“At first,” says Kansas City Chiefs Kicker Harrison Butker in an interview with EWTN, “it pushed me away. I was like…ah this is just, this is just not me. It doesn’t go with the world….it’s just like kind of old school traditional stuff. But then I think that also attracted me because it was so different from the world.”
He’s talking about the traditional Latin Mass (TLM), a liturgy which the 23-year-old Butker not only attends, but at which he also regularly serves at the altar.
“It’s opened my eyes to the tradition of the Faith. You know, with Saint Augustine, with Thomas Aquinas, with all of these great saints, and then seeing that this Mass of the Roman Rite, the Latin Mass has been the Mass for the past 1500 years that all these great saints went to. They were saying the same Latin prayers. It’s just very beautiful, you know? I feel very united.”
The parish Butker attends is St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Independence, Missouri. Founded in 1823, St. Mary’s has the distinction of being the oldest Catholic Church in the Diocese of Kansas City-Saint Joseph. But until recently, neither the parish nor the liturgy offered there seem likely to have caught the attention of the young NFL kicker.
The man who changed that is Fr. Matthew Bartulica, the pastor of St. Mary’s. Fr. Bartulica is one of five children, and has a brother, Angelo, who is also a priest. But in the old days, before he was known as “Father”, Matt Bartulica and I attended Franciscan University of Steubenville together. When we weren’t spending late nights driving to bars in his Thunderbird while listening to (and making fun of) The Smiths, we were at his house watching Jeopardy, deconstructing the semantics of the jive scene from Airplane!, discussing theology, talking about girls, or eating a dish we liked to call “Croatian fajitas”.
That last point requires a bit of an explanation.
Although Bartulica grew up in Missouri, he delighted in telling people — through an obvious southern drawl — that he was from Croatia. Both of his parents emigrated to the United States from the central European nation, and Bartulica attended high school there from 1992 to 1996 — during the time of the Croatian war for Independence. (I remember him telling me once about hearing explosions in the distance while sitting in his classroom.)
One day, on a road trip to New York during a college break, Bartulica told me that he thought he had a priestly vocation. And although that calling would, in fact, lead to his ordination to the priesthood a decade later, his future love of the TLM was anything but clear. “I used to hate Latin back then,” Fr. Bartulica tells me now. “I just wondered why I should waste time studying Latin if the Church decided to get rid of it.”
During his time in the seminary, however, Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum was released, freeing the ancient liturgy and extolling its sacredness. By the time of Fr. Bartulica’s ordination in 2010, he had already come to love the Church’s ancient liturgy.
“In a culture that is so divided,” he says, “the TLM gives us a source of unbroken unity that brings all Catholics together, anywhere in the world, and is the liturgy that can trace its roots all the way back to the source of our Faith”
“As Vatican II says,” Fr. Bartulica tells me, “the liturgy is the source and summit of our Faith. Since the greatest saints of the Church were formed by the Latin Mass, there seems to be no better way for us to learn the Faith than through the same liturgy that they participated in.”
In 2014, he returned to Croatia to offer the first traditional Latin Mass in Split (Spalato) that the city had seen in decades. That same year, he began a series of renovations at St. Mary’s that have brought the architecture back in harmony with the ancient liturgy.
As pastor of St. Mary’s, he has four regularly scheduled TLMs at the parish — three on weekdays, and one on Sundays — the one Harrison Butker now attends.
“It’s a great blessing having his family at the parish,” Fr. Bartulica says of Butker. “Boys wanting to learn to serve the Latin Mass went from one or two to around ten when they heard he was serving.”
He tells me this via a text message, but I can see his broad smile and hear the laughter in his deep voice when I read it. I have no doubt that he’s far more pleased to have a big draw for altar boys — a hero from the hometown NFL team — than he is starstruck by a pro athlete acting as his thurifur.
For Fr. Bartulica, it’s all about saving souls.
And in that respect, what Fr. Bartulica and Harrison Butker have both come to understand is something Father reminds me that Dostoyevski said: “Beauty will save the world.”
“When the Church finally recognizes her beautiful traditions and liturgy,” Fr. Bartulica tells me, “true evangelization will begin. Until then we are wasting our time.”
I’m glad my old friend grew to understand and live this sacred truth. It looks like Harrison Butker is, too.