Sunday, April 13, 2008

Eight-year-old James Higgins of Southeast was wearing white-but-grass-stained baseball pants and a dusty Boston Red Sox jersey when he mapped out his future — combining an aspiration typical of a boy his age with a more unusual goal:

“Maybe I could play major league baseball and then become pope.”

His goals don’t surprise his parents. Since his first communion on Oct. 6, 2006, James has attended Mass every day.

“Since he’s so into baseball, he likes the idea that he has a streak,” his mother, Lauren Higgins, said. On Thursday, James will join his parents for another Mass, but this one will be led by Pope Benedict XVI in the Nationals Stadium.

James and his parents were among 65 parishioners at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church on Capitol Hill that won a lottery for tickets to attend the Mass.

The second-grader, who has attended Mass for more than 550 consecutive days since his first communion, started going to the church daily with his father, Stephen Higgins, before age 3.

Video: The future Pope James?

The pair increased their routine from only Saturdays beyond the weekly obligation to daily Mass, and now they walk about three blocks from their home to St. Peter’s each morning at 7 a.m.

“Rain, shine, snow, sleet, hail … they’re there,” said the Rev. Bill Hegedusich of St. Peter’s, noting that the family sits on the second pew of the church and often stays to pray after Mass.

Mrs. Higgins said, “On the walk, Stephen started teaching James prayers and started teaching him things about religion and the Catholic faith, and James just absorbed it all.”

Elizabeth Higgins, James’ 6-year-old sister, was playing with a doll on the floor of the family’s living room when she heard the talk about daily Mass. “Now I go,” she said, noting that the morning Mass is now a regular activity for Mr. Higgins and both of his children. Mrs. Higgins, 44, meets the trio after Mass with breakfast in tow.

“We all go on Saturdays,” Mrs. Higgins said.

“And definitely on Sundays,” added James.

Showing his mind for papal trivia, James rattled off facts as quickly as his mouth would form the words: “The shortest pope ever was Pope Stephen I — he only had one day in office before he died. And then the longest pope — well, next to Peter — was Pope Pius IX — almost 32 years.”

James can name all popes between St. Gregory XVI of the early 1800s to today’s Benedict XVI, who “knows six languages: English, Spanish, Italian, French, German and Latin,” according to James, whose knowledge of the saints is even more extensive.

On a tour of his room, James pointed out dozens of saints on cards and icons mounted on his walls, along with a Red Sox flag and a drawer filled with baseball caps. Icons spill over to the walls of the hallway outside of his room because James has purchased more than his room’s walls will hold.

“I’ve joked that it looks like a rectory in here,” Mrs. Higgins said, looking at the candles, icons and statues that James has collected in their house.

“When he’d get money for Christmas or his birthday — most kids would buy toys, but he would buy icons,” Mrs. Higgins said.

Before Pope Benedict XVI was elected, James greeted Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, after Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, and “waited with bated breath, because at that time [James] wanted to be Pope Pius XIII, and he was worried that the new pope would take his name,” Mrs. Higgins said.

James also boasts meetings with Archbishop of Washington Donald Wuerl and Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, who is James’ favorite baseball player.

Mrs. Higgins said her husband and son inspire each other in the faith.

“When Stephen would bring James to Mass and teach him about the faith, Stephen’s faith would grow,” Mrs. Higgins said. “And James’ excitement in the faith caused Stephen to read more books, and we incorporated the faith more into our lives.”

“James takes his faith very seriously,” his mother said, noting that she never pulls him out of bed for Mass, but instead, he requests daily Mass — even on vacation.

James hopes to meet the pope, take a trip to Rome, and visit Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the remains of his patron saint, St. James the Greater, lie.

But James said he also has other lofty goals.

The 8-year-old with the 550-Mass streak was tossing a white ball back and forth to his dad’s old baseball mitt when he caught the ball and paused.

He said, excitedly, “My dream is to break the streak that Cal Ripken had and to break Barry Bonds’ home run record.”

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