Since throwing a perfect opening pitch at a Chicago White Sox game in her full habit this weekend, Sister Mary Jo Sobieck has become a viral sensation and traveled across the country for media appearances. The nun, who teaches theology at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois, rocketed a perfect strike after confidently bouncing the baseball off the inside of her elbow—a cocky trick usually reserved for showing off in backyard games. The impressive move left the media wanting more from the young, confident nun.
A three-sport athlete in college and a lifelong Minnesota Twins fan, Sister Mary Jo’s ability to toss a perfect pitch wasn’t shocking to her, but the ensuing attention was. Sister Mary Jo was a teacher of mine in high school, so I called her up to congratulate her on the pitch. She told me how going viral has disrupted her first week of class, and how the experience might finally push her into her lifelong dream of pursuing public speaking.
VICE: How crazy has this week been for you?
Sister Mary Jo Sobieck: Oh my goodness. I wasn’t even going to stay for the whole game. I was just going to go do the pitch, walk around a little bit, talk to the Marian [Catholic High School] folks, and head home because school started [Wednesday] for me. I was going to do some things for the classroom, because I had two days off before classes started. It’s been the craziest weekend of my life.
How ridiculous was class today with your newfound celebrity?
Here’s the thing: I got home last night from the airport and [principal] Steve Tortorello had offered to get a sub for me. I was tired and I took him up on it. I just need to rest, I am exhausted. I have a lot of energy, but if I keep going on like that then I’m just going to crash and I can’t afford that.
Are you cutting down on TV interviews and media appearances now that the school year is starting?
Actually, no. They’re getting more and more.
How do you plan to balance that with school then?
We’ll work around it, because how many times do you get this opportunity? To be honest, I look at it like things happen for a reason. It’s God taking me on another path. Am I called to do something else? Who knows. We can’t know that. I’m letting things go as they are, and people are cooperating with whatever the plan is.
What are you interpreting this as, if you’re looking at it like a message? Are you thinking you might do more public speaking or appearances to spread a certain message?
I don’t know. We talk about things like this in class: You continue to leave yourself open to what God is calling you to. Even with just the way I am in the classroom, I’m outgoing, I try to inspire people to do their best. Who knows. In high school, when they’d bring a speaker in to talk to the class, I always thought to myself: “I can do that. I want to do that.”
You’ve always been extremely outgoing and energetic. You have this opportunity now with the media paying attention to you. What have you been trying to use the opportunity for?
Well, how do I say this? The fact that I was wearing my habit, that in itself got attention. The fact that I’m a girl and I’m young. It’s the whole Sister Jean thing again [Editor’s note: Sister Jean is the 99-year-old nun who became famous during Loyola-Chicago's Final Four run in early 2018]. Me and her are bridging two generations. This whole athletic thing and our joy for sports and love for our community, it’s been a real bridge.
I would hope that people recognize I’m just doing what I love. My ability in sports helps me to relate to the kids, and [it's cool] that there’s a sister who’s athletic and can talk the lingo. I would hope they see past the athletic part and see that it’s just my joy for life. My gift—my natural born talent and gift from God—has always been my athletic ability. It’s more that I’m just a good athlete, but I’ve allowed God to use that as an avenue to create wonderful relationships with people. I want people to see that if you are true to yourself and if you are open to what gifts you have been given, God will take that, and it will be wonderful.
We just need to be true to ourselves and be real. I think that’s what people have picked up on in my interviews. People have responded that, “She’s just real and genuine.” If people see anything, I want them to see “just be yourself.” God didn’t create you to be anybody but you. Just be you.
That message comes at a time when a lot of kids, especially high school students, feel pressure to brand their lives in certain ways on social media. Is that something you talk about with kids in class?
I was thinking about that in my prayer life today: What is God doing with this? Our whole message [at Marian Catholic High School] is truth. Veritas. St. Dominic, in his time, there was a lot of spoken word heresy. Dominic had to combat that with truth. He was speaking to people about what the Gospel was and telling people what was true. He was speaking to people about the dualism and how that’s not right. And now, in our culture, it’s still about truth and veritas, but think about all the “fake news” we have and social media. [Kids are] putting things on [social media] and saying they want to portray themselves in a certain way, but is it really true to who they are? Maybe truth is not about what’s spoken, but about what’s lived.
Are you always trying to share that enthusiasm and positive energy as a message to be yourself?
It's just natural. That’s just me. Sometimes in the classroom—I teach religion and theology—I think, I'm going to be the only witness, for these kids, to who God is. What message do I want to communicate to them? I want to communicate inclusivity, I want to communicate acceptance, I want to communicate forgiveness. That doesn’t mean kids can do whatever they want. There are still expectations to be a person of character and moral virtue and those kinds of things, but if I’m going to expect that, I’ve got to live that. And, again, I fail. I don’t do it best all the time and when I don’t, I say that to the class. I come back the next day and say that to the kids, “Yesterday, I wasn’t my best. I know and I’m going to work on that.” That speaks volumes to kids, to take responsibility.
I also want to say to them, it’s not just about being happy. You can be a person of joy even in the things that are difficult, when you don’t make the basketball team or your girlfriend breaks up with you. How do you still live joy in that? There’s this real need to hold the tension of the joys of life but being willing to embrace the sorrow. When they can do that, the joy is not an external sense of giddiness, but it’s an internal sense of knowing that things are going to be OK and that we’re going to get through this no matter what happens. I hope that’s what my enthusiasm through all of this is conveying. That’s what allowed me to go up to the mound confident enough but still nervous enough to try my best.
What does this whole experience tell people about judging a book by its cover?
I would say it tells us to be open to whatever and allow an experience to just unfold and be open to it. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not looking at this like, “Geez, why are people so surprised?” To me, there’s a certain sense of bravado. It’s not arrogance, it’s just kind of fun. But some of that is what keeps me on my game. Especially with the boys and the athletes, I think it gives me a certain sense of credibility, especially those who come in and don’t yet know me. We’ll see. It’s made me even more relaxed with being my true self and this gives me permission to do that even more.
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