WASHINGTON -- Among the faithful gathered at the 7 a.m. Mass at St. Peter's Catholic Church on Capitol Hill, one face in the front pew always stands out.
James Higgins, 7, has been attending daily Mass since he was 3 years old. His parents, Stephen and Lauren, never have to drag him out of bed or away from his Lucky Charms to get him there either.
"I have it in my heart to go," said James, decked out in a blue sweat suit, a Red Sox jacket and cap. He's currently undecided between a career with the Red Sox -- or as the first American pope.
Given this boy's encyclopedic knowledge of the church, the safe money is on the Vatican job.
He rarely stops swinging an imaginary baseball bat, trotting bases in a fantasy diamond and making crowd noises. When asked if the best part of his day is Mass, he looks at you with the quizzical nature that only a first-grader can muster.
"No way," he says. "PE is."
Still, James is really proud of a nearly 200-day communion streak -- he hasn't missed a day since last October, when his pastor gave him a special dispensation to receive his First Communion a year and a half early.
James has amassed a knowledge and understanding of all things Catholic that would send even the most devout nun's head spinning. The Nintendo you might expect to find in his room has been displaced by a small table of statuary, crucifixes, icons, saints cards and a mini Vatican flag. Plus a few baseball cards and a Red Sox pennant.
He once gave a lecture on the life of St. Patrick to the other members of his pre-kindergarten class.
You might think it would be easy to stump a 7-year-old. Not this 7-year-old. Even the priests at St. Peter's say they can't do it.
"What are the 10 commandments?"
James spouts them back, correctly. It takes about eight seconds.
"Give me something hard," he says, "really hard!"
"OK, what's the feast day of Saint Augustine of Hippo?"
James sighs and shrugs, disappointed he didn't get something more difficult.
"Aug. 27," he says.
He stops, pauses and corrects himself. "I mean Aug. 28th. Saint Monica is the 27th." He's correct.
Sts. Peter Damascene, Basil the Great, Bonaventure, Joan of Arc, Margaret, Titus -- name this kid a saint and he's got the feast day and vital stats on their life.
His favorite saint? St. James the Greater (they do have the same name, after all). Feast day? July 25.
He can also explain the joys and sorrows of Mary, how martyrs of the church have died, the seven deadly sins, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the 14 holy helpers, and the 33 "doctors" of the church-- in order, including the pope who appointed them.
Speaking of the church's most eminent theologians, who was No. 8?
James sits and thinks, rolling his eyes as if scanning reams of church history in his head. St. John Chrysostom, the doctor of preachers, he says 30 seconds later. Born in A.D. 345, to be precise.
Just to be sure, he asks his father to check. He's correct.
After a thorough 20-minute pop quiz, there just aren't any more questions.
"Day in and day out, even though it's early, I see his face at Mass and it inspires me," said the Rev. Bill Hegedusich, the associate pastor at St. Peter's. "He's a child, but he has that enthusiasm that we are all called to have."
Since taking an interest in baseball, James has had to balance his dream of becoming pope with visions of playing at Fenway Park.
James plays an active role at the early morning Mass. Sitting in the front pew, he's always the first to stand or kneel.
His distinctly youthful voice stands out from the congregation. After Mass, he cleans up the altar, bowing reverently at each stage of the process.
"It's incredible," said his dad, Stephen, who sparked James' interest in the Mass with his own daily attendance. "As his faith builds, so does mine -- they feed off each other and I'm able to teach him more about everything else."
During a summer trip to Boston, the Higginses went to Fenway, but made it a point to teach James that there are many Catholic ballplayers, including James' favorite player, Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell.
James' sister, Elizabeth, is 5.
James' parents consider him their miracle child. He was born 10 weeks premature on All Souls Day, and was given just a slight chance of surviving. Around age 3, James became infatuated with Mary, often hugging and kissing statues of her.
Since then, his mother said simply, being Catholic "is a way of life for him."
"We try to incorporate faith in everything we do, but we've always tried to do it so it's fun," said his dad. "It's about associating one with the other to make it part of everyday life. That's what it should be."