By Gregory A. Shemitz
HUNTINGTON, N.Y. — Corey Phelan, a minor league player with the Philadelphia Phillies, was living his dream, playing the game he loved, when his world suddenly turned upside down earlier this year.
On April 14, while he was preparing for the 2022 season at the Phillies’ training complex in Clearwater, Florida, Phelan passed out in his apartment shower and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. A scan revealed a nine-inch tumor in his chest.
During a five-hour operation three days later, on Easter, surgeons removed a piece of the mass to biopsy it. The diagnosis: Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Corey had cancer.
Phelan’s distraught father shared the devastating news with his son at his bedside later in the day. Chris Phelan was stunned by his son’s calm reaction.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry, Dad, I’m fine,’ ” recalled Chris. ” ‘God has me.’ ”
Chris Phelan became emotional while describing the moment during an interview with Catholic News Service. He and his wife, Christie, spoke with CNS about their son’s extraordinary faith a month after his death Oct. 12 at age 20.
In the years before he got sick and throughout his six-month battle against what would be diagnosed as T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Corey placed an unwavering trust in God, his parents said.
While Chris and Christie were scared and concerned about their son’s future, Corey constantly reassured them that everything would be fine, regardless of the outcome. “God has me,” became his personal motto.
“Corey would always say, ‘It’s God’s plan and it’s a beautiful plan, no matter what,’ ” said Chris.
“The Thursday before he passed, he said, ‘Hey, Dad, listen, I’m not afraid to die. It’s time. But don’t worry, I’m going to paradise.’ ”
Corey had hoped to be going to the major leagues, but those plans were put in peril as he began his heroic fight against cancer.
His deep faith in God and courageous efforts to beat the disease were noticed and admired by the Phillies, who had struggled at the beginning of the season before making an improbable run to the World Series.
Corey, who had befriended several members on the team’s major league roster during off-season workouts, attended five games this year — three at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park and two at New York’s Citi Field.
His final appearance at a ballpark was Sept. 24, when he and his family sat in Phillies owner John Middleton’s private suite during the second to last home game of the regular season.
Throughout the club’s inspired postseason drive, Phillies manager Rob Thomson and several players and coaches wore lime-green rubber wristbands inscribed with two crosses, Corey’s name and the words “GOD HAS ME.”
Corey’s parents commissioned the bands shortly after their son’s diagnosis and began giving them to family members and friends.
Corey was surrounded by his family when he died as the Phillies and the Atlanta Braves were competing in the National League Division Series. The team honored his memory with a moment of silence prior to the Oct. 14 game in Philadelphia.
Phillies player development director Preston Mattingly acknowledged Corey’s priorities in life when he announced news of his death: “Corey’s positive presence and selflessness influenced everyone around him. While he was incredibly passionate about the game of baseball, his love for his family and his strong faith superseded everything else.”
The seeds of Corey’s faith were planted by Chris and Christie, who made attending Sunday Mass a priority for their children.
Skipping church was not an option for Corey and his three siblings, even as they grew into their teens and many people their age would be absent from the pews of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church, the family’s parish in the Long Island, New York, community of Centerport.
“We took the kids to church every weekend,” said Chris, a high school physical education and health teacher. “We had four kids and they all played sports. There’s a Mass they had to go to, whether it was Saturday evening or Sunday morning, whatever worked into the schedule. It wasn’t like, ‘We have baseball, we have soccer, we can’t make Mass.’ We were there. Corey understood that.
“Our kids never complained. They may not have been ready to go all the time, but they never complained.”
Corey’s prayer life began to deepen during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, shortly before he was signed by the Phillies as an undrafted free agent out of high school.
“Something just clicked with him at that time,” said Christie, a New York City elementary school teacher.
Corey was drawn to the family’s huge hard-cover Bible that was given to his parents by a priest as a wedding gift. He read that Bible every day, his parents said, and took it with him when he went to Clearwater to begin his professional baseball career.
“He didn’t let anything deter him from reading the Bible,” said Chris.
In Florida, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound left-hander continued to attend Mass. Teammates ribbed him, questioning his decision to go to church when he could be relaxing or having fun in the sun.
The teasing didn’t bother him. Instead, he used it as an opportunity to invite other players to join him.
“He would say, ‘Come find out why I go to church,’ ” said Chris. “And he began to bring a lot of teammates with him.”
Corey’s outgoing personality, love for people, and genuine concern for others allowed him to develop friendships with players and staff at every level of the Phillies’ organization.
“Corey would talk to everyone, from security guards, to clubbies (clubhouse attendants), to players, to higher staff,” said Christie. “And he always ended those conversations with ‘God bless.’ ”
Corey enjoyed life as a baseball player while remaining grounded in his faith. He shared that faith by organizing Scripture reading and prayer sessions with teammates. He also would hand out a book of daily reflections, “Jesus Calling,” to anyone who needed encouragement and support.
“He loved baseball, but that didn’t define him,” said Chris. He and Christie are starting a foundation, “Corey’s Promise,” to fulfill their son’s dream to provide financial support to families affected by pediatric cancer.
Corey relied on his faith to help him endure the trials associated with the cancer and chemotherapy.
When he was home and physically able, he would attend Mass at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs and spend time in prayer in the parish’s outdoor “Sacred Space,” a landscaped area highlighted by a tall crucifix and an altar used for services.
During his days at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Memorial Sloane Kettering in New York City, he would pray, read the family Bible, and receive the Eucharist from chaplains, visiting priests and his parents, who trained to be extraordinary ministers of holy Communion specifically to bring the Eucharist to their son.
Corey remained at peace with his situation until the end, never expressing despair or feeling sorry for himself, his parents said. He was “sad” the last couple of weeks of his life because he knew death was near and worried about the impact it would have on his family and close friends.
Corey died as he was being prepared to be transported home from Children’s Hospital. “He didn’t give up fighting,” said Chris. “His body just gave out.”
Corey’s funeral Mass was celebrated Oct. 19 at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church. The family Bible rested atop the coffin, along with Corey’s baseball glove, jersey and cap. Relatives, friends, former teammates and representatives from the Phillies filled the pews.
Corey’s siblings — Connor, 21, Colin, 18, and Caleigh, 16 — proclaimed the readings and general intercessions, and presented the gifts.
In his homily, the parish’s pastor, Father Stephen Pietrowski, said Corey exemplified holiness “in his own quiet way, in Scripture study with his fellow ballplayers and his love of Scripture.”
“In most homes (the Bible) winds up on the coffee table, very dusty underneath somewhere,” the priest said. “Corey pulled that book out, of his own accord, not because his parents asked him to do it, or his brothers and sister forced him to do it, but because he had a thirst for it, he had a thirst for God’s word. And that thirst could not be contained.”
“And it’s from that word that he gained tremendous strength,” Father Pietrowski added. “It’s from that word he found courage. And it’s from that word and the sacraments of our faith in our church he did amazing things in a very short 20 years.”
Corey is interred in a cemetery about three miles from the Phelans’ home in Huntington. Chris and Christie visit his grave every day. A headstone has been ordered and will be engraved with an image of a Celtic cross and the words “GOD HAS ME.”
A reflection that Christie discovered on Corey’s cellphone after his death also will be inscribed into the stone. She believes it was a message Corey wanted his parents to read and to share:
“I hope no one has to go through what I have been through to see how beautiful life is, but I hope everyone is able to see how beautiful life is the way I see it.”