new chaplain! “Not that they need a new game plan or new coach, or general manager,” Father Jim says with a laugh. “No, they need a new chaplain, I am not doing my work properly. Thanks be to God that the priest doesn’t need to call the plays.”
According to Father Jim, there are a large number of inmates with gang affiliations at GBCI. (The Wisconsin Department of Corrections doesn’t comment on the number or type of gang affiliations of inmates.) Many of them, Father Jim says, are also die-hard Packer fans. He points to common theme of wanting to belong to something greater than one’s self. “There is a huge interest in team sports within this prison because of that [gang] mentality,” he says. “You have the Packers vs. the Bears vs. the Lions. It is almost like a gang, there are different colors and different allegiances and different brotherhoods and different families.”
One inmate recently displayed his love for the Green and Gold in a masonry project he built as part of the GBCI’s vocational program. The project called for him to build a plain brick wall. “For the average student, you build the wall and you are done,” Father Jim says. But this inmate had a different idea. He’s artistic, so he painted the wall with Green Bay’s logo and a Super Bowl 51 championship fantasy. He frequently sends Father Jim his drawings, knowing his priest will likely share them with Packers players at game-day mass. (Father Jim did share pictures of the masonry project.) “It is the inmates’ way of intersecting with the players,” Father Jim says. “Every now and then a player will ask me, ‘How is so-and-so doing?’ ”
When Father Jim visits the prison on Thursdays to serve a morning mass, he wears his white habit. Inmates who don’t know him call him White Robe. “They love that because it is [about] identity and brotherhood,” Father Jim says. “They almost see us, the Norbertines, as the original bangers. Gangbangers for good, as they would say.”
Most Packers players are familiar with Father Jim, even if they aren’t Catholic. “I don’t really blend in,” he says. “On the sidelines and when we travel, I will have a Packers jacket on, like a coaches jacket, but underneath it is all black with the Roman collar. So even when these new rookies get on the plane, they may not know who I am, but they know what I am because of my uniform. Even protestant players will seek me out because they notice me.”
There’s a high turnover rate in both of Father Jim’s ministries. Inmates are constantly transferring to different correctional institutions and players can be cut or traded without notice. “You never know how long you are going to get them at either place,” he says. “Your first and only mass might be your last, you just don’t know.”
So Father Jim always makes time for an inmate who has “sent out a kite,” a request to see a priest one-on-one for reconciliation or spiritual direction. “Almost every time I am there, there is somebody waiting to talk about something weighing heavily on them,” Father Jim says. And that happens just as often across the river at Lambeau Field, where uncertain job security wears on players. “Especially one’s rookie moments, wondering, Am I going to be retained, am I going to be picked up or am I going to be cut loose?” Father Jim says. “They will see the priest for those moments, those real life moments and those ups and downs.”
GALLERY: TAILGATING AT LAMBEAU Photos by John DePetro
When some players need an escape from being recognized in public, they will make the seven-minute drive from the stadium to the secluded grounds of St. Norbert Abbey, which is home to 60 priests. “The abbey has become quite an oasis for them,” Father Jim says. “The players find it so refreshing that there aren’t guys with a sharpie and jersey saying, “Sign this!”
Though he often blends into the background, Father Jim will step forward when players get injured. In 2013, when tight end Jermichael Finley left the field on a stretcher after a hit to the head left him motionless, Father Jim hurried out of his box to meet Finley in the locker room. “He was wondering why he could only see men from the waist up,” Father Jim says. “They had no legs!” Finley had a herniated disc that required surgery and hastened the end of his career. “In that moment, I prayed that he would have the grace to accept the injury,” Father Jim says. “God’s ways are not always our ways. How can we accept God’s ways when they contradict our desires?”
On Sundays, Father Jim joins the team on the sideline during the fourth quarter. Afterwards he joins them in the locker room, where it’s his job to hand players their valuables that have been locked in a safe. As he watches games, he won’t pray for victory, because he knows the team on the other side is praying for the same thing. “I always kid, we never pray for victories—until playoffs,” Father Jim says. But he’ll pray around the word victory, that the team plays with heart; that they play with unity; that they play as a brotherhood. He’ll even pray for specific players based on what is happening.
“If Mason Crosby is up to kick a game-winning field goal, I pray for his discernment and focus,” Father Jim says. “God just let us get there, we’ve worked so hard.”
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