Longtime local priest looks back at his career

6/17/2012
BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

Editor's note: This version corrects the title of Richard Gaillardetz's book 'Keys to the Council.'

The Rev. Jim Bacik celebrates Mass at Corpus Christi University Parish. The 75-year-old priest is to say his final Masses there June 24.
The Rev. Jim Bacik celebrates Mass at Corpus Christi University Parish. The 75-year-old priest is to say his final Masses there June 24.

With his July 1 retirement rapidly approaching, the Rev. Jim Bacik is being asked over and over why he decided to become a priest.

It may seem like a straightforward question, but there are no simple answers for the deep-thinking Catholic priest, pastor, theologian, teacher, and author.

It's a question he's pondered for 50 years, often waving it off as one of life's great mysteries.

"Everyone asks me this. I have no answer to it," Father Bacik said in an interview at the Dorr Street Cafe, a blue-collar bar and grill where the waitstaff all know him by name and remind him to eat his sandwich before it gets cold.

It wasn't as if he heard God calling him to the priesthood, he said. There was no epiphany, no clear moment of decision.

One minute he was set to go to the University of Dayton to play baseball, with dreams of someday playing professionally; the next minute he found himself enrolled at St. Meinrad seminary in Indiana, preparing for the priesthood.

Only now at age 75, just days before his retirement, does he feel "comfortable" with an explanation, Father Bacik said.

"I think I felt a sense of obligation to go to the seminary and pursue the priesthood," he said, choosing his words carefully. "One of the things about my priesthood has been a strong sense of responsibility to meet this obligation, to do the best job that I can. I really feel that has been a strong force."

Father Bacik, whose predecessor at Corpus Christi was the Rev. Robert Kirtland, the founder of the parish, will be replaced by Msgr. Michael Billian and the Rev. Philip Smith.

The baseball player

When he was growing up in West Toledo, baseball meant everything to him. A naturally gifted athlete, he could catch, throw, and hit better than his contemporaries.

Mike Cicak, a Perrysburg businessman who played ball for Waite High School when Father Bacik was at Central Catholic, said the future priest made plays at shortstop that seemed impossible. Mr. Cicak remembered hitting a screamer up the middle, never doubting it was a base hit, but the acrobatic shortstop somehow reached the ball and threw him out.

THE REV. JIM BACIK

Born: Toledo, Oct. 24, 1936

Home parish: St. Catherine of Siena, West Toledo.

High school: Central Catholic, Toledo

Ordained: May 26, 1962

Pastoral assignments: St.Mary’s Parish, Sandusky, 1962-67; St. Thomas More University Parish, Bowling Green, 1969-1976; Corpus Christi University Parish, Toledo, 1982-2012

Advanced degrees: Doctor of Philosophy, University of Oxford, England, 1978; M.S., Fordham University, 1969; M.A., The Athenaeum of Ohio, 1960

Books published: Eight total, including ‘Catholic Spirituality’ (2002); ‘Contemporary Theologians’ (1989), and ‘Apologetics and the Eclipse of Mystery’ (1980)

"Afterward, I told Tom Thiebert, an all-city football player at Central, 'This guy's going in the pros!' " Mr. Cicak recalled.

"He said, 'No Mike, he's going in the seminary. He's going to be a priest.' "

"I said, 'You've got to be [kidding] me!' " Mr. Cicak said with a laugh.

Father Bacik shrugs off suggestions that he could have been a major-league ballplayer, saying he recognized his limitations before others did.

But his parents, George and Lillian, had instilled in him a love of the church, people, and God.

"My parents were very strong religiously and very good Catholics," he said. "My father went to Mass about every day -- every day, not every Sunday. We said the rosary when we went on trips when we started out in the car. And we said prayers after Mass on Sunday. We would go to a grotto at St. Catherine [parish] and pray."

His parents never tried to steer him into the priesthood.

"I had no desire. I had no interest. All I wanted to do was play baseball. I wasn't encouraged by my parents except by their good examples," he said.

A difficult start

He spent two years at St. Meinrad and six in Cincinnati at Mount St. Mary's Seminary/The Athenaeum of Ohio, where he received a master's degree.

Those years do not hold fond memories for Father Bacik.

"I disliked the seminary strongly," he said. "It was intellectually stultifying. The discipline didn't make much sense to me. The teaching was overly rigid and legalistic. And it was all opposed to what I had picked up from my family. My family was always open to other faiths. There was a strong tendency on my father's side of the family against legalism. There was a more open kind of religious outlook."

He said he had "strong forebodings" about the priesthood. He dreaded hearing people's confessions, he said. When he professed his vows as a subdeacon, making a commitment to become a celibate priest, "it was a sad day for me because I realized I could not get married and have a family," he said.

Yet that sense of obligation kept him on track.

Effects of Vatican II

In 1962, the year he was ordained to the priesthood in the Toledo diocese, the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII began meeting in Rome.

Vatican II turned out to offer an antidote to what Father Bacik felt was ailing the church.

"A lot of people say Vatican II was liberating. That's not the right word for me. It was confirming. It confirmed my own instincts. It was in line with what I learned in my family," he said. "It became clearer that we had to find new ways to preach the Gospel to a more-educated Catholic population, and that I needed a deeper theology."

Richard Gaillardetz, former professor of Catholic studies at the University of Toledo who now teaches at Boston College, said Vatican II helped end the "immigrant ghettoized Catholicism" with which Father Bacik had grown up.

"The Second Vatican Council moved away from this kind of suffocating Catholicism that often placed itself in a position of confrontation with the larger world to a Catholicism that was eager for dialogue with other Christians, other religions, and the world at large," said Mr. Gaillardetz, whose new book, Keys to the Council, examines Vatican II.

"Also, the Second Vatican Council moved away from an understanding of the church built on the division between clergy and laity to an understanding of the church that emphasized our common baptism and our shared call to Christian discipleship and mission," he said.

Father Bacik's first assignment was associate pastor at St. Mary's Parish in Sandusky, just when Catholics were trying to process Vatican II.

"The priests and the laypeople learned together," Father Bacik said. "I appreciate the five-year course in how to be a priest given to me by the people of Sandusky."

He made another life-changing discovery in Sandusky when a man he met on the street invited him to speak to the local Kiwanis Club. The young priest picked up a book in the rectory and started flipping through the pages, landing on a chapter about men's role in the church. The book was Theology for Renewal, by German theologian Karl Rahner.

The way Father Rahner explained things resonated with Father Bacik, launching a lifelong commitment to Rahnerian theology.

"It was a key point in my life," Father Bacik said. "I had never, in four years of the seminary, I never heard Rahner's name mentioned, which can tell you where the state of theological education was. I never remember hearing his name, and he was the most influential theologian of the 20th century. That goes back to how stultifying it was."

Quest for knowledge

While teaching at St. Mary's High School in Sandusky, he said, he realized that he needed a deeper grasp of theology and enrolled at Fordham University in New York. He studied there for two years under many of the world's finest religious scholars and theologians, including Hans Küng and John Macquarrie, receiving his second master's degree.

The Rev. Jim Bacik greets Martha Wheeler at Corpus Christi Parish. He has served at the parish since 1982.
The Rev. Jim Bacik greets Martha Wheeler at Corpus Christi Parish. He has served at the parish since 1982.

His next assignment, at St. Thomas More University Parish in Bowling Green, again inspired him to seek more education, this time a doctorate in theology from Oxford University. His academic studies were always driven by a desire to be a better pastor, he said.

"I was teaching a course [at Bowling Green State University] with a brilliant agnostic … and I remember sitting there with all these impressionable collegians, teaching a course on belief and unbelief, and this agnostic was so brilliant I thought to myself, 'I've got to hold my own here.' "

He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Father Rahner and got the chance to study with the renowned theologian in Germany.

"He was a fascinating guy. To be in his presence was to be in a major energy force," Father Bacik said.

The biggest lesson to be learned from Father Rahner was that theology has to be "a response to some real-life issue," Father Bacik said. "If I'm preparing a homily and I can't think of any examples why people would want to know this, well I must have the topic wrong."

That same measuring rod for homilies smacked him on the knuckles, so to speak, after Mass in Sandusky.

"It was five or six months after I was ordained and Frank Newman came out of church on Sunday and said, 'I came here needing to hear something in the sermon and I listened and listened and listened and you never said anything.' I think it was one of the most telling comments that came in my priesthood. I think of it all the time. I better have something to say; Frank Newman will be there needing to hear something," Father Bacik said.

One of Father Bacik's great strengths is his ability to take complex theological teachings and translate them into sermons that the average layman not only can understand but also apply to his or her own life, observers say.

Reaching out

Rabbi Alan Sokobin, rabbi emeritus of The Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunim in Sylvania, said Father Bacik "can take the most convoluted philosophic concepts and, without talking down to people, communicate the ideas with clarity and thoughtfulness. He has the unique capacity to reach across boundaries in a way that does not obliterate the boundary, but on the contrary, makes the boundary seem as something that is connecting rather than dividing."

"His sermons are so engaging," said Keith Wilkowski, a member of Toledo's Corpus Christi University Parish where Father Bacik has been pastor for 30 years. "Clearly, he's a world-renowned theologian and an intellectual, but he's also a superb pastor who engages people's minds in what the scriptures mean."

One of the recurring themes of Father Bacik's messages is that the church should be the "leaven" in society and Christians should try to improve the lives of others. That was one of the reasons Mr. Wilkowski decided to run for mayor of Toledo in 2005 and 2009.

"Father Bacik was very reassuring that, without ever dictating what position to take on any issue, becoming involved was consistent with our Catholic faith," he said.

Reaching outside the parish and the church is foundational for Father Bacik, who speaks often at interfaith meetings, helped found the chair in Catholic studies at the University of Toledo, and raised funds for a Christian Leadership Program that awards a dozen $5,000 scholarships to Catholic UT students every year.

He also founded the West Toledo Clergy Cluster, bringing ministers of different Christian faiths together for monthly meetings.

"I think the meetings have kept our view broad," said the Rev. Margaret Sammons, co-rector of St. Michael's in the Hills Episcopal Church. "It's very easy for people to get into thinking about their own parish and their own tradition, but when you see the broader picture you know we're all involved in the great commission. It's a very apostolic idea."

The next chapter

Father Bacik said he is ready for the next phase of life and does not feel that Bishop Leonard Blair is singling him out for retirement, noting that it's church policy for priests to retire at 75. Four other Toledo priests are retiring the same day.

Mr. Gaillardetz said, however, that there are "generational differences" among priests that can lead to conflicts.

Bishop Blair, 63, was ordained in 1976, 14 years after Father Bacik.

"Father Bacik belongs to a generation of priests whose priestly vocation was deeply and broadly informed by the vision of the Second Vatican Council, and some tensions emerge because Bishop Blair belongs to a later generation of clergy who, while continuing to appreciate the Second Vatican Council, are much more concerned about certain perceived abuses regarding the interpretation and application of the council's teachings," Mr. Gaillardetz said.

"Policies vary from diocese to diocese," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and director of the religion and public policy program at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "Some require complete retirement at 75; others require retirement as pastor but allow a priest to continue as an associate pastor. Because of the priest shortage, some bishops allow priests to continue until they are physically incapable of working.

"Being a good pastor is a tough job, with lots of stress, especially in a parish with conflicts. Many priests are happy to retire if they have a decent pension and health care," Father Reese said.

Father Bacik said some parishioners wanted to start petition drives to keep him at Corpus Christi, but he discouraged that.

After celebrating farewell Masses at the parish June 24, at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., he will give a series of lectures this summer at the Franciscan Village in Sylvania and then move to Chicago in the fall, where he will teach a class at Catholic Theological Union.

Beyond that, he is keeping his options open but said with amusement that he plans to be "virtually present" through a new Web site, frjimbacik.org. It's particularly amusing, he said, because he does not use computers. "I've never even turned one on," he said.

His lack of interest in technology extends to the cell phone he carries -- for calling out only. He once got a call and said he stared helplessly at it while it rang and vibrated.

"I didn't know how to answer it," he said sheepishly.

Father Bacik acknowledged that although he may not "live in the real world," he gets a lot of help and enjoys delegating and helping people identify and use their gifts and talents.

"I think of myself as an empowering person who should help other people do what they do best," he said.

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.