From football field to mission field: a Jesuit journey

 

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From football field to mission field: a Jesuit journey

 

By Gene Fadness
Editor

BOISE – As Kyle Baker was considering colleges where he could play football, Carroll College in Helena, Mont., with a reputation for conference and national football championships, ranked high on his list.

An added bonus was that the school was not too far from his Coeur d'Alene home, and he had friends at Carroll "who were having a good time."

Not a factor in his decision-making is the fact that Carroll College is a Catholic school. In fact, Baker didn’t know the school was Catholic when he set foot on campus for his first football practice in 2001. He did not know much about religion or faith. His father’s family had roots in the Friends Church (Quaker), but neither of his parents were religious. His parents divorced when he was very young. 

The first time he really noticed Carrolls Catholicity was before the first game when the team went to Mass together. 

When asked his first impression of a Catholic Mass, Baker said, “The first thing you learn about Catholicism is that you are not Catholic. Everyone is standing up and sitting down and reciting things you don’t know.” 

Still, he found the experience good for team building. “It’s such a unique setting to be in a dorm chapel with 120 football players, not the most serious or reverent group of people in the world, and yet still feel this very strong, communal experience. The priests who celebrated the Masses were really good. They knew they were dealing with 100 meathead football players, so they were easy on us and spoke about things that were really relevant to us.” 

Baker eventually became the starting center of the team that won four national NAIA championships. Becoming Catholic did not seriously enter his mind until his senior year. 

“The ritual was drawing me. I think, for me, that attraction to ritual comes from being an athlete. There is something grounding about it that was good for me,” he said. “Plus I started to get to know people at Carroll who I perceived to be really good people, and that goodness seemed to be linked to their practice of their faith. I had mentors who were really serious practicing Catholics, and I noticed the correlation between their faith and the way they lived their lives.” 

"Looking back on that senior year, I really think that God seemed to be inviting me to faith."

By the time he decided he wanted to take RCIA, the class was already well into its study year. He spoke with the campus minister about a fast track that could get him caught up to his class before graduation. He was told that only the bishop could approve such a move. “Cool, who’s that?” Baker asked. First, the campus chaplain suggested, maybe he should meet first for a few hours with a priest. He did that, and then sought a meeting with Bishop George Thomas (now bishop of Las Vegas).

With Bishop Thomas’ approval, he began RCIA in late February, but also met an extra day each week with the campus minister to catch up to the rest of the class. The bishop told him that if he had any hestitation, that was OK. “I will promise you that I will support you, but if you decide to join, I want this to be a lifelong decision,” the bishop told him.

He was received into the church at Easter 2006, two weeks before graduation. Many non-Catholic friends attended as did his family members “who were glad I wasn’t doing something self-destructive.”

As his bishop requested, his decision meant lifelong change. “I knew it would be a change of life, not just going to Mass.” He immediately began working at a diocesan summer camp. He used his degree in sports management and business administration to teach at St. Joseph Catholic School in Missoula.

During the summer months, he enrolled in an Alliance for Catholic Education graduate program through the University of Notre Dame, earning his Master of Education degree. He then taught 5th grade in an inner-city school in San Antonio and coached high school athletics.

He worked as an education consultant and later in young adult ministry for the Diocese of Syracuse. In 2013, an opportunity came to return to his beloved Carroll College, this time as chief of staff to the president of the college, then Dr. Thomas Evans, a position he held for three years. (Evans is now president of the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.)

Seriously considering priesthood did not happen until after a conversation Baker had with Evans. The idea had first been broached to him when he was in campus ministry at Syracuse University. His response was to “laugh out loud,” he said. “Vows of poverty, chastity and obedience didn’t seem that exciting to me.”

Dr. Evans made him think about it more seriously.“We were on his back porch after work and he mentioned that he had gone to Georgetown (University) and that I made him think of some of the Jesuits at Georgetown.” Baker said he quickly offered up a dismissive response to which Evans responded, “That’s a really terrible answer. I am your friend and I am trying to tell you that I see something in you that I saw in my friends at Georgetown and you just kind of blow off the question. I want you to promise me that you will consider it.”

That conversation was a game-changer for Baker. He took a year to discern, with the aid of a Jesuit vocation director in Portland. In 2016, he left what could have been a lifelong career at Carroll to enter into the novitiate house in Culver City, Calif. After two years, he enrolled at Fordham University in New York City to study philosophy.

The ministry at Bronco Catholic is part of the Regency portion of his Jesuit formation, the 2- to 3-year period that Jesuits become involved in active ministry, typically in an educational setting. After this, will come about three years of study in theology before ordination.

Getting to return to his native Idaho has been a “big surprise,” Baker said, and certainly a change from life in the Bronx.

 

 

 

 
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