By LINDA BEHRENS
“Becoming a priest or a man or woman religious is not primarily our own decision…. Rather it is the response to a call and to a call of love.”
– Pope Francis, Address to Seminarians and Novices, July 6, 2013
The idea of becoming a priest can enter one’s heart at any age: in elementary school, high school, college or many years after college.
For Ben Baker, it started in 2019 during a spring break trip to the Holy Land with students from the University of Illinois.
Baker, whose home parish is St. Joseph in Olney, graduated from the University of Illinois in December 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. At that time, he contacted the Diocese of Belleville asking to be accepted into the seminary. There currently are six seminarians in the diocese.
At the request of Bishop Michael McGovern, Baker has spent this spring serving St. Joseph in Cobden with Father Uriel Salamanca, who is a missionary priest from Colombia. Baker helps however he is needed at the parish, especially at Mass.
In turn, Father Salamanca has been teaching Baker Spanish and Hispanic customs and about his ministry to the Hispanic population in southern Illinois.
In mid-May, Baker joined a Christ in the City mission trip to Denver, led by the campus ministry department at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. They worked with those who are homeless in Denver.
“We need to recognize the humanity in every person,” Baker says. “Even if you don’t know what to do when you encounter someone who is homeless, recognize them. See their humanity.”
His summer assignment is with his home parish in Olney.
At the direction of the Bishop, Baker has applied to Kenrick-Glennon College Seminary in St. Louis and hopes to begin the six-year program in August. Once completed, he will have earned a master’s degree in divinity.
Baker, 23, says he has been trying to grow in his faith, to grow in holiness. “We should all be doing that,” he says.
He has been reading the stories of the apostles and disciples of Jesus. “He calls them to something more. They say, ‘Yes,’ and their lives are changed,” he adds.
“Everyone has a vocation,” Baker says. “I realized God was trying to call me to something. I needed to figure out if I was listening.”
Baker knows that during the next year to year and a half, he will be more intent in asking God these questions.
“I know I had fears of going to the seminary and becoming a priest,” he says. “But a lot of these fears are going away. I still have some doubts, but I realize now I could be happy doing this. I want to take the next steps.”
Baker says his family has been supportive, and they know this is important to him.
“My mom is a little worried,” he says. “But my grandparents, who are very devout Catholics, are especially supportive. My grandpa told me he hopes he is still alive to see me ordained.”
Entering the seminary, which is the stage that Baker is in right now, is not the same as a commitment to the priesthood. It is the beginning of a six- or eight-year discernment process. Because Baker already has an undergraduate degree, his process will include two years of pre-theology or the study of philosophy followed by four years of major seminary or the study of theology.
Father Steven Beatty is the director of vocations for the Diocese of Belleville. Father Nickolas Junker is the director of seminarians. Both priests and the vocations team for the diocese work with those who are interested in religious formation.
“Our office is here to help encourage this discernment,” Father Beatty says. “If young people are considering the possibility, we hope they listen to whether or not God is calling them.”
Father Beatty says, “Ben isn’t becoming a priest because he was talked into it or it looks like a promising career. He believes God is calling him.”
Men and women discerning a religious vocation don’t go through the discernment process alone. The diocese and the seminaries provide resources, encouragement and wisdom along the way.
In his role as director of seminarians, Father Junker, along with others, have regular contact with the seminarians throughout their education.
“Each seminarian receives visits by me, the Bishop and his pastor throughout the year,” Father Junker says. “I also meet with the faculty, the people responsible for his formation, to get progress reports and convey updates to the Bishop.”
They also receive moral support, prayerful support and financial assistance, as needed.
“My advice to those discerning a priestly vocation,” Father Junker says, “is to have an openness and docility to the will of God and to those responsible for his formation – his spiritual director, formation advisor, academic professors, priests, laypeople and classmates – to all who are guiding him. I encourage them to have an openness to being formed. We can’t do it by ourselves.”
Father Junker adds, “Go to the seminary with an open heart. Be ready for the Lord to do his work.”
Both Fathers Beatty and Junker agree that if the discernment process finds a young man is not called to a priestly vocation, it is still a successful discernment.
“A seminarian may discern this is not God’s call for him. If so, the seminary still did its job to find his call, even if it is to another way of life,” Father Junker says.
St. Andrew Dinners
St. Andrew Dinners, offered by the Vocations Office of the Diocese of Belleville, provide opportunities for young men to learn more about the priesthood.
The next dinner will be held at 5 p.m. Sunday, July 18, at St. Mary Parish in Carlyle.
These dinners give young men of high school and college age, along with their parents, a chance to gather with Bishop Michael McGovern, Vocation Director Father Steven Beatty and some of the parish priests for a low-key evening of supper and conversation about the priesthood.
“I think it is important for us to offer opportunities for young men (along with their parents) to hear more about what it’s like to be a priest, what goes into the decision to pursue the seminary or religious life, and what are the skills you need to develop in order to hear God’s voice,” said Bishop McGovern.
“Both young men and their parents have many good questions that they would like answered as they consider the future.”
If you are interested in attending one of the St. Andrew Dinners or have any questions, please contact Father Beatty at [email protected] or 618-722-5035.