Hours before he died in a helicopter crash, NBA superstar Kobe Bryant stopped by a Roman Catholic church to pray, church officials have confirmed.
Bryant, a lifelong Catholic, paid a visit to his home parish, Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newport Beach, California, shortly before Sunday’s 7 a.m. Mass, Rev. Steve Sallot told CBS Los Angeles.
At around 9:45 a.m., Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others were killed when the helicopter they were traveling on crashed into a foggy hillside near Calabasas.
Sallot said he shook hands and chatted with Bryant for a few minutes that morning. They discussed Bryant’s desire to be confirmed, Sallot said. Confirmation is a sacrament in the Catholic Church that affirms and deepens one’s Christian identity.
Bryant didn’t stay for the morning service, the priest said.
“I saw that he had blessed himself because there was a little holy water on his forehead,” Sallot told CBS Los Angeles. “So I knew that he’d gone into the chapel to pray and came out and blessed himself. And then we spoke for a minute, shook hands, and then off he went.”
Sallot said that Bryant and his family, who live in Newport Beach, frequently attended services at Our Lady Queen of Angels.
“He was quite a man of faith,” the priest said. “Quiet about it, but certainly a man of faith.”
Orange County Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Freyer wrote in a Facebook post on Monday that Bryant was a “committed Catholic who loved his family and loved his faith.”
Freyer told Angelus News, a website run by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, that Bryant had a trick for attending services without causing a disturbance. According to priests in Freyer’s diocese, the LA Lakers legend would wait until the entrance procession got halfway down the aisle before sneaking into one of the back pews and then just as quietly walk out as Mass was ending, the bishop said.
“He wanted people to focus on Christ’s presence, not his presence,” said Freyer.
Investigators are looking at possible causes for the deadly crash. Visibility was poor that morning because of heavy fog, The New York Times reports. The helicopter’s pilot reportedly told air traffic controllers that he was climbing to avoid a layer of clouds. It was the pilot’s last message.
As a Black man, Bryant was a minority within the broader American Catholic Church. Only 3% of American Catholics identify as Black, according to the Pew Research Center.
Bryant received his first Holy Communion in Italy, where he lived for a short period as a child. He married his wife, Vanessa Bryant, at the St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church in Dana Point, California. And his younger daughters were baptized at Our Lady Queen of Angels.
The basketball great credited a Catholic priest with counseling him after a 19-year-old woman accused him of raping her at a Colorado hotel in 2003.
Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault. Prosecutors dropped the criminal case after the woman said she was unwilling to testify. She and Bryant settled a civil case out of court in 2005. The basketball star later issued an apology to the woman, acknowledging that while he had seen the encounter as consensual, she clearly did not.
In a 2015 interview with GQ, Bryant said that talking with a Catholic priest helped him during that time.
Our Lady Queen of Angels is planning a special service in honor of Bryant, CBS Los Angeles reports.
Several Catholic bishops from Southern California were in Rome for a meeting with the pope at the time of the helicopter crash. On Tuesday, they gathered inside the Basilica of St. John Lateran to pray for Bryant, his daughter, and the other victims.
“May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace,” the bishops prayed.
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