Buffalo Bills welcome new chaplain
Father Michael LaMarca, pastor of the Roman Catholic Community of the Tonawandas/Family #18, experienced a dream come true. The fan of all Buffalo sports has been named chaplain for the Buffalo Bills, taking the reins from Msgr. Francis Weldgen, who served as spiritual counsel to the team for 32 years.
The two met recently at St. Christopher Parish, where Father LaMarca is pastor and Msgr. Weldgen served from 1985 to 2006.
Msgr. Weldgen shared his experiences, which include four Super Bowls, a wedding, and one very tragic moment on the field.
Father LaMarca: Do you have a favorite memory?
Msgr. Weldgen: I guess the most favorite memory is the most recent memory – meeting with the guys right after the disaster with Damar Hamlin (who suffered a cardiac arrest on the field). The team invited me into their team meeting the next day. We met with Coach and the doctors and psychiatrists for about an hour or so. Then the Catholics came and met with me, and we talked about what it was like for them and for us to see almost a death and resurrection right there on the field. That was an important moment. But also, for the next three or four weeks, every Saturday night Mass we would talk about what exactly they had learned; that it was OK to pray publicly on the field, and good things can come out of bad things.
Father LaMarca: I’ve noticed last year after the Damar Hamlin incident that took place, I had Mass for the playoff game against the Dolphins. I had just done Mass a few weeks earlier for the Dolphins when they were in town for the regular season game. There was definitely a different tone switch after Damar Hamlin. I had the opportunity afterwards to offer Mass with the Dolphins. I was packing up my things and a couple players came back. They asked if I had some spare time before I was leaving and they had some time before their meeting and they just wanted to talk about what had happened and how it impacted them as a player.
I got to say, and I’ve mentioned this to you. You are already well missed, very missed. When I said Mass for the preseason, everyone was asking about you. I’ve talked about how some of our brother priests call me ‘Mini-Weldgen,’ because now that I’m here at St. Christopher’s, now doing the chaplaincy for the Bills.
I think I know the answer to this question. Did you enjoy building those personal relationships?
Msgr. Weldgen: Very much so. It was kind of hard though, Mike, because they’re very much focused on the game. When I first began back in the ’90s, Mass was at 8:15 at the hotel. I’d go and have breakfast with them, which was nice to have a chat. But they were focused just on getting out to the stadium, getting their stuff on. There wasn’t too much small talk except for the occasional need for confession. Usually, that was at different times.
I remember one time talking with John Fina and John was quite upset because he was injured a bit, but coach really wanted him to play. It was an important game and Coach really wanted him to play. He said, ‘I won’t be able to play to 100 percent and the media will be all over me. I can’t believe how much the media bounces on us and puts us down. Should I play, should I not play? What do you think I should do?’ That was the discussion.
I got quite close to Jim Kelly, who had his wedding here at St. Chris back in ’96. And there were a couple other smaller weddings.”
Father LaMarca: I studied sports management in college. We had (sportscaster) John Murphy out and he spoke to the sports management students at the college. He said the number one things that’s going to happen when you work in sports is, and it happens to everyone, is you stop being a fan. You notice the marketing, the advertising, the finances and all these other things. Of course family and friends and parishioners think it’s, ‘Oh, you’re the chaplain? You did the visiting teams, now you do the Bills.’ I try to remind them, and I remind myself before I go in, I’m there to serve them in their moment. I’m there as their priest. I’m not there as a fan.
Did you find that as a balance you had to keep during your time?
Msgr. Weldgen: There’s always people saying, “You’re the chaplain. If you pray, they will win.” Of course, we never prayed for victory. We’ve prayed for good health. We prayed they would live up to their ability the best they could.
One time, I think it was when I said Mass for the visiting team. We prayed for good weather. The defensive coach said, “No, we’re not praying for good weather. I want rain.” For the most part it was just praying they would do well, that they would stay healthy. We offered Mass for their families, that their families would be healthy, or whatever their intentions would be. That was always discussed ahead of time. That would be the intention for the Mass.
I think maybe the other vivid memories were those years of Covid when we said Zoom Masses, which was very discouraging. Whether they were home or away, I volunteered to do the away Masses as well. So, every Saturday at 7 o’clock, I’d sit at my table and do a Zoom Mass. it was difficult. Sometimes they could be together, sometimes they had to be in their own rooms. So, there wasn’t much contact. So, finally when the call was over, Coach let us have, at the last game of the season, a Mass at the stadium, there in a meeting room. So, we gathered. I never seen so many happy Massgoers in my life. They were so happy to have Mass again, get together again as a family. Make no mistake, no players are as close or closer to each other as they are to their families. They really grow together over the course of a season or several seasons. So, they were happy to come back as a Catholic family and pray together in person after those two years of Covid.
Father LaMarca: You mention the enthusiasm. I think that’s one of the things that I enjoy most. When you start Mass, when you say “May the Lord be with you,” it is an echoing boom that returns to you saying, “And with your spirit.” They participate in the Mass. They participate in the prayers. They’re very reverend. They have so much respect for their Eucharist and our Lord. That is very admirable.
Msgr. Weldgen: Yes they are. And I always tried to use, whenever possible, an example of other football players, things they’ve said or done, like Gale Sayers saying he was third because God was first, other people were second, and he was third. Last year, there was a story about Don Shula. Since Mike Shula was one of the Massgoers, I read the story about how him and his father impressed people going into a cathedral years ago.
You try to tie the homily into something that relates to them and it’s fairly easy as long as you make that effort.
Father LaMarca: You were the chaplain for 32 years. I have been the chaplain for 32 days. What advice would you give me?
Msgr. Weldgen: Perhaps get a slightly different homily ready for them than for your parish Mass. Probably, tie something in. Of course, you have to be relatively brief because of the time constraints, but if you have something from your past or different works about football or players. There was one player, I don’t remember, from the Green Bay Packers who talked about the line from “Cool Hand Luke” – “What am I on earth to do.” He said, “I’m interested in doing something more than playing football on Sunday after noon. I have some real goals in life.” Prepare yourself because you only have six minutes, basically, to preach, so prepare. Make every word and every minute meaningful on their level. I’m sure you can do that with your background.
Father LaMarca: You were supposed to retire a couple years ago, but fortunes changed and (the Bills) started doing well. But you’ll be my number one call if I am not able to do a Mass coming up here. If the Lombardi Trophy is calling maybe I‘ll buy a second plane ticket and I’ll bring you with me.
Msgr. Weldgen: They promised me. They promised me. That’s why I stayed two extra years. I stayed for the Super Bowl. I started with a Super Bowl and I wanted to finish with a Super Bowl, but I finished with Damar Hamlin instead. That was equally important or perhaps more important.
WNY Catholic: Msgr. Weldgen, I’m guessing Damar Hamilin was the lowest point in your career. What was the highest?
I guess going to the Super Bowls. They weren’t quite sure what to do for the first one, but after that we had Mass for the team, then Mass for all of the fans. There be a couple hundred fans who came to the game, so we had Mass for the fans who would come to the game too.
He also presided over the wedding of Jim and Jill Kelly. “A classic,” he said. He stays in contact with the Kellys and has celebrated Mass in their house for Jim’s mother who couldn’t make it to Church.
As chaplain, Father LaMarca will serve as a spiritual guide for the team. He will celebrate Mass, hear confession, pray with the team in moments of joy and sorrow. The teams does have a full-time chaplain. Father LaMarca will provide “extra ministry to the Catholic players.”
Msgr. Weldgen began his role back in 1970, when a hotel clerk asked him to celebrate Mass for the New York Jets who were playing against the Bills. He began to celebrate Mass for visiting teams a few times a year, and first celebrated with the Bills when they were visitors to the New England Patriots. Msgr. Weldgen happened to be in Providence, Rhode Island, at the time. When the chaplain retired in 1990, Msgr. Weldgen took over the role took over.
“It was one of those accidents that happened,” he said.
It was Msgr. Weldgen who asked Father LaMarca, who has a degree in Sports Management, to celebrate Mass for visiting teams, then take over for him as he retires from the Bills.
Father LaMarca has a nephew who always asks him to pray for the Bills to win, but that’s not the way sports chaplaincy works.
“You root against them on the field, but in life we’re all on the same team,” he said.
Listen to the conversation on WNYCatholic Audio: