Father John Sims Baker, the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro, announced to his parishioners that he is discerning a new way of living out his priesthood.
At all the Masses the weekend of March 12-13, Father Baker announced that Bishop J. Mark Spalding has given him permission to enter the formation program to become a monk at the Benedictine St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama.
He will remain as St. Rose’s pastor until the new priest assignments take effect in the summer.
“For over two years, I have been discerning this call to become a monk,” Father Baker said in his announcement. “I was surprised by it, but it has persisted and seems to be bearing good fruit.
“The hardest part of this decision for me is parting from the parish because I continue to love serving you at St. Rose,” he added.
“When I first perceived this call, I was suspicious of it. It seemed to come too late in my life and to be too different from the way I have lived as a priest for 28 years,” Father Baker said. “Yet it persisted and gave me peace and so I talked to my spiritual director, expecting him to set me straight! His reaction was one of initial surprise but also of encouragement and support.
“With his permission, I talked with a few other people who have known me well in different ways for much of my life. Their reactions were all very much like that of my spiritual director: initial surprise followed by encouragement and support to continue the discernment,” he added.
“At this point, I went to Bishop Spalding. His reaction was the same, with fatherly wisdom and kindness added in,” Father Baker said. “He encouraged me to discern where I was being called with more specificity, and so I first visited St. Bernard, a monastery that I have known and visited for a long time but never with the thought of being a part of the community.
“By the end of that visit, I realized that I did not need to look further,” he said. “I asked to apply for admission to the formation process in the community, and that is where I stand at this point. I am surprised and humbled by their willingness to consider a candidate such as myself.”
The Church provides a way to transition from the diocesan priesthood to monastic life “as a way of binding oneself to Christ and His Church more explicitly through the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience; through the vows of monastic life; as well as through community prayer and life,” Father Baker said. “The Church sees this as a continuation of the vocation I have already received, not as a departure from it.”
Father Baker said he is pursuing a call to prayer. “I am pursuing this ‘vocation within a vocation’ motivated by a desire for deeper union with God in prayer and by a desire to serve the Church more deeply through prayer,” he said. “Prayer is certainly central to the life of a diocesan priest. A monk’s life of prayer, however, is more regular and much of it is offered in community.”
“I will honestly say that I do not understand the call completely, but I do have peace and confidence in it, mainly because of the judgment of Bishop Spalding and of my spiritual director, as well as that of the others whom I consulted,” Father Baker said. “I do not trust myself in this discernment! I did not expect ever to be saying these words to you. When I came to St. Rose, I thought that this assignment would probably be my last pastorate, leading toward retirement as a diocesan priest. It seems that God has other plans for the parish and for me, and I trust Him.
“God will take care of everything for this parish that is so full of life and potential,” he said. “I will simply be beginning formation to be a monk. I do not look beyond that. If I come to the point of taking vows, God willing, it will be after years of discernment and formal acceptance by the community of St. Bernard.
“I have no desire to leave Saint Rose, only a desire to enter St. Bernard,” Father Baker said. “I assure you of my prayers, and I humbly ask for yours. I thank Bishop Spalding, and I thank you.”
He also asked parishioners to pray for the bishop and the new pastor even before he is appointed. “As the transition process develops, I will be communicating with you more,” he added.
“I assure you that I will miss you, and I promise to continue serving you in prayer,” Father Baker said. “I am grateful for my time at St. Rose. You have made me a better priest.”
Father Baker was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Nashville on March 25, 1994. He has served as associate pastor of Holy Rosary Church and St. Henry Church, and pastor of St. Patrick Church in McEwen, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Tennessee Ridge, and St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows Church in Nashville. He also served as the chaplain for University Catholic and as the dean of community life and director for human formation at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.