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Bishop Baker of Birmingham reflects on being a shepherd, scandals, and the South

“I agree with Pope Benedict XVI that the origins of the scandals we’re experiencing are related to the changing sexual mores in society that we really began to see in the 1960s.”

Bishop Robert J. Baker of Birmingham, Ala. and other U.S. bishops from Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee concelebrate Mass in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 5, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Bishop Robert J. Baker, 75, has served as bishop of the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama, since 2007.  He was born in Ohio and began pursuing his studies for the Diocese of Toledo, but as there were “too many priests” for the diocese in the 1960s, he accepted an invitation by the Bishop of St. Augustine, Florida, Joseph Hurley (1894-1967) to study for the priesthood for the Diocese of St. Augustine, which at the time made up much of the State of Florida.  “Toledo was heavily Catholic at the time,” he recalls, “and St. Augustine was more of a missionary diocese with fewer Catholics, so I wanted to go.”

In 1970, he was ordained a priest for St. Augustine and served in the diocese for the next 29 years. He pursued doctoral studies in Rome during this time, and served as a parish priest, in the seminary and as a campus minister.  He was named Bishop of Charleston, South Carolina in 1999, and Bishop of Birmingham in 2007.  In accordance with canon law he submitted his resignation as Bishop of Birmingham last year upon turning 75.

The Diocese of Birmingham is located in the northern part of Alabama, and encompasses over 28,000 square miles.  It is home to 104,000 Catholics, or about 3.5% of the population, and 54 active priests.  It is also home to a variety of religious communities, such as the Christ the King Monastery in Cullman, as well as the world headquarters of Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), founded in Birmingham by Mother Angelica in 1981.  While there are big cities, such as Birmingham, much of the region is scenic and rural, and is part of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

CWR: What is the status of your resignation?

Bishop Robert J. Baker: My letter of resignation was accepted, but I was given no information as to when my replacement will be named or who he will be.  The speculation is that he will be named in April, but we don’t know.  This is Confirmation time, so I’m doing Confirmations in the diocese, and I anticipate celebrating Holy Week and Easter as Bishop of Birmingham.  My predecessor, Bishop Foley, was very helpful to me when I arrived in Birmingham, and I look forward to helping my successor.

CWR: What are you planning to do in retirement?

Bishop Baker: I am open to helping out in any way I can in this diocese, as well as in St. Augustine. St. Augustine’s bishop, Bishop Felipe Estévez, and I are close and I would be happy to assist him.

Providing the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be a main thrust of my ministry; I will also be staying at Camp Tekakwitha in our diocese and helping with retreats.  I also have a devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, so I’ll be going back to Assisi for a time and learning Italian.

CWR: What have been some of your key initiatives since you came in the diocese?

Bishop Baker: When I was pastor of a parish at the University of Florida in Gainesville, there was a spike in the homeless population nationwide.  The government cut off its funding for mental institutions and many people wound up on the streets and came knocking on the doors of our churches for help.  We started a ministry, St. Francis House, which is still in operation today.  I brought that initiative to Birmingham, and started a similar ministry here.

In 2019, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our diocese, we held a Eucharistic Conference at our Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center which drew 5,000.  We had Bishop Estévez and Archbishop Christophe Pierre deliver keynote addresses; our speakers included Scott Hahn and Curtis Martin, founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).  The conference really brought our diocese together, with its many diverse ethnic groups.  As a way to prepare for it I issued a 2018 pastoral letter on evangelization, “Called.  Formed.  Sent”.  Our focus was missionary discipleship, to call people to Jesus, make disciples and how we are sent to be missionaries for the Gospel.

Also, being in Birmingham, we were ground zero for Civil Rights; Martin Luther King, Jr. was imprisoned here.  We held a conference in 2016, “Black & White in America: How Deep the Divide?”  We did it in conjunction with the mayor of Birmingham at the time, William Bell, and Reverend Timothy George, the dean of Beeson Divinity School.  We had a variety of speakers; we even brought an archbishop from Nigeria, Anthony Obinna, who talked about the ethnic divide in his country.

CWR: How is Birmingham doing for vocations to the priesthood and religious life?

Bishop Baker: FOCUS [Fellowship of Catholic University Students], which brings Catholic missionaries onto secular college campuses to work with students, has really helped us in this area.  They started at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and have since been a pivotal factor for us attracting vocations.  We have eight seminarians presently, but are hoping to add another five later this year.  Things have really started to move along, thanks to FOCUS.

CWR: What is your relationship with EWTN?

Bishop Baker: They are located about a 25-minute drive from my house.  I serve on their board, monitoring things related to orthodoxy, liturgical practices and their relationship with the Magisterium.  Such problems hardly arise at all.

Their influence is massive.  They are the single largest religious radio and TV network in the world.  The National Catholic Register is part of their apostolate, as is the Catholic News Agency.  The Vatican relies on them;  Michael Warsaw, EWTN’s chairman and CEO, is a consulter to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication.

EWTN is an important part of the New Evangelization.  They are creative, and have done things no one else has done.  Pastorally, I think they’re hitting the right buttons.  I don’t think anyone else is close to the huge influence they’ve had.

CWR: How is the Catholic Church in the South different from other parts of the country?

Bishop Baker: We’re part of the Bible belt.  The Baptist church has a huge influence here.  We work together with them; they learn from us, we learn from them.  You can see some of the effects of our efforts on the legislation of the State of Alabama, such as relating to the prolife cause.  We have some of the strongest prolife legislation in the country, which is due, I believe, to the strong Baptist influence here.

Regarding evangelization, I have to admire that the Baptists are not reluctant to mention the name of Jesus in conversation.  I think we Catholics have to get over the fear of mentioning His name in public.

CWR: Regarding evangelism, why do you think fewer numbers of people are going to Church?

Bishop Baker: Pope Francis outlines this concern in his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium [Joy of the Gospel].  Our Western culture is secular.  It emphasizes materialism and consumerism rather than faith and family.  Children are influenced by this culture.  In my pastoral letter on evangelism we offer a plan of action for our diocese.

CWR: What are your thoughts on the scandals that have been in the Church in recent years?

Bishop Baker: I agree with Pope Benedict XVI that the origins of the scandals we’re experiencing are related to the changing sexual mores in society that we really began to see in the 1960s.  The 1969 music festival at Woodstock, New York symbolized the change in American culture.  Moral values in our country, and in the Western hemisphere, had changed.  The drug culture came with it.

It influenced the world and Church in a detrimental way.  The Church should have been telling certain of its members: “Stop that!”  But we were too casual in our response; we didn’t put the brakes on.

The Church is not done with the Sexual Revolution, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.  We’re addressing things more directly.  We haven’t licked the problem, we’re still working on it, but we’ve made a dent in it.

Remember, we have to deal with a secular Western culture that has lowered the bar on moral values and sexual morality.  It’s a far cry today from the time when I was ordained a priest in 1970.  We didn’t have laws protecting “transgenderism”; we didn’t extend civil rights to men who wanted to use the women’s bathroom.  Our laws offered protection to the unborn.  But no more.

In 2019, Alabama changed its laws so that probate judges no longer have to witness marriages.  It was because there were probate judges who said, “We can’t in good conscience witness same-sex unions.”  So now you just have to file an affidavit in probate court and you’re married.  It protects the rights of probate judges.

CWR: You have developed an interest in Venerable Carlo Acutis (1991-2006).

Bishop Baker: Yes.  I’ve been following his story.  He was an Italian teenager who died of leukemia in 2006.  He is going to be beatified this year.  He was known for his devotion to the Eucharist, and had a website which documented Eucharistic miracles.  Carlo said that his life’s plan was to always be a friend of Jesus.

He died at age 15, but he was not afraid of dying.  His life was centered around Jesus, and he was going to meet Him.  Our aim in life should not be the finite, but the infinite.  The infinite is our homeland.

Carlo saw the Eucharist as his highway or fast track to heaven.  He went to daily Mass, weekly confession and was devoted to Mary.

I think he has much to teach us about returning to the basics of centering our lives around Jesus, His teaching, and His way of life.  Keep an eye on Carlo, he is a rising star.  I preach on his life as a model for us all.  When I talk to my Confirmation kids, they love to hear his story.  Their generation is being hit hard by so many negative messages that we have to hold up positive models, like Carlo, to them.


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About Jim Graves 184 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.

3 Comments

  1. Bishop Baker ordained me in 2002. It was he who invited me to head up Catholic Charities in the diocese of Charleston when he was bishop there. It was a joy working for an orthodox bishop and a genuinely decent man. I wish him well in his retirement. He loves Christ.

  2. Bishop Baker also gave an outstanding talk “The Theology of the Body and the Dignity of Women” at the 2007 Catholic Medical Association Conference in 2007. I made copies of it and sent it to many people who used it for teaching purposes. Maybe he could travel around the country, or at least the southeast, to present a topic which is sorely needed right now.

  3. “The infinite is our homeland.”

    I live in the Birmingham area, but have never met Bishop Baker. If I ever have the good fortune to do so, however, I will tell him how much that profound truth almost casually delivered served as a timely and very personal reminder to a sojourner still searching. Thank you.

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