PHOENIX — Forgive the Franciscan friars at St. Mary’s Basilica if they wonder what exactly is being worshipped at the giant, gleaming temple across the street.
An extra point away from the elegant old church’s doors, the NFL Experience is open for business. All week, fans in football jerseys have filed by the thousands into the towering Phoenix Convention Center that’s hosting an 850,000-square-foot NFL theme park. Giant portable televisions blare on nearby street corners. Gleaming cream-colored SUVs, each emblazoned with the logo of a different NFL team, line a section of North Third Street covered in artificial turf.
American Sundays are defined for many by two things: church and football. Fans fidget in the pews as kickoff looms. Players pray before and after games. Many even believe in a sort of God of the Gridiron, surveys suggest — a great handicapper in the sky who decides the outcome of sporting events.
But that has not meant a boom in business for the six friars and 800 or so parishioners who spent months planning for an expected deluge of fans sparing a few minutes for their faith at the church across the street, which has stood there since Phoenix was just a few dirt roads in the desert.
Hoping to raise a little money for the parish and its charitable endeavors, they obtained a permit from the city to sell hot dogs on the street. They scheduled organ recitals and tours of their beautiful Mission Revival-style church, which boasts the largest stained glass collection in the area and is celebrating its centennial next month. They bought boxes of rosaries with beads shaped like footballs to pass out.
One woman from Seattle stopped by and picked out one that approximated the colors of her beloved Seahawks and took a pamphlet. She’s not a practicing Catholic, she said, but would have a look.
But as fans swarmed the city despite an unusually persistent rain, almost nobody ventured across the closed-off street to buy a hot dog or ask for a little divine help in the event of a game-deciding field goal.
“Most of the folks who come here are praying for something else,” said the Rev. Michael Weldon, who grew up in Phoenix and returned recently to lead the church. He said he hoped the church wouldn’t lose money on the hot dog sale, though by Friday evening that appeared likely.
Weldon and his flock may not be praying for a championship, but a 2014 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that many do just that. More than 50 percent of those who consider themselves football fans believe some sort of supernatural force is at play on the field. About a third said they have prayed for help for their team.
One fan, a transplant from Worcester who now lives in Arizona, said she has prayed for the New England Patriots before every game since 2001.
“I am not really a religious person, but do believe in a higher power and believe wholeheartedly in prayer,” said the fan, who asked to be identified by her first name only, Sherry.
The survey also indicates that Catholics are less likely to pray, pray, pray for the home team than those of other denominations. Only 20 percent say they have.
“Something tells me the big guy has more important things on his mind,” said Paul Shirk, a member of the pastoral council at St. Mary’s.
Michael Arciga, a Patriots fan from Phoenix who came to Mass on Friday, was dismayed to find the pews nearly empty even as downtown filled with football fans. Arciga, who owes his Patriots fandom to a stint at Fort Devens in the 1980s, said he has never prayed for the Patriots.
“They’re already good,” he joked. “No prayers needed.”
For Arciga and others on the less-traveled side of East Monroe Street — even those looking forward to Sunday’s game — the juxtaposition of the elegant old church sitting empty amid the very modern revelry was a little off-putting.
“It’s surprising and frustrating,” Arciga said.
At the church’s little gift shop built into the old street-level facade, a few fans stepped in, circled, and left, said manager Renee Bau.
“I think people might be more interested in football,” said Bau. They got more business during the John Deere convention last year, she said, as she looked out at a long line of fans snaking down the street just outside.
The NFL Experience is a vast sea of games and displays and photo ops and auctions and autograph sessions that costs $35 to enter. From a stage inside on Thursday, a barker riled up the crowd.
“Where are the Buccaneers fans?” he admonished, as former Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks furiously signed merchandise for those waiting in one of several long lines.
Outside, the giant banners hanging on buildings and walkways high above the church’s bell towers make solemn proclamations: “There can only be one winner.”
Weldon walked through the scene Thursday night, a crooked umbrella shielding him against the rain. Friars like Weldon wear plain vestments, the most visible evidence of their vow to live simply. He stopped to talk quietly to a panhandler who was reading a soaked Bible.
The door to the humble, low-slung friary adjacent to the church, where he and five other friars live full time, opens directly onto the giant, flashing NFL festival that has taken over a wide swath of downtown.
“You can’t walk the streets here without seeing what it’s costing,” Weldon said.
That night, Weldon had just given the invocation before a banquet honoring a sportscaster with a career achievement award.
Someone had called over to the church to request a priest, and though he had guests for dinner, the Hyatt was just a few blocks away. He sang the prayer, which he said the crowd enjoyed, and slipped out.
Weldon has a vague interest in football — he grew up here and attended a high school steeped in the sport — but as for the big game, he said, “I’m planning a nap.”
“I don’t follow television sports,” Weldon said, and he was unfamiliar with the man being honored. “I think they said his name was Joe Buck?”
During his homily on Friday, Weldon wondered what could be accomplished if the NFL put its considerable wealth behind something a little more meaningful than a city-consuming celebration.
“What if the NFL gave away some of its huge profits” to fix the education systems in the cities where its teams play? “That would be my biggest prayer and dream,” he said.
But the ocean between prayer and action is often deep and difficult to navigate, Weldon said. He admitted his dream sounded something like a Hail Mary pass.
“People don’t listen to me much,” Weldon said, “except in church.”