by Joe Bollig
Twelve years ago, if you had asked Rick and Terri Baker who in their family had a religious vocation, the answer would have been easy.
It was their oldest son Luke who entered St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison in 2003.
Meanwhile, their youngest son Carl was starting college life at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. He was going to study physics, play soccer and meet girls.
“He is a very personable person,” said Terri. “He’s good-looking, and charming, and athletic, and smart. He’s got everything. And all this time I’m thinking, ‘OK, he’s going to get married, and that’s the girl he’s going to marry, and that’s what his kids are going to look like.’”
But the God of surprises had other ideas.
As things turned out, Luke found his true vocation in the married life and Carl entered St. Benedict’s Abbey. He professed his first vows on Aug. 15, 2009, receiving the name Simon, and made solemn vows on Aug. 4, 2012. He was ordained Father Simon by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann on April 25.
When God became the distraction
Father Simon — baptized Carl Simon Baker — is one of five children of Rick and Therese “Terri” Baker. He grew up in Independence, Missouri, and the family belonged to St. Regis Parish in Kansas City, and then St. Mark the Evangelist Parish, also in Independence.
Growing up, Father Simon was “all boy,” said Rick.
“He was just a fanatic about sports,” said Rick. “If it was a ball and could be picked up, thrown or kicked — he picked it up, threw it and kicked it.”
Father Simon went through Catholic grade schools, then graduated from Archbishop O’Hara High School in 2003.
His thoughts about the priesthood while growing up were few and fleeting.
“I had been asked by a couple of folks, maybe a teacher or coach, if I was interested in the priesthood,” said Father Simon. “I sang in the choir and served at Mass, so I was familiar enough with what I thought a priest was. I liked helping people, and I thought, ‘Yeah, I think I can see myself doing that.’
“And then a pretty girl would walk by and I’d get distracted. If I ever thought about it for any length of time, it was not a serious notion.”
When he got to Rockhurst University, however, he found that pretty girls weren’t the only distraction.
The first of two major challenges was the notion he encountered that science can explain all things and denies God.
“It is said about philosophy that a little philosophy makes a person an atheist, whereas a lot of philosophy makes a person a Christian,” said Father Simon. “So it is with the physical sciences. A little science makes one think the material world is self-sufficient and that God is superfluous.
“A lot of science, however, makes one appreciate the incredible handiwork of our beautiful Creator,” he continued. “In my early college years, I only had a little science and a little philosophy. Now, I see the whole picture and marvel at his artistry.”
The second challenge was college life.
“I was playing college sports. And while I wasn’t crazy, I was caught up in some of the things college athletics has a notorious reputation for,” said Father Simon. “More than anything, I was caught up in that crowd.”
Making the great escape
Looking to occasionally get away from the noise of that life, Father Simon began to visit his brother Luke at St. Benedict’s Abbey, sometimes staying for a couple of days.
“He and I would have long conversations about God and faith and heaven,” said Father Simon. “A light was shone on all of my studies and my life. And all of a sudden, things began making sense.”
St. Benedict’s Abbey became very special to him.
“When I came up to visit Luke, I found a lot of peace and prayer in the monastery,” said Father Simon. “Everything was so rightly ordered. Everything made sense. I felt a peace with God’s call. I came up there to the monastery, and everyone was living good and holy lives. It was kind of liberating.”
His mother also gave him a book about the life of Christ. He tore through that book and then several others.
“As I was reading them, Jesus became not just a concept or a historical figure way in the past, but a real person — someone I could really follow, especially in the Eucharist,” said Father Simon.
“In the Eucharist, Christ is no less present here today than he was 2,000 years ago,” he said. “He just doesn’t walk and talk the same. So, all of a sudden, it was. ‘Hey, I can really follow my desire of leaving everything and following Christ.’”
As Luke discerned his true vocation was outside of the monastery in married life, his brother began to discern that his vocation might be inside. Quietly, telling hardly anyone except Luke, he came to the realization that he had a vocation to religious life and the priesthood.
But there were many options: Diocesan or order priest? And which order? How would he choose?
Luke gave him some good advice: If God is calling you to a particular place in life, he will do the groundwork for you to get you to that place.
Nobody saw that one coming
And that was exactly what happened.
“What really attracted me was the [monastic] vow of obedience,” said
Father Simon. “I’m interested in doing all kinds of things — being a military chaplain, hospital chaplain, chaplain to Sisters, campus minister. Monks at the monastery do, or have done, all those things.”
The vow of obedience, he said, is a guarantee he’s doing God’s will.
Naturally, when he told his parents, they were surprised, but pleased.
“I didn’t see that coming,” said Terri.
Nor did Abbot James — then the prior and vocations director.
“I called [Abbot James] and said, ‘I’d like to have an application to become a monk,’” said Father Simon. “I never told him anything. He never expected me. I’d never been on a vocation visit. I had just come up to see Luke.
“It was a complete surprise to him, and he said, ‘Oh, oh, OK, why don’t you come up for a vocation visit first?’ I said, ‘OK,’ but in my mind I’m thinking, ‘Nope, I’m joining and going to make solemn vows and become a priest.’ I was already in.”
Father Simon entered the monastery in August 2008. He’d taken the first step and became a postulant.
It was exactly what he’d been hoping it would be.
“The main thing that has kept me here is the beauty of the community and the life of prayer I’ve discovered here,” said Father Simon. “Prayer is the key to the whole thing.”
So far, there haven’t been a lot of surprises. He knew about monastery life long before he began to think about a vocation. There’s a lot to like about being a monk.
“[The American Benedictines] really hold tight to both the contemplative and active aspects of religious life,” said Father Simon. “It’s not all one or the other. So for me, the monastery life is the best of all worlds. It’s not perfect, but, done well, it’s the best of all worlds.”