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Man of Action: Matt Birk boldly embraces pro-life cause

Baltimore Ravens Matt Birk plays with his children during a practice at the Superdome ahead of the NFL’s Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans Feb. 2, 2013. The father of six is a Catholic and advocate for pro-life causes and child literacy. He celebrated his first Super Bowl victory after the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 to capture the national title. (CNS photo/Sean Gardner, Reuters)

A lifelong Catholic who attended parochial schools in St. Paul, Minn., Matt Birk had always considered himself pro-life. Especially after cradling his first newborn baby, the former center with the Baltimore Ravens instinctively knew life is a gift from God.

The six-time NFL Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro didn’t really put his pro-life values into action, however, until Archbishop William E. Lori called him unexpectedly in 2011 and invited him to speak at the Maryland March for Life.

Participating in the Annapolis march set Birk on a new path of very public pro-life activism.

“It’s not hyperbole to say that that night changed my life,” said Birk, noting that he was moved by the testimony of women who told him they regretted having abortions.

“That was just something really profound,” said Birk, a Harvard graduate who spent the last four years of his 15-year NFL career with the Ravens. “It really hit me. I was thinking, ‘My gosh, these women – they’ve been through it all and they want to tell everybody that abortion is wrong and that it’s a bunch of lies and the pain lasts.’”

Birk and his wife, Adrianna, are the parents of eight children, including two sons they adopted as infants just a few months apart. Adrianna has long been active in the pro-life movement, having previously volunteered at a pro-life pregnancy center opened by the godfather of one of her children. The center was located across the street from a Planned Parenthood facility in St. Paul.

“They celebrated Mass and had exposition of the Blessed Sacrament facing the abortion clinic,” Birk said, “and a few years later, (the abortion clinic) closed – they relocated.”

In traveling around the country, Birk hears that same story again and again – a sign, he said, that “light always triumphs darkness.”

“It’s a beautiful thing and just proof that God wins in the end,” he said. “All we need to do is just keep being his faithful servants and doing individually what he’s asking each of us to do in this battle.”

National focus

Matt Birk, then a center for the Baltimore Ravens, lifts tight end Dennis Pitta after Pitta’s touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter of the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game in New Orleans Feb. 3, 2013. The Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers 34-31. (CNS photo/Jeff Haynes, Reuters)

Not long after helping the Ravens win the Super Bowl in 2013, Birk announced his retirement on the same day he visited St. Mark School in Catonsville to encourage students to live out their faith. Father Christopher Whatley, who had served as the Ravens’ Catholic chaplain, was the pastor of the parish at the time.

That same year, Birk stirred national controversy when he declined an invitation to visit President Barack Obama with his Super Bowl champion teammates at the White House. Birk was disturbed that the president seemed to call for God to “bless” Planned Parenthood during an April 26, 2013 speech at a Planned Parenthood conference in Washington, D.C.

Today, Birk continues to provoke with pro-life tweets from a Twitter account that proclaims, “I tweet for those who can’t.”

It’s not enough simply to say one is pro-life, Birk insisted. One must “do” pro-life. As an example, he highlighted the pro-life outreach of the Knights of Columbus, of which he is a member, noting that the fraternal organization has donated more than 1,000 ultrasound machines to pregnancy resource centers across the country. That’s helping women see their unborn children in the womb and make a decision for life, he said.

Click play to listen to a Catholic Review Radio interview with Matt Birk and David Naglieri. Story continues below.

CatholicReview · Dec. 5, 2021 | Catching up with Matt Birk/New Film on St. Joseph

Growing in faith

Matt Birk prays during eucharistic adoration at Faith and Football Camp Aug. 7, 2019, at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minn. The three-day camp featured football drills and scrimmages mixed in with Mass, rosary, Stations of the Cross and adoration. (CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, Catholic Spirit)

Birk, 45, credited his years with the Ravens with helping him mature in his faith. The reason he came to Baltimore was to be coached by John Harbaugh, a fellow Catholic, who counseled players not only on football, but on bigger life questions.

“The locker room is actually a very spiritual place,” Birk said, noting that three of the four head coaches he played for were Catholic and that he always attended Mass in the hotel on game day. “It’s really one of the few workplaces in America where you’re actually encouraged to grow in your walk.”

Birk said half of all players had Bibles in their locker and went to Scripture studies.

“I think at least in our hearts, we all know that nothing in the NFL is really true,” he said. “The money and the fame and the attention and all that – we know it’s not true. And our hearts long for truth. And so the NFL environment is really conducive to guys asking the most important questions and seeking out the truth.”

Birk, who also attended Mass at Sacred Heart in Glyndon and the Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier in Hunt Valley when he was in Baltimore, said he was grateful for his years in Charm City. His charitable foundation encouraged literacy in Baltimore’s public schools, involving more than 100,000 children in its last year.

“The people of Baltimore are very proud of Baltimore,” said Birk, a former Viking who again lives in his home state of Minnesota. “There’s kind of a Baltimore pride thing that really is admirable, and the people who are from there care deeply about their community. They want to make it better, and that was evident from day one when we were there.”

Matt Birk was recently featured in a Knights of Columbus documentary about St. Joseph. Click here to read more.

Email George Matysek at gmatysek@CatholicReview.org

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