Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.

Author: John Janaro


by John Janaro

Priests are called to proclaim the saving truth of Jesus Christ in a direct manner, as his witnesses. For many priests in the United States today, the Gospel witness is a lonely one; not only has secular America become hostile to the Christian message, but also affairs of the Church in various parts of the country have fallen under the control of men who lack vision, a sense of the unity and universality of the Church, or even fidelity. In these places the faithful minister of Jesus Christ must often face a kind of psychological persecution: a relegation to an insignificant role in the life of his local church, and criticism-veiled or open-for being somehow "outdated" because of his loyalty to the teachings of the Church, as if the fullness of the Gospel had gone out of season.

"I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you" (Jn. 14:18). These priests have a great need for solidarity, consolation, and accurate information on the state of the Church in America and all over the world. They need a link to foster communication, stimulate legitimate opinion, and aid in the discernment of spirits that is so necessary to the present situation. For such purposes, modern media present a unique opportunity, and one magazine in particular has taken the lead in strengthening the bonds among priests, speaking to all those who are truly concerned about the Church of God. One can almost hear a chorus of priests sighing with joy and relief each month as they remove from the mailboxes the latest issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review, realizing that they are not alone.

Engaged full-time in this task of fostering priestly solidarity is a man who has seen many aspects of the priestly vocation-and many of its trials-in his own life. Father Kenneth Baker, SJ. brings a wealth of understanding-born of the Holy Spirit and experience-to his work as editor-in-chief of one of the most important magazines for priests in the English speaking world, infusing his efforts with the particular spirit that characterizes the Society of Jesus and has carried him through the whole of his priestly life: the habit of being a joyful and brave soldier of Christ. "For thy steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to thee" (Ps. 26:3).

The joy Fr. Baker brings to his brother priests, however, was a scarce commodity in Tacoma, Washington in November 1929, less than a month after the infamous Stock Market crash initiated the Great Depression that would paralyze America for a decade. Kenneth Sr. and Catherine Baker had been young and carefree in 1929, both working at well-paying jobs. By the time little Ken was born on November 12, however, they were greatly distressed about the future. Before a year had passed his parents divorced, and the baby was given to his maternal grandparents-Daniel and Mary Browne-to be raised. From that time on Ken would have little contact with his parents, and his home life centered on the Browne family where the two youngest children, an uncle and an aunt, still lived. Daniel Browne was a construction foreman and a dockworker, a burly man who had worked his way across the country from Nova Scotia, and still had a touch of the pioneer spirit that was rapidly disappearing from the west. When he had arrived in Spokane at the turn of the century it was little more than an outpost at the end of the frontier. In 1920 he moved his family to Tacoma, an infant port on the Puget Sound looking out toward the Pacific. Commerce with the Orient, however, enabled Tacoma to grow rapidly into an important center for shipping, and the Tacoma of Ken Baker's youth was a regular city with some of the color and a touch of the decadence that grows up around centers of trade.

Because of the confusing circumstances of his earliest years, young Ken had never been baptized. His father and his grandfather were not Catholic, and no one had ever brought him to the local church. The time had come, however, for him to go to school, and his grandmother-who was a practicing Catholic-decided that Ken should go to the school of St. Leo's parish, despite the fact that the parochial school was more expensive and less convenient than the local public school. So at the age of five Ken Baker was baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; at the time the boy thought very little of it, seeing it as just another part of starting school.

"Make me to know thy ways, O Lord, teach me thy paths" (Ps. 25:4). In retrospect, however, Fr. Baker sees the decision to go to Catholic school as a pivotal one in his life; not only did it provide the occasion for his baptism, it also provided the kind of environment in which his life in Christ could grow and flourish. The Franciscan Sisters who staffed St. Leo's had a dedication to the children and to their consecrated life that impressed Ken very deeply. It was the life of the sisters as a "witness to the transcendence of God" that was most instructive to Ken and gave him a depth of faith; nevertheless he showed no signs in his early school days that he would one day devote himself to the service of God. Ken was a normal boy, getting in and out of various kinds of trouble like other boys his age. "When I did wrong, though, I knew it," he remembers, reflecting on the kindness in confession that Fr. Augustine Krebsbach, the round and jolly Jesuit pastor of St. Leo's, always showed toward the children of the parish. Vocation, however, was the furthest thing from his mind at that time. Once in religion class, the sister asked the boys how many of them thought they might like to be priests. Every boy in the class raised his hand except one; Ken Baker sat at his desk, arms at his sides-he could not imagine himself ever being a priest.

When it came time for Ken to go to high school, he faced another important decision. The family was very poor; his grandfather had suffered a stroke and could no longer work. Grandmother supported the whole family earning $6.00 a week as a restaurant cook. Ken had hoped to go to Bellarmine High School but he knew he could never afford the $80.00 yearly tuition, a significant sum of money in those days. So Ken prepared to enroll in the public high school.

Here Ken faced another significant moment in his life, and an opportunity opened for him through the generosity of an uncle, who offered to pay the first year of Ken's tuition at Bellarmine, and to employ him so he could pay the rest of the tuition himself. Ken's uncle owned a restaurant-a diner with counters, booths, pinball machines, and fifty cent luncheon specials. For the next four years, Ken attended Bellarmine High School and worked afternoons and weekends at the diner, first as a dishwasher and then as a fry cook. During this time Ken grew to maturity, and his world was shaped by two major factors-the busy, varied, worldly life that continually poured through the diner, and the peace and power of the Jesuit life that formed the spirit of his school.

The restaurant work gave Ken the chance to become financially independent. At age sixteen he bought a car-a 1938 Dodge four door sedan. He was glad that his grandparents did not have to strain their own budget to support him, and his independence gave him a certain self-confidence and knowledge of the ways of the world. A good deal of that world passed through the diner while Ken flipped hamburgers at the grill behind the counter. The war was on, and three branches of the service had bases in Tacoma; this meant that the diner was always full of soldiers and sailors, bringing with them their appetites and their desire for a "good time." Also, some of the waitresses were prostitutes who used their job as a contact point for male customers. Everyone knew Ken-the grill was out in the open, and he could see everything that went on in the restaurant. The young man was well-liked, but he was struck by a sense of futility and lack of commitment that seemed to dominate the lives of so many people. His Aunt and Uncle were outstanding people, but their customers were as varied as the world itself; thus by the time he was a senior in high school Ken had learned many things about the secular world, and he had no illusions about its promises. "For they are a nation void of counsel, and there is no understanding in them" (Deut. 32:28).

Meanwhile Bellarmine was the center of a healthy and active adolescent life. At first Ken did not devote much time to his studies; he was caught up in the new-found excitement of social life-dances, parties, and girls. There were two Catholic girls' schools nearby, and Ken went on many dates, usually consisting of a movie and then rootbeer and hamburgers.

As a junior, however, Ken began to pay more attention to school; the thought occurred to him that he might like to go to college, something that no one in the family had ever done. He even thought about joining the navy and becoming a pilot. With these things in mind, Ken became a dedicated and successful student. And with this increase in his sense of responsibility came an increase in faith. During Lent of his junior year Ken decided to go to Mass every day; for the first time in his life he was going beyond the requirements of his faith-it was a glimpse of a call to draw more deeply into the mystery of Jesus.

Meanwhile Ken strove to become a leader among his peers. He ran for student body president and developed a sophisticated campaign. He had a friend who flew airplanes, and he paid him five dollars to drop five hundred "vote for Baker" fliers over the school. Unfortunately a steady wind blew the fliers away from the school grounds and scattered them all over the football field. The principal was not pleased and Ken found himself spending an afternoon picking fliers off the field. He lost the election.

Nevertheless Ken had plunged into the spirit of his school and was involved in many activities. Then, as a senior, he began keeping regular company with a cheerleader from one of the rival schools. As Ken Baker approached high school graduation he had a steady income, a car, and a girlfriend. It did not appear as though there was any room in the picture for the consideration of the priesthood.

But something was happening inside Ken. His high school life had introduced him to the reality of the charism of the Society of Jesus. Most of the high school teachers were Jesuit scholastics, men only a few years older than the students. Nevertheless these men were professed members of the Jesuit community and were preparing themselves for priesthood. There was a joy in their work, a purpose and direction that was a sharp contrast to the world of the diner. These men had discovered something-a sense of dedication, happiness, and service-that was shaping their entire lives, and this sense- this discovery-infused the spirit of Bellarmine High School. In this way it gradually touched Ken's heart, beginning with subtlety like an acorn and growing slow and steady like an oak.

"Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion" (Is. 52:1). In the spring of his senior year, the buds appeared. The chaplain at Bellarmine suggested to Ken that he might like to try the novitiate of the Society of Jesus. The suggestion took Ken by surprise, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized that the novitiate would give him the opportunity to discover the reality that lay behind the commitment that had so greatly impressed him-the foundation of the joyfulness that made the Jesuits so unique.

At this time Ken did not have any profound awareness of a priestly vocation. He only knew that he wanted to try the Jesuit life; there was something about it that seemed to embody all the things he hoped to be in his own life. His girlfriend Pat, needless to say, was not greatly pleased with Ken's new plans, but she respected and supported his decision. Thus on August 15,1947, Ken began two years of "courtship" as a Jesuit novice.

This was the time during which a young man would steep himself in the way of the Society, and the Society would carefully investigate its candidate. It was an intense life in a monastic framework, filled with a constant and regular regimen of prayer, work, and instruction-and, most importantly, learning the demands of obedience. "Blessed are all who take refuge in Him" (Ps. 1:11).

As the novitiate progressed, Ken found that his interest in the Jesuits had blossomed into love, and after two years he was ready to commit himself to the Society of Jesus, embracing all of its rigors and hoping for its rewards. On the feast of the Assumption 1949, Kenneth Baker took his perpetual vows. As he remembers it, "You commit yourself to the Society but the Society does not commit itself to you." A great deal of preparation lay ahead, but Ken was determined to persevere for as long as the Society of Jesus saw fit.

In any case the priesthood was still eleven years away. As the Jesuit system progressed, structured discipline became more relaxed and the candidate was expected to maintain the spiritual and intellectual life on his own motivation. First, there were two years of classical study, followed by three years of philosophy. Here Ken was able to develop more personal friendships, play a great deal of sports (which are always a major part of Jesuit recreation), and enjoy intellectual opportunities that gave him a lasting love for learning.

At the end of philosophical study, Ken became a scholastic, and was assigned to teach Latin and Greek at Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane. During these years Ken developed an ability and a liking for teaching. It appeared as though he would be making his mark behind the desk of a classroom.

With this in mind, the Provincial asked Ken if he wanted to go to Europe for theological study. Ken was excited about the prospect of studying with the Jesuit faculty at the University of Innsbruck, although at the time his academic major was Classics.

Within a year at Innsbruck, however, the excitement and challenge of theology had set him aflame. Ken realized that theology-with its capacity to deepen the whole perspective of faith-was where his future lay. The enthusiasm of the Innsbruck faculty combined with the unique atmosphere of the Austrian highlands made a deep impression. Ken became fluent in German, comfortable in getting around Europe, an expert skier, and a student with great interest and concern about theological matters in the Church. During this period he also became a sharer in the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

"My shield is with God, who saves the upright in heart" (Ps. 7:10). On July 26, 1960 Kenneth Baker was ordained at Holy Trinity Church in Innsbruck. He was a priest forever, in the soldierly spirit of St. Ignatius, the evangelical spirit of St. Francis Xavier, the intellectual spirit of St. Robert Bellarmine: a tradition of warriors for Christ, whose swords were justice, discernment and love. The Jesuits were trained to fight to the death, but their enemies were sin, ignorance, and error, and they strived continually to bring opponents of the Gospel to death in Christ Jesus-the "death" of conversion-so that they might rise again as friends and fellow soldiers.

For thirteen years the Society of Jesus had been fashioning a sword for Kenneth Baker: its hilt was a keen mind, its blade a disciplined application of skill sharpened by the sacramental powers of priesthood, and its scabbard a peaceful heart born of continual interior communication with Christ. It was a sword that would carry him through the significant and often perilous years that lay ahead.

After his final year of theology in 1961, Fr. Baker received the Licenciate degree and headed home. The last year of Jesuit training is the tertianship, a kind of "novitiate" into the world of preaching the Gospel, where the young priest prepares himself spiritually and exercises his priesthood in a variety of pastoral situations. Fr. Baker prepared to do his tertianship in his home state of Washington, but upon his return he found himself bound for a teaching position at Gonzaga University. The philosophy department desperately needed another teacher, so the Provincial asked Fr. Baker to postpone his tertianship and fill in temporarily. Fr. Baker lectured for two years on logic, philosophy of man, and philosophy of God. After his long awaited tertianship in 1963, Fr. Baker looked over his theological background and decided that he needed more familiarity with Sacred Scripture. With this in mind he asked to pursue his graduate degree in Marquette University's religious studies program. He received his Ph.D. in 1967, and returned to Gonzaga University to join the theological faculty as an assistant professor.

During this time Fr. Baker became aware of a sudden and swift current of innovation that seemed to seize hold of the universities and the priests and nuns who staffed them. Gonzaga was different when he returned in the fall of 1967. Nuns were beginning to remove their habits and lose their religious identity. Priests, seminarians, and nuns would gather for "beer parties" on the campus. Fr. Baker attended a few of these parties out of a desire to see and understand what was going on, and he quickly sensed an unhealthy spirit, a breakdown in the commitment to a complete and exclusive following of Christ, a haze dimming the witness to the reality of eternal life. "For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing...." (Mt. 13:15).

Fr. Baker knew that this spirit was a false one, and his response was to draw more closely to the spirit of the Church, the guidance that manifested the voice of the Holy Spirit. "Both arms around the Pope, that's my principle," Fr. Baker notes when reflecting on these times. With this principle firmly in mind, he became chairman of the theology department in 1968. In the summer of that year Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church's teaching on sexuality and its inseparable connection to life and love. Catholic university professors all over America rose in rebellion; Gonzaga's faculty, however, remained loyal and gave a series of lectures in support of Humanae Vitae. Fr. Baker preached it from the pulpit of the Jesuit Church in Spokane.

As he gained experience in both academics and administration, Fr. Baker began to develop a strong sense of what was needed to preserve and advance a truly apostolic character in Catholic education. ". . . be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Mt. 10:16). He began publishing articles and delivering lectures on the topic, and his perspective-with its emphasis on bringing out the specifically Christian identity of Catholic educational institutions-began to attract attention. A sermon he preached on Catholic education at the opening Mass of the Jesuit University of Seattle was especially well received. In a period when many Catholic colleges were "secularizing" by turning over control of their institutions to lay boards of directors, Fr. Baker was defending the preservation of ecclesiastical affiliation, and he was instrumental in securing Jesuit control in the revised charter of Gonzaga.

". . . the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things . . ." (Jn. 14:25). Fr. Baker longed to imbue the institutions he served with that same Jesuit spirit of solidarity and service that had played such an important part in his years of school. And he was trying to accomplish this as a teacher and an administrator in the midst of one of the most stormy periods in the history of Catholic education- indeed of all education. But the strongest winds were yet to blow.

On Thanksgiving weekend of 1969, the Provincial called Fr. Baker into his office. He had made a decision: the president of Seattle University was to be replaced, and the Provincial had decided to appoint Fr. Baker. The news came as quite a shock to a man who had just celebrated his 40th birthday. In retrospect Fr. Baker wishes that he had had more experience in dealing with people before taking the job; at that time, however, neither he nor his superiors had anticipated the turmoil that was to come.

On February 1,1970, Fr. Baker was installed as president of Seattle University. Within a few months the Kent State killings and the invasion of Cambodia touched off a wave of campus radicalism all across the country. Student riots plagued Seattle University all year; many of them-Fr. Baker was convinced-were manufactured by professional agitators. Revolutionary organizations threatened Fr. Baker's life, and for three weeks at one point he had 24-hour police protection. People broke into his office and smashed furniture. On two occasions mobs of students forced their way into Fr. Baker's office, holding him a virtual prisoner while they shouted their complaints and demands. The situation was desperate, but Fr. Baker saw no willingness to dialogue on the part of these student radicals; they were not even raising responsible issues or objections. He perceived that the agitation was designed to wreak havoc on the school, and his conclusion was that he must remain firm. "Cleave to him and do not depart" (Sir. 2:3).

The policy might have succeeded if all those involved in the university had supported it. Several benefactors and other influential people, however, favored a conciliatory approach, and began to press for Fr. Baker's resignation. ". . . no city or house divided against itself will stand" (Mt. 12:25). Caught between radical student politics and divided perspectives on school policy, Fr. Baker realized that he would not be able to implement his vision of Catholic education-he could not even effectively govern the university. So, after nine rocky months as president, Fr. Baker resigned, greatly discouraged because it seemed as though he had failed. Failure was a new experience for Fr. Baker, yet it was the experience of the cross and in this respect it touched upon the central element of his priesthood, the deepest meaning of conformity to the Person of Christ. "Thou hast been to me a fortress and a refuge in the day of my distress" (Ps. 59:56). It is not surprising, then, that his "failure"-which had resulted from his own uncompromising adherence to principle and his conscientious assessment of the situation-touched off a series of events that would bring him to New York and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

"You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice" (Is. 66:14). In reality, Fr. Baker had only lost a battle. William Buckley admired his stand at Seattle and invited him to New York as a guest on "Firing Line." It was in New York in December of 1970, while at a restaurant with Fr. Baker and another Jesuit, that Fr. Daniel Lyons (laicized in 1976) unveiled an idea to buy the faltering and nearly bankrupt Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and Kenneth Baker-who was suddenly in need of a new assignment-seemed the perfect choice for Editor-in-Chief.

The whole plan was suddenly set in motion. Their Provincial gave his approval, and Lyons set up a company that bought the magazine on a three year payment plan. Fr. Baker returned to Washington, packed his bags and moved to New York. By April 1971 the first issue was ready, featuring a prominent editorial by the new editor: "Catholic and Proud of it" The principle that guided his academic work-indeed his whole life as a Christian-became operative in a new circumstance, a new task: "We came out four square in favor of the Pope and the magisterium."

"Faithfulness will spring from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky" (Ps. 85:11). Fr. Baker soon found that priests all over America were looking for a trustworthy voice, a voice that would echo the Holy Father and provide a focal point for unity and instruction. Almost immediately there were four thousand new subscribers, and letters poured in from priests in distress, so thankful to find a "beacon of light in a dark storm."

Thus for the last sixteen years Homiletic and Pastoral Review has been Fr. Baker's main occupation. Each day he must answer a large volume of mail, much of which involves questions about the teaching of the Church or other points of information regarding Catholic things. ". . . Let us hold true to what we have attained" (Phil. 3:16). As a magazine identifiably dedicated to the authentic teaching mission in the Church, HPR is a magnet for articles on almost all Church topics from a perspective loyal to the See of Peter. Unsolicited manuscripts arrive at a rate of one per day, and Fr. Baker reads, evaluates, and accepts or rejects each one promptly.

In addition, one of the most significant aspects of HPR is its series of homilies for every Sunday and Holy Day of the year. Fr. Baker solicits a cycle of homilies one year in advance from a variety of priests who are noted for their fidelity to the teaching of the Church. He hopes that these homilies will serve as a wellspring of ideas for priests as they prepare their Sunday sermons. Fr. Baker hopes in this way to reach a large percentage of Catholics who attend Sunday Mass, which is possible given the fact that HPR comes to nearly half the parishes in the United States.

Also, of the 14,000 subscriptions, 2200 go overseas to Rome, Africa, missionaries in Japan and India and other parts of Asia. Today the HPR reaches all of the English- speaking world, and has received the encouragement of more than one official in the Roman Curia.

"While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light" (Jn. 12:36). The necessity and success of HPR convinced Fr. Baker of the need to branch out into other sectors of the media. In 1974 Fr. Lyons founded Catholic Views Broadcasts, Inc. When Lyons left the active ministry in 1975, Fr. Baker took over as Director. Every week since 1975 this company has produced a fifteen minute interview program called "Views of the News," which is syndicated to over 100 radio stations The program features prominent Catholic commentators addressing timely issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, pornography, communism, and situations in foreign countries, from the perspective of Catholic social teaching.

The media work of Fr. Baker received the support of many important people in New York. Among them was Cardinal Paul Yu-Pin of Taiwan, who provided office space for the magazine and radio apostolates at his New York residence-86 Riverside Drive in Manhattan. Here Fr. Baker has added another area of expertise to his repertoire: Chinese cuisine. He and Fr. Paul Chan of the Chinese Catholic Information Center co- authored a booklet titled How to Order a Real Chinese Meal that takes the reader through a bit of history and geography as well as providing a road map for making the most of a menu in a Chinese restaurant.

After several years of producing an intellectually oriented magazine directed primarily toward priests, Fr. Baker decided to initiate a pocket-size, inspirational, lay-oriented magazine as well. Thus, in 1978, Key to Happiness was born. Key takes a positive tone, offering devotions, lives of the saints, prayer, and experiences of God's grace and healing. This small magazine has a subscription of 25,000, and when Fr. Baker goes on a lecture tour it is often the thing people immediately identify: "Oh that Key, I carry that with me wherever I go, I give it to my friends, I just love it."

When he is not supervising operation and production in his multi-faceted media apostolate, Fr. Baker attends important meetings of Church leaders-not only to report on a significant story, but also to get a sense of the pulse of the Church. Among the meetings he never misses are the annual bishop's meeting and the international Synods in Rome. More recently he has increased his involvement in the work of fostering spirituality, regularly giving retreats and leading European pilgrimages. He also provides spiritual direction and exhortation for three convents in the New York City area.

"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forebearance" (Phil. 4:4). All these activities make up the days and months in the life of Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ. In each of them he is decidedly priest and Jesuit-this means that he is a leader, and also a man who may be compelled to suffer because of the leadership he provides in response to the call of the Spirit. It is a leadership, however, whose effects are felt across America, giving form and direction to a wide section of the Church in the United States by manifesting the whole Church of Christ, united and universal. Fr. Baker succeeds in providing this leadership because he stays close to the Church, always seeking to discern her direction in the spirit of faithfulness to the Gospel. Loyal Jesuit that he is, Fr. Baker has seized hold of that Gospel and raised it in proclamation with courage and joy. This proclamation has a vitality that touches and enlivens those priests who rely on his work, drawing them ever more closely to Jesus, to the Jesus who says "I am with you all days . . ." (Mt. 28:20).

This is Chapter Two of the book, "Fishers of Men," published in 1986 by Trinity Communications.