Burke Masters had the perfect game plan for his life: he was going to become a Major League Baseball player. But amid severe doubt and personal loss, he learned to embrace his fundamental identity—not as an athlete, but as a beloved son of God and a spiritual father to God’s people.
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2, “Meeting Jesus,” in Fr. Burke’s new book, A Grand Slam for God (Word on Fire Publishing).
My parents sat down their thirteen-year-old son for what appeared to be an important conversation. What they told me was a complete surprise.
“Catholic school?” I asked again. “You want me”—I pointed at myself for emphasis—“to go to a Catholic school?” This was something they had been thinking about for a while, but I had been completely unaware. I couldn’t believe it.
“It’s either Joliet Catholic or Providence, Burke,” Dad said.
My parents explained that they weren’t happy with the public high school’s baseball program. Both Catholic schools in the area were known both for academic and athletic excellence, as well as discipline and family atmosphere. Even as an eighth grader, I knew that this would be a significant financial expense for my parents. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my parents were willing to make this sacrifice for me and my future. I was touched that my parents even considered it. They believed in me. Dad said that he knew I had a shot at playing college baseball and maybe even further. And either one of these schools would help me get there. Now all that was left was to choose between Joliet Catholic and Providence.
Even though recruiting was not allowed, I heard from the baseball coaches at both Catholic high schools. I was honored that both coaches took a special interest in inviting me to different events. Providence invited me to a basketball game where I sat with the dean and some of my baseball friends. We watched a great Providence team—led by Walter Downing, who would go on to play at Marquette and DePaul—dominate the court. The crowd was electric and the feeling in the gym made me feel like I was at home. Although I had enjoyed my visit to Joliet Catholic, that night I decided to spend the next four years at Providence and began to prepare myself for success.
The dean explained to me that, even though I wasn’t Catholic, I would have to attend the all-school Masses and take the theology courses. I didn’t mind. I was willing to do whatever it took to further my baseball career and to get a good education. I had nothing against Catholicism. I just didn’t know much about it. That didn’t make seeing multiple priests and religious sisters on staff any less intimidating. I had never been that close to a priest or religious sister before, other than seeing them while attending an occasional Mass with my Aunt Judi. But at Providence they were walking the halls and teaching classes.
When I entered the school that first day as a freshman, I was scared to death. My fear didn’t last long, as the atmosphere of Providence made me feel like I belonged. Although I had enjoyed my public school experience, this was different. Providence seemed to radiate a family-like spirit. Even though I knew my teachers had cared about me in grade school, the teachers at Providence took it to a higher level. The students cared for one another, and the teachers cared for us like we were their own children. I was drawn into that environment and loved it.
My confidence plummeted, however, when I walked into my freshman theology class. As a child, I had heard some stories about Jesus, so I thought I knew a little about the Bible. I was a good student, and I believed I could figure it out. I soon realized I was way behind the curve. My classmates, many of whom had gone to Catholic grade school, seemed to know everything about the faith and the Bible. On top of it all, a religious sister taught the class. Her name was Sr. Margaret Anne. She wasn’t mean or scary—in fact, she was incredibly kind—but I was intimidated by her spirituality. When she looked at you, she seemed to look right into your soul. So, naturally, I tried to blend into the wall. I listened intently but feared that at any moment she would ask me a simple question that I wouldn’t be able to answer. My biggest worry was being embarrassed in front of my peers for not knowing a basic tenet of the faith.
Sister must have sensed my anxiety because she never put me on the spot. I was always striving for perfection in the classroom, always at the top of my class, but I was way out of my league here. At the same time, the theology class intrigued me, and I found myself drawn to Jesus and the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Sr. Margaret Anne would stand at the doorway at the end of class and say goodbye to each of us. One day, I was the last one left after the bell rang, and I knew something was going to happen when I saw Sister waiting for me. “How can I sneak by her without any interaction?” I thought, dreading walking through the door.
I was a very shy teenager. I didn’t like the person that I was. I often walked the halls with my head down so that no one would look me in the eye. I feared that they would see the real me and run away. I put my books under my arm, bowed my head, and began walking toward the door, hoping that she wouldn’t notice me. As I tried to pass by her, Sister stopped me. She raised my chin, looked me in the eye, and said, “Burke, you are searching for something.” I didn’t know how to react, so I smiled, put my head back down, and tried to walk away. She stopped me again and gave me a Bible. “Start reading the Gospel of Matthew,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said, accepting her gift and walking quickly away.
What just happened? Her suspicion about me made sense. I guess I’d always known I was searching for something but had never been able to put into words what I was feeling. I was searching—but for what? And better yet, how did she know? And where in the Bible was the Gospel of Matthew? I was touched by her concern and thought she may be giving me answers to my deepest questions.
My mind raced during baseball practice that afternoon. I went home, ate dinner, did my homework, and went to my room. I shut the door because I didn’t want my brothers to know what I was doing. They knew that I was a good student and that I would study anything my teachers told me to. But I didn’t want to have to explain that I couldn’t wait to get to the Bible. I found the Gospel of Matthew and began to read the Bible for the first time in my life.
Even though I had what seemed like an idyllic upbringing, nobody’s life is perfect and nobody is without sin. I knew I was a sinner, and I honestly believed I was the only one. Was I the only one with a messed-up life? I thought that if people knew who I was—really knew—they’d run. I was still growing into my identity. Who was I? Was I the result of all my past mistakes? Was I the combination of all my sins? That’s why I unconsciously became a perfectionist. I thought that if I became this person that everyone liked, if I portrayed this perfect image, if I became this person that others wanted me to be, everyone, including God, would love me. Looking back, I realize how much I wanted to be known and to be loved. I couldn’t have articulated that at the time, but I was searching.
I didn’t read much that first night, but I enjoyed what I read. I decided I would read a little bit more every night until I got through the Gospel. My heart was open, and I started to hope that Jesus was going to give me what I had been searching for. As the weeks passed, I felt lighter each time I read the Scriptures. I looked forward to the time I got to spend with the Bible. When I read about Jesus dying on the cross, I sensed great peace and joy. I realized that if Jesus willingly died on the cross to save me, it demanded a response from me. At the time, I didn’t know what Jesus would ask of me. But I felt a peace and joy that I had never experienced before. The seeds of my vocation were planted during that time of reading the Gospel of Matthew. Sr. Margaret Anne was right: I was searching for something. But not only that; I was searching for someone. I had found him, and I couldn’t get enough. St. Augustine, in one of his most famous quotes, said, “We were made for you, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Looking back on my experience reading Scripture, I know that was happening in my heart. It had been restless for the first fifteen years of my life because it had never encountered Jesus. I’d tried to fill my heart with baseball, good grades, friends, and other things. None of those were bad things. It’s just that my heart was longing for God, and now I had found him. I knew that I liked what I was experiencing, and I wanted more. I continued to devour the material from the theology class and Scripture. I found that the heavy cloud that used to hang over me was lifting. Reading the Bible was consoling me, and I could not get enough.
Once a month, we celebrated an all-school Mass in the gym at Providence. I didn’t know any of the Mass responses or when to sit or stand. I was very self-conscious that everyone was watching my every move, which of course was not true. Teenagers are generally self-conscious, but as a non-Catholic teenager in a Catholic school, the stress was even greater. I was not the only non-Catholic student, but when it came time for Communion, I felt like I was. I was sure that there was a spotlight on me with a bright flashing sign that read “sinner.” When I remained in my seat and watched everyone else go receive the Host, I remember feeling embarrassed and out of place.
After a few months, I stopped focusing on myself and started to pay attention to what was happening at Mass. I couldn’t understand why my friends received Communion so reverently. It looked like ordinary bread and wine. Although I didn’t understand it, I wanted to participate in Communion. Sr. Margaret Anne taught that the Eucharist truly was the Body and Blood of Jesus, but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. On one hand, I thought the Catholics were crazy believing that the Host was the real Body and Blood of Jesus. On the other hand, my heart was being drawn into the mystery. All I knew was that I wanted to learn about it and experience it.
In this page-turning memoir, Fr. Burke takes readers on an intimate personal journey from his childhood outside of Chicago, to his success in baseball, to his conversion to Catholicism, and finally, to his acceptance of his vocation. His story is a powerful reminder that if we only have the courage to say yes, every moment is an opportunity for a grand slam for God.