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Mike Lopresti | | March 27, 2018

Sizing up Sister Jean's competition

The cutest interview of March Madness

Word has come from the NCAA. Sister Jean of Loyola Chicago will be having her only press availability at the Final Four on Friday morning. She’s bigger than Elvis.

So in the interest of equal time, it seemed proper to dial up Father Ben Hawley, S.J. He’s from St. Mary on the campus of Michigan, and one of his parishioners is Wolverines coach John Beilein. When Beilein said the other day, "We have some prayers on our team, too," Father Ben is one of those he had in mind.

So, a press conference for a team chaplain? Did Father Ben ever think he’d see the day?

“If you’re a 98-year-old nun," he said, “anything is possible.”

So the publicity wave has not quite reached St. Mary, eh?

“No one has offered a bobblehead doll just yet. She has image value that I don’t have.”

Make no mistake, Father Ben is delighted at how Sister Jean has somehow become one of the faces of the NCAA tournament.

“Where would Catholic education and Catholic health be without the sacrifice of a lot of nuns, and priests and brothers for that matter?” he said. “But in the modern world, what do we see of nuns? Well 'Sister Act.' Whoopi Goldberg is wonderful, but it doesn’t really do justice to what sisters have done over the years. I think it’s great Sister Jean is getting this opportunity to help people see, here’s how women give their lives to their faith, this is how they live.”

MORE FINAL FOUR: Why we're ready for anything after Sister Jean and UMBC

There are a couple of things we need to mention about the man who not only gives Mass to Beilein, but also to coaches and players of the Wolverines football team.

One: Is he even a basketball fan?

“To tell the truth, no, not particularly. But the head coach is in my parish. So yes, I love basketball. And more to the point, I love Michigan."

Two: About his past...

“The first part of my priestly training,” he called it, was a master’s degree in social philosophy from . . . well, Loyola Chicago.

Uh-oh. Sounds like mixed feelings Saturday night. Then again, it’s win-win.

“Absolutely,” Father Ben said. “The truth is, if you live in Ann Arbor, it doesn’t take very long to see, athletics is in the air you breathe. So if anything, I’m leaning on the Michigan side, I have to say, frankly."

Michigan doesn’t actually have a team chaplain, but one of his colleagues is headed to San Antonio to give Mass to Beilein and the team on Easter Sunday. Beilein is a frequent visitor to Mass at St. Mary.

“When he comes depends entirely on the practice schedule,” Father Ben said. “He comes pretty much once a year and gives a pep talk to our undergrads, about how important knowing God is, going to Mass, being a person of faith. He has a real down-to-earth, very friendly, very welcoming manner. And has a certain parental quality as you might expect, because he’s a parent with grown kids. He has a great sense of humor so he puts his point across strongly and with energy but always with that humor. He’s a terrific role model for our students.”

MORE: Loyola Chicago reached first Final Four in 55 years with array of big moments

So will Father Ben be watching his two schools go at it Saturday night?

“Is the Pope Catholic?”

But then he paused, and remembered the date. No, he won’t be. He always presides over a vigil on the night before Easter. Which presents the issue of finding out how things are going in the Alamodome.

“I do carry my cell phone with me, but people would know what I was doing if I kept pulling out my cell phone. I also wear long robes that will hide almost anything.”

But he understands that somehow, the congregation will know.

“No question about that," he said. "I can tell you from long experience on a Sunday morning in the fall, I can get up in front of the congregation at the beginning of the Mass, and there’s a little welcome ritual that takes a couple of sentences, and then I can give them two numbers. The two numbers are yesterday’s score. And that point, especially if we’ve won, everybody laughs. They know exactly what they’re talking about. Football and basketball simply permeate this community to an extraordinary extent. You do know we’re also headed to the [Frozen Four] in hockey? So please give credit to the hockey team.”

Loyola has neither football, nor hockey. So Father Ben is two up on Sister Jean. But nobody on TV is talking about his designer Nikes.


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