Bishop Robert J. Baker: An inside look

On July 12, the day before he was formally introduced to the Diocese of Charleston at a press conference, Bishop Robert J. Baker from the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla., sat down in the dining room of the Bishop’s residence on Broad Street for a wide-ranging interview with The New Catholic Miscellany. The interview was conducted by Jordan McMorrough, editor, and was attended by Bishop David B. Thompson; Msgr. James A. Carter, vicar general; Mary Jeffcoat, director of communications; and Deirdre C. Mays, Miscellany photojournalist.

What do you see as the biggest difference between St. Augustine and Charleston? Similarities?

There are many similarities with what the Church is concerned about. We’ll find there is a dovetailing of concerns with the Diocese of Charleston and the Diocese of St. Augustine.

We are both historical areas. The parish I was pastor of (Cathedral-Basilica in St. Augustine) was the oldest parish in the mainland United States. I am imbued with history and in awe of the history I see here. We share that common sense of regard for history, culture, tradition and beauty. Those are some of the similarities. The universal mission of the Church applies in both situations.

The differences also would be significant. I am one who believes you are affected greatly by the place where you live. Your outlook, your vocation, your service takes on a unique character from where you live. In a sense, where you live helps define who you are. Every parish I was at had a slightly different character, and I had to shift my approach and learn. I always had that sense of being open to taking on the dimensions of the people and the place I was serving. I am coming as a stranger, and I recognize that. I recognize that I am having to do a lot of learning from you. I’m looking to Bishop (David B.) Thompson in a special way to continue to mentor me and to all of you, so I can learn more about the roots and traditions of the people of the Diocese of Charleston.

Yes, there are significant differences. One of which is the area of the diocese (as far as square miles). This diocese encompasses a larger territory than the one I come from. I did serve in St. Augustine in every area of the diocese from the western part and see city and northern part in Jacksonville. We have the same characteristic of being in the South. I did have the opportunity to be part of a venture called the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South. I did several articles in that encyclopedia, which was geared toward the specific character of religion in the South.

This area of the South is not the area of my roots. I’m from Ohio, and there is a need for me to become much more educated about the specific character of Charleston. As I was involved in helping people in Florida welcome the stranger; you’re involved in welcoming this new stranger in your midst.

Young people dream about what they might become. How did you arrive at your decision to become a priest?

I was influenced by a very strong Catholic faith tradition through my family  my parents, a wonderful father and a mother who is a very caring and devoted woman. They taught me the ways of faith. I have to attribute the initial experience of vocation to them.

We had priests in the family, my mother’s brother and uncle, and I had close priest friends growing up in Catholic school where we saw priests regularly. Vocations in the early ’50s came in large numbers.

I was especially close to one priest, who influenced me in a special way. His attitude toward the priesthood, his outgoing disposition, and his friendliness had a special effect on me and many other young people. At one time because of him there were 10 young men studying for the priesthood at one seminary alone  Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus. I would say that his influence was dramatic. At one point he asked me, “Would you like to come with me and visit the seminary?” Taking that time to actually invite me made a difference. From then on thoughts of a vocation continued to develop. Initially, I didn’t see myself as worthy of the priesthood, but then I realized that no one is. I spent 12 years in the seminary, discerning further, and I have loved every moment of my priesthood since.

Who would you say are the influences in your life?

I have to reiterate what I said earlier. Parents and family would be the primary ones. We are very close today. My dad died two years ago. I was just with them (family) a couple of weeks ago in Ohio. We’re a very close family. My brothers and I hit it off real well. We work together. That’s the foundation of my influences.

As a priest, my influences have included Father Cleo Schmenk, my uncle and my great uncle who are priests  Father Clem Alt and Father Benjamin Alt, who influenced my vocation. They were members of the Precious Blood community of priests, and I somehow escaped the lure of being with them. They weren’t too happy about that, but they are very happy for me. Now one is in eternity with the Lord and the other is retired.

I would include the faculty professors at the seminary I attended, Josephinum in Columbus, as major influences, as well as my bishops, Bishop Paul Tanner who ordained me and Bishop John Snyder who nourished my vocation and mentored me. I lived with Bishop Snyder for 13 years at the Cathedral.

I come from a warm fraternity of priests in the Diocese of St. Augustine. I think it is important that the priests you live and work with in a diocese be very close. I look forward to that same experience with brother priests in the Diocese of Charleston.

What do you see as the pivotal moments in your formation that made the difference in the person, spiritually and academically, that you have become today?

The moment that parish priest personally invited me to visit the seminary when I was a young boy in grade school. I see that as instructive about our need to take the time to welcome people  to invite people  into ministry. Not just to presume they know or to let this invitation fall from the sky. It needs to be personalized, and we need to seek out those with the capabilities and interests and faith that we see as promising vocations. That invitation by Father Schmenk was pivotal for me to determine the direction of my life.

Other pivotal moments: I was invited by Bishop Tanner to study graduate courses in Rome, which had a major effect on the broadening of my experience of the Church. I lived and studied in Rome for three-and-a-half years. Later, I studied at two universities  Gregorian and the Angelicum  for sabbatical studies, which gave me a sense that we’re part of something bigger. I really appreciated that opportunity. I think that was pivotal to connect me to the wider church of the world.

What were some of the things that you enjoyed most about being a parish priest?

I look at myself as coming to you here as a parish priest. While I did some teaching in the seminary and was in campus ministry at the University of Florida, I think my strongest card is that of being a parish priest. And I’m proud of that fact. The parish life is where we’re introduced to the faith through baptism and sacramental life, through the Living Word of God, and then we’re ushered into eternity. The parish is pivotal. I like to consider myself working further in that dimension and not being regarded solely as a bishop but as a pastor. One who wants to follow Bishop Thompson’s example in reaching out to everybody. The parish is the place where the rubber meets the road, where we really concretely experience the Lord. What happened to me in parish life led to my vocation. In my experience of parish and people, most recently at Christ The King Parish, it’s kind of a model parish in Florida where people give of their time and talent and treasure. It shows me that people can find community so well there. And even ethnic groups  we have a Polish Mass every two weeks, a Vietnamese Mass every Sunday, a Lebanese Maronite Mass every Sunday. I connect with all those different groups and am looked at as the pastor of the communities, even though they have individual chaplains celebrating Mass. Today, the ethnic groups need to be linked to the parish. It’s a new evangelization time  we see the need to recognize diversity but also see the need for them to be closely connected. At the cathedral, we had what you might call a “parish within a parish” to the African-Americans, however they were connected to us also and were not a separate entity. It’s not as though the Church isn’t open to that possibility, but I see the parish as being all embracing in ministries and trying to be the outreach of the diocese to the areas of need. I enjoy everything about being parish priest. That’s where I’ve spent most of my time.

Except for the episcopal appointment, did any of your previous appointments surprise you? Did you ever feel overwhelmed?

I was in a state of shock when I learned from Archbishop (Gabriel) Montalvo that I was to be you’re new bishop because I did not expect that call to come in. Obviously I’d heard rumors over the years but I’ve discounted them. I’d even planned to spent my last days as a parish priest there at Christ The King. I figured that would happen and I made up my will and included the parish in the will. I might have to do some revising (laughing). Yes, I was surprised at that appointment. Overwhelmed? My father gave me a sense of a can do attitude. So, generally, I love challenges. I look forward to this great opportunity to serve you people here. I think that challenge is tremendous. It will call forth a lot of time, energy, spirit, faith from me and a lot of time and prayer. But I welcome that challenge. I see my dad as having had a hand in that sense of ‘I can do it.’ On the other side is my mother, who gave a strong sense of faith about things. You have to rely on God. My mother probably had a heavier hand at teaching me the points of prayer. With that combination, I’ve always been able to tackle anything. I have to admit I allowed myself to accept challenges in ministry that were major ones  campus ministry, working with university students, working with seminary students in academic and spiritual direction ministries. So yes, that was a challenge. I acted temporarily as a spiritual director at Pontifical College Josephinum. When I said yes I said “Why did I say yes to that?” I had no training in spiritual formation. Later on I got it, but I didn’t then. I think we’re called when we are in ministry to allow the Lord to expand us. A little quotation I lifted somewhere, “God doesn’t always call the equipped but he equips the called.” And I think of that experience of Pope John XXIII. After it started to sink into him that he had just been elected pope he was having trouble falling asleep until the message came to him, perhaps by inspiration perhaps by the Lord, “Angelo, you’re only the pope.” Yes we are God’s humble servants; we’re not the Messiah, we’re not the Lord. We are just there to bring the message of the Lord in our own unique ways and being humble instruments of God’s divine plan.

Take us back to last week, when you received the phone call regarding your appointment to Charleston. Did you have any idea that this was forthcoming and what was your reaction?

I had just gotten back from my summer vacation in Ohio. The call came out of the blue and it was a total surprise. I was at my desk and amazingly I had another caller on the line and had to put the archbishop’s secretary on hold. I didn’t realize who it was. If I had known it was coming I would have been much more apprehensive. I prayed over the decision and I consulted with somebody that knew me well over the years before saying yes. The archbishop said he was now going to call my bishop and I said if Bishop Snyder says no I will go by his decision. But he said this is the Holy Father’s decision. I always wanted to do the will of my superiors and I trusted them to know what was God’s will for me.

Why do you think you were chosen to lead the Diocese of Charleston?

That’s the $64 question. I don’t have an answer to that really. The archbishop didn’t give me any reasons when he called he just said it was the Holy Father’s wish. All we can do is speculate. Perhaps that answer will become clearer to me in the day’s ahead. It probably will be. There’s a lot of investigation at the Vatican. A decision like this is not taken lightly. And I suspect that the decision had to have been arrived after a period of years perhaps of consideration. I don’t know. I never worked for the nunciature or the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops. I do know that there are personal and spiritual considerations and pastoral as well. The person’s faith, their loyalty to the Holy Father, understanding of the broad, deep teachings of the Church on matters of faith and morals, and the person’s track record of implementing those teachings in a pastoral way. I hope that my track record shows that I have been consistently faithful to the teachings of the Church and help lead my people closer to God over the years. As far as pastoral directions, I have been in about every conceivable form of ministry pastorally. While chaplain at the University of Florida I was also called upon to be chaplain on Death Row in Florida. It introduced me somewhat to the question of capital punishment. I’ve been blessed to have a broad pastoral background. I cherish most of all that parish pastoral background. So those are considerations that have probably something to do with it. We’ll probably found out in the days ahead.

How, if at all, will the appointment as bishop change your lifestyle or way of thinking?

I think Bishop Thompson would say it would have a radical effect on one’s lifestyle and one’s whole future life. That’s why the last few days have been sort of times of joy and times of turmoil because I know my life will be changed. The perspectives of service have been pastor and professor and now the perspective of service is to a wider group of people. I see myself as pastoring and shepherding everyone committed to my care. That’s a tremendous responsibility. I lived with a bishop for 13 years and he was on the hot seat and I saw it a lot of times. He had to make some very difficult decisions. Bishop Snyder always did it with great composure and with a smile on his face and I hope I can do the same.

Describe your management style.

It’s important to have a close knit collaborative team working together. Priests, religious, lay people, lay men and women, everybody being a team. I’m fortunate to have that Christ The King Parish. Most of the people were in place when I came, but we work very well together. It’s a happy home. I think that’s first priority. The people that are collaborating are working closely together. I see Bishop Thompson as having a great gift of fostering that. I think I’m walking into a team that is first rate. I will be blessed there. After that sense of working closely together with one another is established, I hope I can just delegate so much to the people around me. They will get to know my mind and I will get to know theirs. In that way, I can be out with the people and visiting the parishes and beating the bushes and finding out how I can be of greater help. The starting point is with my own diocesan staff and I look forward to that. And then visiting, as your shepherd has been so beautifully a bishop that’s out there with the people. I love what I’m doing and I know I’m going to love what I’ll be doing in the days ahead.

When you’re not in the office, what do you like to do to unwind?

Walking or jogging, I do that most every day, usually early in the morning. I also enjoy swimming. I have a little get-away place in Florida on a river near springs. I also enjoy canoeing. I have a canoe. I used to do racquetball and tennis quite a bit. Eventually I’ll get back into golf, as I know Bishop Thompson is a great golfer. I dropped it, but I hope to be able to get into that and have him take me out a few times. I think it’s important. You can’t talk about effectiveness in ministry unless there’s taking time out to unwind.

Do you have a special interest in any particular aspect of charitable works at the diocesan level?

I want to say first of all that all that’s in place I will follow-up on. I don’t want to give the impression of favoring one aspect of ministry over another. I will pick up exactly what you have here and support it 100 percent and continue to help develop the diocesan social ministries outreach. Every interest is a concern of mine. I think the Catholic Church has every reason to be proud. When Hurricane Hugo came through here you people were part of that tremendous outreach. You were devastated by it yourselves but you helped. When there’s a major need we’re there. When Hurricane Hugo came through here my administrative aide at the cathedral parish organized a convey to come here. As the need comes, I would be part of whatever effort within reason and our abilities to respond to it.

What would you like the people of Charleston to know about you?

I come as a parish priest with parish experience. See me as a pastor. Hopefully, in time, being called a friend. I would to see them as friends too.

Do you have a special devotion? A favorite prayer?

I taught sacramental theology for a period of time and I did my major work in the area of theology around sacraments from the dogmatic study standpoint. So I have a special love and I did in the seminary for the sacraments. This again connects somewhat with my parish experience  the sacraments are close to the heart of what our Catholic life is about, word and sacrament. Realizing something tremendous comes about every time there’s an encounter with the Lord. The chief one is the Mass, the liturgy. That’s the heart of it. When I went to Christ The King Parish in Jacksonville, my predecessor, Msgr. Mortimer Danaher, had established Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It is not perpetual. It begins with morning Mass and exposition after Communion and it goes until right before the 5:30 p.m. Mass five days a week. We encourage our parishioners to do a holy hour and we encourage our priests to do a holy hour and many do. We have adoration around the clock from first Friday to first Saturday. Msgr. Danaher told me when I came that the success of the stewardship time, talent, and treasure program that he had established there would flounder if you took away that adoration time. And I think he’s right. I’ve come to see that as a very important part of the success of parish ministry. We Americans tend to be problem solvers and doers, but we know really that the success of everything comes down to the Lord. We have to constantly remind ourselves of that and having adoration helped the parish to do a lot of good for a lot of people. The second thing, and I will share this with the priests, is my great devotion to the Liturgy of the Hours. We are not monks, and we don’t live the same type of lifestyle. But we are celibates and to that extent we do need the support and prayer of the Church. It was a Benedictine brother who helped me to see the value of the Liturgy of the Hours. I believe that is a strong help in realizing when you turn your concerns over to God in prayer, especially through the Liturgy of the Hours, that your words are God’s word. What happens is not such much what you do, but it’s God working through you. I believe that’s helped my priesthood out so tremendously. I get worried about certain things, how I will handle certain situations. Then I lift up that Liturgy of the Hours and pray those prayers and God shows me a way every time. I’ve got a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother. My mother conveyed that to me. When I was a teen-ager I found I had a bone disease which causes a calcium buildup in your knees, and I could not kneel for the first two years of my seminary life. I was surprised the seminary accepted me. That was a drawback, and it could have influenced whether I would have become a priest. My mother dragged me over to a shrine, Our Lady of Consolation, and we used to go over there and pray. And everything worked out OK  it healed, I didn’t have to have surgery. I’ve carried on a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother. I think she helped lead me to the priesthood. I also have a special devotion to Our Lady of Hope. My ordination is going to be on the feast of St. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. St. Michael has been a special patron of mine. I pray a prayer to him every morning and evening.

As we approach the new millennium, what do you see as the greatest challenges facing the Church, not only locally, but also nationally and worldwide?

I want to pick up on what Bishop Thompson has already done with the Synod. I plan on building upon the foundations and implementing the directions and I will learn more about that in the days ahead. Also, concerns that were outlined in the book Challenges of the ’80s, authored by one of my predecessors at Christ The King Parish who was also a bishop, Bishop Thomas Larkin, gives the following directions  vocations, family life, evangelization, ecumenism, and teaching doctrine. I think those still remain as challenges into the new millennium. We’re still grappling with how we do those better. I think, for example, there’s a connection between vocations and family life. How do we expect to have more vocations if our families aren’t together? Isn’t there a direct correlation between the decline in family life and the response to vocations? I think they’re tied together. That sense of welcoming is also a part of evangelization. You have so many new people coming here to this beautiful state and beautiful diocese. Being people who welcome the stranger. How do we become better at that as Catholics and learning ways to be people to greet the stranger and welcome the stranger who’s having to start over anew. I can sympathize with this special need. I always saw my parish life as being part of helping to welcome new people. Making ethnic groups, as they come into our midst, part of the wider community as best we can. I also see a strong need for work with youth. My parish just started Life Teen. I don’t say that’s the answer for every parish or every diocese. But it’s making a strong, concerted effort to reach out to our young people and doing that will have results. It’s at a time when so many things are happening to young people and they’re doing so much to one another with these tragedies we’ve heard and seen. We have to be visibly reaching out to them. I’m part of a stewardship parish and I’m learning more about it. I’ve been to two national stewardship conferences and I’m finding that tremendously helpful. Especially with us Americans, who are consumer oriented and struggling with materialism as a god. Stewardship helps us in a special way to see the spiritual value behind what God gives us, in that everything we have is his. I’ve learned a lot from the message and you have to provide the people with a strong spiritual foundation for that to work. Bishop Thompson has been at the forefront of promoting life issues. I have excerpts from the document he wrote on the consistent ethic of life issue  respect for all human life whether it is the unborn life in the womb, the life of a convicted criminal, or an innocent life whose sole crime has been to grow old and sick  and his solutions as well as one that our Church is promoting in Florida, that the death penalty is a dramatically more expensive legal strategy than life in prison without parole. We just had another execution in Florida this past week. What we’re trying to say is that people should not solve their problems and struggles with violence, to find another way to solve them. We as Church and society have to help educate people in this way, especially when the cycle of violence is growing. I think one reason in the past why so many people opted for capital punishment was the feeling that a life sentence did not mean a life sentence. That people would be out to victimize the citizenry again. But now, life means life. If there is a life sentence, it would mean life without parole. People should be aware that that option can make a difference. We can protect them from serious violent harm. I will read the Synod documents and work closely with Bishop Thompson to understand all that you have already accomplished.

I feel at home here. I come from a warm diocese with a bishop that has been very gracious and I walk into one that is just like that.