They are, after all, the Saints. Falcons fans might regard them as something else, but the New Orleans NFL franchise wasn’t named for a bird or a four-legged beast (Bear) or a sort of worker (Steeler) or a seafaring mammal (Dolphin) or even a seafaring reprobate (Buccaneer). The New Orleans club was created in the image of those who get churches named after them.
As someone who has spent much of his life covering events in NOLA, I’ve attended Mass at a few of those places. On the morning of Nov. 11, 2012, I ducked into St. Clement in Metairie. I was hoping – forgive this secular thought – for a shortish service that would facilitate an early arrival at the Superdome, where the then-unbeaten Falcons were to face their biggest rival. I got the shortest service ever.
At the accustomed moment, the priest stood to delivery his homily. (Protestants call it a sermon.) Instead he said, “It’s a St. Clement tradition that we have no homily during our church festival. Go home and come back for the festival and watch the Saints game with us.”
I checked the bulletin for the name of this spectacularly succinct priest. It fairly jumped off the page -- Fr. Peter Finney III. He is, I would learn when I introduced myself outside, the grandson of Peter Finney, the Times-Picayune (nee States-Item) sports columnist, and the son of Peter Finney Jr., who wrote sports at the New York Post and Daily News and who edits the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ newspaper.
I would see the elder Peter Finney in the press box not an hour after meeting his namesake. I mentioned his grandson had just offered the most memorable homily ever. (As in, er, none.) Granddad, who was a gentleman of the first rank, laughed.
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There’s no family with deeper roots in New Orleans sports. Peter Finney, who grew up in the French Quarter, was a civic institution. In 1966, he wrote the story of the city being granted an NFL franchise under a States-Item headline that read: “N.O. Goes Pro!” He was to that city as Furman Bisher was to ours.
Finney died in 2016 at 88. His grandson has moved parishes – he’s now at St. Rita, three miles from the Superdome – but he’s still in the city, still rooting for the Saints. He was in the building for last week’s comeback victory over the Eagles. He’ll be there Sunday for the NFC Championship game against the Rams.
As we Atlantans know too well, the Saints aren’t just playing to reach a Super Bowl; they’re playing to reach Atlanta’s Super Bowl. And how, I asked the Rev. Finney via phone, would it be for the fans who love to poke fun at the Falcons to see their team win it all in the A-T-L?
“This may be apocryphal, but there’s a quote attributed to Martin Luther: ‘Nothing makes a heart burn more than hate,’” he said. “They’re our biggest rival. More than that, though, there’s the thought of just going to another Super Bowl. But for us, that would be the cherry on the cake.”
Then: “For a long time, there was a shared collective history of misery. Atlanta was terrible. New Orleans was terrible. Knowing about that and knowing about 28-3, it's a humbling thing.”
(Personal aside: Not all Saints fans, and I’ve met a few, are known for humility. Then again, not all of them are priests.)
I mentioned that the Saints, should they represent the NFC, would be training at the Falcons’ complex in Flowery Branch. Finney laughed. “(Coach Sean) Payton does give them a little bit of leash. Undoubtedly something would occur more than just breaking a fire alarm or holding a dance party.”
Then: “But the overarching thing is winning another Super Bowl. After Katrina, this city changed a good bit. Whatever it was before, it's a football town now. You can feel the pulse of it. It will be loud Sunday (in the Superdome). For a couple of minutes last Sunday, I felt the floor reverberate – and I was sitting up in the rafters. I’d never felt that before.”
Then: “Katrina has put a little bit of an edge on things. In New Orleans, we love ourselves. Seeing how many folks went on to lives in the other 49 states and especially in Atlanta, there’s a chip on shoulder. The exorcism 2009 (when the Saints won their first Super Bowl by upsetting the Colts and Peyton Manning). This is affirmation. We’re different than Atlanta, different than a lot of places, but we still feel good about ourselves.”
Finney experienced much of the 2009 season from afar. He was studying in Rome – and not Rome, Ga. “I remember almost getting kicked out of seminary for trying to go to Miami (for the Super Bowl),” he said, but no expulsion occurred. He took his holy orders of ordination and wound up back in New Orleans, where the home team is within sight of another Super Sunday.
Some Atlantans might well be praying for the Rams. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has admitted wanting “anybody other than the Saints” to grace her city. But you should know that a ton of folks in New Orleans will send thoughts heavenward for their team, and there’s an actual prayer for that.
“Prayer for the Saints” was first offered in 1968 by Archbishop Philip Hannan. It includes these lines: “Our heavenly father, who has instructed us that the ‘saints by faith conquered kingdoms and overcame lions,’ grant our Saints an increase of faith and strength so that they will not only overcome the Lions, but also the Bears, the Rams, the Giants, and even those awesome people in Green Bay. May they continue to tame the Redskins and fetter the Falcons … May the ‘Saints Come Marching In’ be a victory march for all, now and in eternity.”
Said Finney: “We said that one last week. We’ll be praying it again this weekend.”