Nun Who Threw First Pitch: “My Dream is to Start a Revival – We All Have Something to Offer the World”

ChurchPOP, YouTube / MLB, YouTube

Sister Mary Jo Sobieck, the Dominican sister who threw the first pitch at the Chicago White Sox game last August, sat down with ChurchPOP Editor Jacqueline Burkepile for an exclusive interview.

Recently nominated by ESPN for an ESPY award, the Dominican sister discussed how she handles her newfound fame. She explains how she uses it to evangelize and bring awareness to vocations.

She also adds encouragement for those who feel as if following a vocation to the the religious life “holds them back from their dreams.”

She’s inspiring others in all she’s doing!

Listen to the powerful interview below: (full text below video)


Click here if you cannot see the video above. 

You threw that pitch last year at the Chicago White Sox game. Did you know this would happen?

Absolutely not. It’s been a pattern in my life growing up as a person of faith, and then in my religious life.

I’m the youngest of 10 – I have 5 older brothers and 4 older sisters. My parents were wonderful people who wanted us to be generous with opportunities that were given to us, so I’ve always kind of done that in my life. It seems like the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, as we all know.

When I was invited to throw the pitch, I thought, “You know, my background—I’m an athlete, I know I can do it. And I’m just going to go out there, do my best, and trust that God will do the rest. And God certainly did.

You do have a heavy sports background. You love being athletic. Would you say this is almost kind of a dream come true for you?

I appreciate you asking that question, Jacqueline, because I feel like there’s been so many moments throughout this year where things, I feel, have come full circle. This is one of them.

My love for sports–I dreamed of being a professional athlete, or being in the Olympics.

To know that I’m going to be in the midst of the greatest athletes of this generation at a time when I probably can appreciate it more than had I done that—had my plan for me happened, it probably wouldn’t be as fruitful or meaningful for me.

Again, as we all know, when we allow God to direct our lives and allow God’s plan to bear fruit, it’s so much richer of an experience.

It’s not just about me. This is about the community, about the church, about Marian Catholic. It’s about hopefully inspiring people to want pull up the potential within them to see “what’s possible for me?” So that’s really what I hope it’s about.

Yeah, it is kind of a dream come true that God would integrate my love for sports into just a platform for speaking about faiththat 25 years later after I entered the convent.

You’re with the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois. You serve Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois. What has the response been like from your students after all of this?

I just completed my 12th year at Marian Catholic, so I have been here long enough for the students to understand my love for sports.

My first year here, I was the assistant men’s volleyball coach. So I dabbled in some of that. I like to go to their events. I like to give them some advice after a game. What they can work on, and and a lot of times, it’s not so much skill as it is attitude.

It’s in those moments that when we lose a game, we have an opportunity to grow.

I participate a lot in the events around school, so the kids have gotten to know me. So when this happened, it didn’t really surprise the past alums and the kids at the school. For them, it was like “of course Mojo’s (that’s my nickname at school) going to go up and do that. Of course!”

Janice Dean on Fox and Friends asked me right after that happened: How do I feel about my newfound fame?”

I responded to her, “I’ve always felt famous. I’ve always been embraced by the communities that I’ve lived in, the people at Marian, the school communities I’ve been—they’ve always been affirming. People are wonderful. My relationships with friends and families, and students, have been so enriching. It continues to grow, just in another way.

You had nine older siblings. How does your family feel about it?

They’re having a good time with it. Really, it’s fun for them.

I’m the youngest, so I’ve been teased plenty in my life. Now I can be the one who says, “Hey listen.” We joke about it. It’s been a lot of fun.

And they’re proud of me. They’re just enjoying it. Both of our parents—my father died when I was 11, my mother died 7 years ago, and so for them, it’s really engaging all of our past and the memories, and how we’ve been raised to just celebrate all of this together.

Knowing that our parents are very proud and enjoying it from heaven too. It’s been a lot of fun.

 What were your thoughts when you were notified about your baseball card and the ESPY nomination? 

Kind of jokingly, people have said, “Well, it’s the next best thing to a holy card—the baseball card.”

I remember buying baseball cards when I was a kid. Again, it’s been a very humbling experience to be recognized in this fashion. I don’t think I’m really grasping all of what that means, worldly, because I’ve, for the last 25 years, living my religious life–I’ve learned how to detach myself from those kinds of desires or needs or wants.

It’s wonderful, but at the same time, I’m in the world, but I’m not of the world.

So the baseball card, the bobble head, the ESPY—I am by no means discounting the value of that and the specialness of it. It’s wonderful. But at the same time, I’m keeping it in perspective that God wants to use me.

If this is just an avenue for God to put out the message or the visibility of a religious sister, whether it’s on a baseball card or a bobble head, or to have me in the presence of all these glamorous celebrities in my simplicity, so be it.

I’m really going to trust that as St. Francis says, “Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary use words.”

I just want to be present, and if my image will communicate something of passion and desire to be good and holy and genuine, I’m all for it. I hope that’s what this is all about, really.

How do you think this is a way you can evangelize to the world? Is there a particular story that you’d like to share of someone who has possibly been influenced, or what you’ve seen as an example of evangelization?

Probably the greatest thing I can speak of are two accounts.

In the classroom as a teacher. I teach high school Theology here at Marian Catholic. I teach sophomore and junior Theology.

In my 12 years here at Marian—young people are going through a time in their lives when they really question their faith. So I really just want to be a person who is a safe place for them to land.

I really pride myself in my classroom, being a place where they can be who they are with their beliefs,  doubts, anger, and everything.

For me, it’s important for me that I represent who God is, because for many of them, I’m going to be the closest thing that they experience of God.

And if I’m teaching it from a book, I have to be able to model it in my person. That’s more credible.

I’ve had students in the past who were resistant at beginning of the year, and at the end of the year, gave me the greatest compliment by saying, “Sister the way you teach—you’re so honest. You allow us to just be who we are.”

There is something beyond me. I do see a value in putting my faith in something more than me.

So for me, if I can just touch one student by helping them recognize God is in all of it, even in our questions and in our doubts, and in our fears and anger and grief, all of that stuff we want to blame God for–God understands and bears the burden of that.

We’re going to work through it. If I can give people that kind of feeling, that wherever they are, they’re still loved by God, that’s the greatest thing I can do. Because that’s who God is.

God embraces all of us where we are at any given time.

It’s not about telling somebody something more to save them. It’s about bringing to the surface what’s already there and within them that has saved them, and helping them recognize it, and to live in freedom out of that.

The last and most recent story was when I was in St. Louis. I gave a first pitch on April 11 in St. Louis.

There was a young man with some of his friends who came to view the pitch, and we had a gathering at the Budweiser brewhouse after the game. There were people there talking to me.

Before I left, this gentleman stopped me and he was moved to tears, saying how he has struggled with the Church with all that’s happened.

He said, “Sister, just keep doing what you’re doing because if you can reach me and help me believe that there is still good in this Church, you’re doing a good thing.”

And he said, “Thank you so much.” And he just gave me a hug.

Again, for me, it’s inspiring people to be just be themselves. God doesn’t want you to be anything different. God wants you to be you.

We all have something to offer this world. When we can live in freedom and trust that, rather than wanting to be something else because of culture, we’re going to recognize our path.

This is nothing unique to me. We’re all called to this kind of notoriety. We’re just going to do it in our own way.

 

How do you keep your humility through all of this?

Again, I think it’s being the youngest of 10. Downplay from my siblings. And I recognize the value of being part of a team.

I think that’s what drew me to religious life. I’ve always been part of a team, and I know my role. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. I have passions and desires, and things that I feel called to do, but there’s always a time and a place, and God’s timing on when those things would be revealed.

I pray in the morning and I journal a lot. I think it’s important for me to express my feelings and my emotions and my ideas and thoughts on paper, that way it doesn’t burden me the rest of the day. It’s an avenue for me to kind of free myself to make room for whatever’s going to happen in the day.

I certainly know that this is not my doing. This is God’s doing. And I had, like I said, a mom and a dad who were very practical in helping us to give of ourselves to people in the community and the neighborhood, and to always look out for those near us who could use our help.

So I guess I learned humility at a young age, not even knowing what humility was. But it was always just to “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” So I try to do that.

I try to be mindful of the needs of people around me. I certainly don’t want to sound like I’m this unselfish person who does all these good things. I certainly have my faults and my failures, but every day I question myself, and in the morning, “how credible was I yesterday?” I have an ideal of wanting to live holiness.

My desire and my pursuit for athletic excellence when I was a kid is now pursued in spiritual maturity, virtue, character and being strong in those things. For me, it’s all about being credible.

So I just want to accept everything as gift and in gratitude and be a model for other people to do the same.

What is your advice to those seeking a vocation to the religious life, but might think that the religious life would bring them down and away from their dreams rather than towards them?

if you feel a call to the religious life, I would say the first thing you need to do is to recognize that God has a dream for you much bigger than what you could begin to imagine for yourself.

When I really felt the call to religious life, Stephen Curtis Chapman had a song out called “The Great Adventure.” That song was my theme song to enter religious life, because I wanted God to use me in any way that God wanted to use me.

I thought, “Wow, if I think I have an idea of what I want to do, imagine what God wants to do with my life. And if I can be free in handing myself over and emptying myself and allowing God to fill me…”

I mean, all we have to do is look at the life of Christ, or look at the scriptures and recognize that God—everything that God has planned for us is for our good!

And I have felt more freedom in religious life than in any kind of feeling constricted or confined. That’s I think the greatest misconception about religious life—that you’re going to enter a convent or a monastery or a diocese, and you’re not going to be able to do things.

The opposite is true: you discover how many more things that you have within your potential to reach, and you couldn’t do them on your own.

If you allow God to direct your life, so much of what you dream for yourself and more will come to fruition. And God takes those dreams, as I said, you don’t have to give up your passions and your desires. God integrates them.

I said in an interview—how could I have imagined that 25 years later, my love for sports would be revealed in this way? And the dream of being a professional athlete or an Olympian? I’m going to be in that venue, but just in a different way.

Doing something as an ambassador for Christ, not for myself. I think when we leave ourselves open for that, the sky is the limit! There’s nothing confining about it. It’s all open road and adventure and freedom and discovering so much more.

If I can just put a plug for religious life—the world is hungry for selflessness. Our world needs people to be generous and not count the cost.

When we look at our world right now…my dream right now is really to start a revival. That’s what my dream is, Jacqueline. For my Church, for my community, for the world.

There’s so much that people want to do! I think to give back and just to do it, you know.

Can you elaborate on that? What kind of revival?

I would say a revival in people and families willing to give their children to the Church. People to give of themselves to the Church. The Church is still relevant, the Church is still credible, the Church is still, as Pope Francis said, “a place to live joy.”

So when people can go and live who they are unapologetically—you know, I think sometimes we feel like we have to fit into a certain slot.

For example, “to be a sister, I don’t do this, or I do this. Or a priest…” No! Come as you are. God created you with gifts that the Church needs right now. And it might be something a little bit different than it was in 1950 or 1980.

We certainly need to just kind of, like John XXII and Vatican II. He opened the window and allowed the Spirit to come in. We are 50 years out of Vatican II, and that window still hasn’t been fully opened.

That’s not to say that anything bad has been going on, it’s just that we need to bring it to fulfillment.

What does it mean? And there’s a whole generation of young people, young and old, I think, who want the church to be a certain way before they come. No! You come, and let’s create the Church, what it needs to be.

So that’s what I mean for a revival for our community. There’s only one sister after me. So I would love to inspire new vocations. Where are they? It may look a little unorthodox, but that’s where we are right now.

So how do we let people know that that’s still a viable way to live Christ? Jesus was unorthodox. That’s the reason why he was crucified. He didn’t fit the mold of a leader. So we’re in good company when that’s who we are.

So that’s kind of what I mean. It’s just kind of something new—following in what Pope Francis really says about living joy in the new evangelization that Pope John Paul II started years ago.

Do not be afraid! Come, and let’s make the Church what we want it to be and what it needs to be. But we need people’s help. It’s not going to happen on its own. We’ve got to be those agents for change.

 How does it feel to be the person that God chose to put this message out there?

I have a hard time voicing that, or saying that because I don’t want to elevate myself…I’m certainly wanting to take advantage of this opportunity in the community.

The platform that I’ve been given—social media, television, radio, podcasts–people have mentioned my name. And now the ESPYs, too.

Any moment that I’m given to share something of my faith, without being righteous or as if I’m telling people what they have to do—no, that doesn’t get us anywhere. It certainly doesn’t help me. I’ve never responded to that. So I don’t want to do that.

I just have to speak out of my experience. I’m humbled by it. Every morning I wake up and I recognize what God has for me this day.

It makes me hold it in tenderness, prayer and sincerity, and to really want to, again, be a credible witness to whatever God is asking me to do.

I think I’m part of a bigger group of people that, in their own place and time, are witnessing to this same kind of desire. This is just an opportunity for me to do it with this group of people and in the sports arena of individuals.

I can relate to that, and so the way I communicate with people that, and how I am with my life, and how I’ve integrated my sports love into my faith, I think it makes it credible. People can believe it. So if God wants me to do it here, wonderful. I want to do it the best I can.

 

How would you encourage young people discerning their vocations to continue persevering in holiness, especially in a culture that discourages holiness?

Holiness, I would say, and I read this somewhere and it’s hit me. This was probably about 15 or 20 years ago when I read this. Holiness isn’t about being somebody else. It’s not about reaching a certain ideal of all the right things.

Holiness is about being who you were created to be. So number one, we really have to take a look at who we are and accept who we are. And that our call to religious life isn’t out of who we are, it’s to be who we are.

We have to get away from, “Okay, I’ll enter religious life when I become better at this,” or “If I’m perfect in this.” No! Enter religious life and allow the life to transform you to become who you were the more to who you were created to be.

It starts from accepting who we are. And humbling ourselves before God who made us, who called us, who says, “Right now, and let me take you to those places of ‘be as perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.’”

Number One: It’s accepting ourselves and our call to be our true selves. That’s holiness. And when we can live our true freedom, that’s when we’re the most holy.

Number Two: Prayer. Prayer is key. To go sit in a church in front of the Blessed Sacrament. To put a crucifix in front of you in the morning and just gaze on Christ. To have an image of Jesus. The rosary is a big one for me and the Dominicans, and my mother. That mantra of just calling upon the Spirit.

So prayer is essential. Prayer doesn’t change God. Prayer changes us. So if you’re serious about your vocation, and you’re praying about it, there is no making any kind of “please” or bargaining. It’s pray openly, understanding that it’s going to change you, and it will be for your good, and the life of the world, really.

So I would just say to recognize the gifts that you have to bring, and to think great of them. Don’t minimize yourself. If you feel this call, that’s a gift in itself. Not everybody feels the call. So feeling the call right there says it’s real.

So pay it some close attention, and think big, because God is going to take you beyond that and more! It’s for all of our good. We need you. We need you to take the call seriously.

Is there anything else you would like to say to our audience?

Our world, right now, and this is also to young people who are called to religious life too, and to everybody really:

Our world right now is in a place where we don’t want pain and suffering. We want to finesse the size—ourselves from emotional, spiritual and physical pain.

When we’re going through something difficult, whether it’s with our family, loved ones, boyfriend/girlfriend, physical pain—we see all the pain in the world and it just hurts us.

We have to remember, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But unless it is willing to die and hand itself over, it will bear great fruit.

So in our lives, when we’re going through something, we have to recognize we’re in good company. Christ died on the cross. He offered himself for us.

Some of the greatest saints were people who were persecuted by their own members of their communities.

St. John of the Cross and Mother Teresa. She herself talks about how she just had this long drawn out years of dryness in her prayer. That’s why her verbiage, her mantra, is “I thirst.”

It comes out of Christ’s thirst on the Cross, but also her own thirst for God and her prayer life that was just dry for a while. But she persisted—she persevered.

I would say to everyone: don’t be afraid to suffer. That’s where growth happens.

The balanced life goes up and comes down. People think a balanced life means everything is great. No, a balanced life is when things are good and they’re bad. And it’s in the bad moments when you learn the most. So we have to be willing to go there.

I pray for our world, that when we see the devastation, destruction and the upheaval in nature and the violence– If you look over the course of history, in those moments, from that comes a new enlightenment…so we have to go through these moments of darkness to get to the light.

I believe now is the time in our church, our world, in our own lives when we have to address that and not resist it, but persist in it, trusting that it will lead us to the light.

So the more we can come together in doing that as a collective, the more it will happen.

[See also: ESPN Nominates Dominican Sister Who Threw Curveball at White Sox Game for ESPY Award: “It’s Kind of Surreal”]

[See also: Dominican Sister Who Threw Perfect Curve Ball at White Sox Game Has Sports World Stunned!]