By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
A sharing of faith, values, and hope is a trademark characteristic of Bishop Robert J. Baker’s priesthood. He has used those gifts to lay foundations for the Catholic Church of tomorrow through his ministry to youth and young adults.
As a religion instructor at Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, Fla., from 1970 to 1972, and as administrator of St. Augustine Parish and Catholic Student Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville from 1976 to 1981, Bishop Baker has set an example and gently seen to the spiritual needs of young people.
“I generally feel that people in college and university should be people who bring hope to the future because hope is a practical virtue, and it devises the means to help people out of misery, both spiritual and emotional,” he said. “Young people should look at themselves as ambassadors of hope. They have a very important mission.”
As their pastor, Father Baker tried to help students see their mission, and he left a lasting impression, according to his successor, Father John Gillespie.
First of all, the present pastor said the Diocese of Charleston’s new bishop left him in secure holdings. During his assignment Father Baker managed to fix up the center’s facilities with very little money. He also saw to a primary need of faith — providing for baptism by overseeing the building of a baptismal pool/font in the courtyard of the church.
“In fact, the young man that built the fountain was the first to be baptized in it,” Father Gillespie said.
The Catholic student center is a large, nonterritorial parish that was founded in 1923 to serve the University of Florida students and faculty. The school has a current enrollment of more than 45,000 students at UF and 15,000 more at nearby Sante Fe Community College. The center houses a residence hall and chapel. The original center, which first housed 23 Catholic students, was torn down in 1958 and replaced with a larger building.
The church seats approximately 900 people and has a gathering hall which includes a small library, kitchen, offices, student room, and rectory.
Father Baker’s last major act before turning the center over to his successor was raising two-thirds of the $75,000 necessary to repair the Catholic student center roof.
“The most outstanding thing he left for us all though was founding a soup kitchen in response to very difficult financial times in 1977,” Father Gillespie said. “There was an oil crisis, and we were all lining up to buy gas on alternate days. Students from the university were coming to the student center to ask for food. These were not street people, but students trying to make it from aid check to aid check. Bob decided to try to do something more substantial than give them peanut butter and jelly.”
Father Baker, with the help of students and parish volunteers, organized the St. Francis Soup Kitchen in 1980. It has continued operation for 20 years serving meals seven days a week. It operated out of St. Francis Hall at the student center for the first 15 years, but a new facility was built in downtown Gainesville to combine St. Francis Soup Kitchen and St. Francis House.
“The greatest thing that he witnessed to this parish was his vision and energy,” Father Gillespie said. “He had a very deep effect. More than anything he witnessed to students and faculty the need to care for the hungry and poor in their community and showed them how to do it.”
Deep conviction was also a gift from Father Baker to his students. He was an outspoken opponent of capital punishment and was among leaders in symbolic protests and prayer vigils.
Father Gillespie, who is a schoolmate of Father Baker from the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio, said that he has always taken an ecumenical approach to his outreach. He cited the new bishop’s doctoral dissertation in theology as an example.
“He wrote about a Methodist theologian,” he explained. “Bob told me that when he chose it, he … thought it would be helpful to look at a Protestant theologian who had deep things to say about sacramental theology.
“It shows his constant attention to ecumenical concerns,” Father Gillespie continued. “He could easily have run the soup kitchen as a Catholic affair, but was quick to bring others in to share. When it came to capital punishment, Bob was always looking to build consensus with as much support as possible with ministers who were Jewish Protestant, Hindu and Moslem.”
Bishop Baker said he was inspired at the participation and direction of the students and the community at the time.
“I saw young people making commitments of life that were phenomenal, and they’re still part of those commitments,” he said. “The soup kitchen in Gainesville got off the ground with the help of generous people and college students. Young people have the spirit of generosity and hope, in addition to their enthusiasm.”
Pastors at college campuses experience unique stresses when compared to parish life, however. Student churches undergo a constant turnover in parishioners and have a different personality.
“You don’t have the luxury of working with the same people over long period of time,” Father Gillespie allowed. “The bulk of students are between the ages of 18 to 27, and they are going through a great deal of maturation and life changes at that point. During that time, as a result of the stretching, crises and growing they experience, they often want a lot of personal attention. They want to sit for hours and hours and talk and receive spiritual direction. Students in those days were still seeing things more in black and white.”
Looking back at his campus ministry days, Bishop Baker agreed.
“College students don’t sit on the fence, they are either all out in generous, genuine service of God and neighbor, or often they’ll go in the other direction for a long period of time,” he recalled. “They have a certain enthusiasm and zest that is typical of that age group. They also have a certain authenticity or commitment that is the grace of youth.”
Though it is an enthusiastic and exciting ministry, priests on college campuses are more often at the giving end of time and effort. They also operate with less monetary input.
“There is a lot of taking and not much giving back in gratitude,” Father Gillespie allowed. “If you believe strongly in value of shaping young minds and practice in values, you know the impact is going out in ripples like a stone dropped in a lake. You know you had something to do with it. It takes someone with confidence to be affirmed. Bob had that.”
He described why his friend was a popular campus minister: “He is funny and friendly, yet sincere and makes easy and lasting friendships. He does not have a heavy kind of devotion. He has laughter, brightness, and unassumingness.”
He also praised his fellow priest for his humility and described him as solid and capable.
“His heart always goes out to the poor,” Father Gillespie said of his friend. “He’s someone who would match Jesus’s description in Luke’s Gospel Chapter 4 at the synagogue service when he said that this is the time for the jubilees, for the poor to have good news preached to them and prisoners to find release. Jesus tried to describe himself and his concerns, and those would fit Bob very well.”