CHARLOTTE, N.C. (CNS) — Father Joe Mulligan, a warmhearted, gregarious priest with 40 years of ministering to people in the Diocese of Charlotte, is seldom at a loss for words. But a phone call a week ago left him speechless.

That phone call came from the Carolina Panthers’ director of player engagement, Mark Carrier, who told Father Mulligan that the Panthers’ Catholic players had chosen him to go to Super Bowl 50 Feb. 7 as their chaplain. Carrier said the players were inviting the priest to accompany them on their historic trip to Santa Clara, California, and would he like to go?

Father Mulligan replied, “It’s a good thing I’m sitting down. As a person that usually has a lot of things to say, I’m just filled with gratitude and overjoyed to be able to go.”

“That was as much as I could get out,” he told the Catholic News Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte.

A Philadelphia native of Irish descent, Father Mulligan has ministered to the Catholic families in the Panthers’ organization since the team joined the NFL and played their first pre-season game in 1995. Once among several Catholic chaplains who rotated in serving the team, Father Mulligan has served as the permanent Catholic chaplain since 2013. He offers Mass for them, ministers to their families and prays for them.

Father Mulligan said he celebrates Mass before every home game for about half a dozen Catholic players, including team captains Greg Olsen, Luke Kuechly and Ryan Kalil; some of the coaches; the team’s trainer and assistant trainer; and some of their family members.

“Occasionally, during the pre-season games, the Mass is at the stadium, but most of the time it’s a Mass at the hotel where they convene the night before a regular home game,” he explained.

“I do all the pre-season games and all the home games — playoff games and everything. And, of course, the last three years they’ve been in the playoffs, so my presence and their success has coincided,” Father Mulligan quipped.

Father Mulligan has ministered in the Charlotte Diocese since his ordination in 1975. Last year, he celebrated his 40th anniversary of priestly ordination. Besides his work with the Panthers, Father Mulligan serves in hospital ministry as a chaplain at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, and he helps at Queen of the Apostles Church in Belmont.

The priest credits All-Pro tight end Olsen as the catalyst for being invited to the Super Bowl with the team. “Nobody has said to me that they (the players) actually took a vote or something. But I’m sure there was some sort of ‘we would like to have the Catholic Mass, so let’s invite Father Joe.’ And Greg Olsen probably spoke up and said, ‘I’ll take care of it,'” Father Mulligan speculates. “(Olsen) is one of the team captains and that’s the kind of guy he is.”

Father Mulligan was flying to Santa Clara via a commercial airline Feb. 5 and planned to offer Mass for the players, coaching staff and family members on Super Bowl Sunday.

When asked how he planned to prepare the players for the big game, the chaplain said he does not deviate from the regular Mass readings. “I follow along with the Scripture readings for the Mass of the day. So I want them to feel that we’re in sync with the church.”

He added, “I try to make it as pertinent to what’s going in the church. If it’s Advent, we go through the Advent cycle.”

Looking ahead to the Gospel reading for Feb. 7 — Chapter 5, Verses 1 to 11 from the Gospel of St. Luke — Father Mulligan said the Super Bowl will be an opportunity for the Carolina Panthers to “dig deeper.”

The reading “has to do with the apostles fishing and casting a net, and they haven’t caught anything. And Jesus says you have to ‘cast your net,’ ‘lower your nets.’ … Lower your nets is an imagery of digging deeper,” he explained.

“I’m going to apply the sense of lowering your nets and digging deeper as an image for what needs to happen if they’re going to come out victorious, both in life and following Christ and in winning the Super Bowl.”

***

De Silva is on the staff of the Catholic News Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte.