An Interview with Father Thomas A. Baima

by Eileen Quinn Knight, PhD



Dr. Knight: This is a time of struggle to stay true to our love of Christ and His Church as a struggle with our own sinfulness. Our spiritually compassionate Pope and other believers who understand his vision recognize the struggle and encourage us to find our journey forward. How do you think he has inspired a professor teaching Systematic Theology in a secular society?


Father Baima: I’m delighted to join you for this interview. Normally, systematic theologians work in the background, in support of the pastors of the Church, the Pope, the bishops, and their collaborators the parish priests and ministers. Systematic theology (also called Dogmatic Theology) is ever present in the life of Christians, but it is usually invisible. For the average Catholic Christian, it is her parish priest, thinking theologically as he prepares to preach, to offer pastoral care, or to teach that the fruits of the systematic theologian’s work are seen. With Pope Francis, we see this pattern. The compassionate pastor is out in front, the theologian leads from behind.


Dr. Knight: How did you receive your call to be a priest? How has this call changed over time? How has it led you to the professoriate? What does it mean to be a Systematic Theologian?


Father Baima: My priestly call emerged from realizing I have made the wrong career choice. I was in pharmacy school, preparing for that profession. Much like we do in seminary, half-way through the curriculum, the pharmacy student is sent out to work full-time as an extern in a clinical or community setting. Through that experience, I discovered that I would not be happy practicing pharmacy for the rest of my life. That started the wheels turning. If not a pharmacy, then what? After much introspection, I realized that I was drawn to service and teaching. So, I thought about counseling or social work. Then I got some really good advice from Dr. Paul Steward, who was dean of the University College. He suggested I take one semester and just try out a bunch of different courses/subjects and see if something caught my passion. That’s what I did, and the subject that caught me was religious studies. At the same time, I was associated with the Newman Center at my college and with the local parish which had a strong social justice ministry. Unfortunately, their liturgy was not to my taste, so I would also worship at an Eastern Christian parish. Between the two I developed a spirituality of doxology and service. From there, I was able to discern priesthood as a vocation.


After graduating from Butler University with an honors degree in philosophy and religion, I studied at Mundelein Seminary for four years and received the M.Div. I was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1980. I served for 12 years in full-time parish work. At the same time, I did graduate studies in theology for the S.T.L. (a post-master’s church degree which is like being ABD). Also, at the same time, I began to work part-time for Msgr. Jack Egan in the ecumenical office of the archdiocese. Ecumenical work would become the enduring thread through my priesthood, even as I continued in pastoral ministry or administrative work for the diocese. In 1992 the priorities switched, and I became the Director of the Archdiocesan Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs while working part-time in a parish. In 1996, I received an advanced study grant to complete my doctorate. For three years I did full-time research and graduated from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in 2000. I was supposed to come back to the archdiocesan office as an ecumenical officer, but the new archbishop, Cardinal George, transferred Mundelein Seminary’s ecclesiologist to be his private secretary. The seminary asked for me and I agreed. So, in 2000 I began my new appointment as a seminary professor and educational administrator.


Dr. Knight: Our society often leads us to understandings through media. What is your favorite film or YouTube at this time? Book?


Father Baima: How much space do you have? That’s a hard question because I’m one of those people who read four different things at once. I watch about 30 minutes of television news a day. I do this because, as a preacher, because you have to know what your audience is thinking about. For reading, I will almost always be reading a biography—right now it’s one on Erasmus of Rotterdam. I will also be slowly reading some spiritual text. This year I am re-reading Writings from the Philokalia which the collection of texts referred to in the Russian spiritual classic, The Way of a Pilgrim. A third book will always be in the area of history of ideas, which is an overarching intellectual interest of mine. Right now, that book is The Cave and the Light by Andrew Hermann, on the struggle between the thought of Plato and Aristotle across Western history. The final category is the short essay. There is no plan for this reading. Rather, one of the things I find relaxing is to go to a library or newsstand and just explore different journals or magazines and see what grabs my attention at that moment.


Dr. Knight: Do you think the books and articles you’ve written about Systematic Theology will be helpful to people who are seeking to be better in this area?


Father Baima: So, systematic theology is essentially the study of doctrine (the 12 articles of the Nicene, Creed). The Catechism expands on the creed, sacraments, commandments, and prayer and expresses the teaching of the Church in a comprehensive way. But the Catechism does not explain and explore the deeper dimensions. That’s the job of theology. I might answer your question about my contribution by saying that two of the books I have co-authored have sold very well, which might be an indication that people have found them useful. They are Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper Zondervan, 2007) and What is a Parish? Canonical, Pastoral and Theological Perspectives (Hillenbrand Books/LTP, 2011). In the first, four theologians, three Protestant and one Catholic (me) take the catechisms of your churches (Baptist, Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic) and try to explain the deeper issue behind the formulations and to explore especially the points where we do not agree, and why. The co-authors each wrote a chapter, then each offered a response to the other three authors’ chapters. So, the book is a kind of public dispute in print. Everyone was very respectful, but also very strong in articulating their church’s view. The other book is one I am quite proud of. It developed out of a conference conceived by Dominican Father Michael Sweeney, who now works with Sherry Weddell on the project of forming intentional parishes. As hard as it may be to believe, this book is the only systematic exploration of the theological nature of the parish. This is important since the parish is the basic unit of a Catholic’s experience of the Church. As dioceses undergo restructuring, the material in this book could become very important.


Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that the use of social media in our parishes can assist young people to think about knowing/loving/serving God through their ‘cyber-neighbor’ and by example become more spiritual individuals?


Father Baima: Without question. A young man, who works for me in Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, frequently tells me, “My generation wants to decide how they will receive content.” In other words, where a Baby-boomer like myself tends to focus on the authorship of content, the Millennial is also concerned about the delivery of content. I have also observed working with this age group that there is a kind of “courtship” that takes place with content. Content must be observed from a distance, listened to (usually for free), recommended by friends, etc. All this takes place prior to any engagement. But what Baby Boomers miss is that when the engagement takes place, the Millennial is much more present and alert. So, there are positive dynamics in the, let me call it “style” of thinking of the Millennials which, if we meet them where they are, can be very fruitful. I’d add, if a parish wants to do that, it needs to get Millennial members to do it.


Dr. Knight: As a priest/professor at the University you are able to educate and spiritually form many Seminarians in society through your work. What issues are predominantly on your mind and heart?


Father Baima: Let me answer that in three parts (wow, that really sounds like something a full professor would say!) At the surface level, I am concerned about the polarization in our society which seeps into the life of the church and therefore the minds of seminarians. This polarization tends to cause people to stop listening to each other, or to “listen with their answer running.” I’m convinced that the way to guide an individual (either seminarian or parishioner) out of this trap society has fallen into is through the cultivation of what our formation documents refer to as “pastoral charity.” This is a ten-dollar word for “other-centeredness.” Finally, I think that what is essential to enable this pastoral charity to develop is an integration between academic and spiritual formation. My main issue is that real theology cannot be done without prayer. Without prayer, theology is not Christian.


Dr. Knight: There have been very influential professors/priests throughout the ages including saints. Who influenced you the most?


Father Baima: John Henry Newman, Yves Congar, Mortimer Adler, Avery Dulles, and Catherine de Hueck Doherty. I’d have to say that Catherine had the single greatest influence as she taught me through her writings how to integrate doctrine, Christian social action, and contemplation into a single spirituality which has guided my priesthood. Catherine’s maxim to “live the gospel without compromise” denies us the option to pick and choose. Living the gospel without compromise means all of it, not the parts I find most comfortable.


Dr. Knight: It seems that this interview would help us understand your leisure activities and purposeful work that would be of interest to our readers such as the help that has been provided to immigrants.


Father Baima: I am a people person, so my leisure activities are centered around people rather than the activity. I like cultural institutions like libraries, museums, galleries both for what they hold, but also for how they provide a gathering place for people. Part of my leisure each week is my writing/editing of books. I just finished a book on Avery Dulles which Paulist Press is publishing. My next one is on how understanding the liturgy of the Eastern rites can enrich our appreciation of the Roman Rite.


Dr. Knight: It seems that we pray for the first responders every week. Do you think the violence we experience is part of human kinds DNA? What other issues do you have as a priority for our work as a society?


Father Baima: I was very involved in the Good Friday, March organized by Cardinal Cupich. I work with the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago on how to continue that effort. I see a theological issue at the root of our urban problems—conceiving a person or group as “other.” It is only a small step for “other” to become “enemy.” Jesus had no enemies. Christianity is for “all the nations.” When we confront social problems, my training in philosophy comes to the forefront. You want a healthy non-violent neighborhood, then you need strong family units—the fundamental structure of any society. A strong family unit needs secure housing. To gain secure housing, there has to be work at a just and living wage. That kind of work requires investment in a community by business, so there is an element of economic risk-taking. That risk is mitigated if other institutions, both public and private investors in a community to give it the needed supportive services of health care, social welfare, police, fire, municipal service, etc. In turn, there needs to be participation by the citizens in that community, but participation is a learned behavior, which is why educational institutions at all levels are vital. My point is that fragmented solutions to violence are no solution at all. It will take an act of the collective will, and that act of will can only occur if individuals, if you and I, identify with the people who are suffering. Overcoming the idea of the “other” is the essential first step.


Dr. Knight: Thank you very much for your time in completing this interview. As a University person myself, I admire you reaching the rank of professor. It is no easy task. For our students to see educated men/priest striving to improve their relationship with Jesus is important to all disciples to bring us closer to the kingdom.


Father Baima: Most Catholics have no idea how much schooling their priests have. Graduate Seminary is a year longer than law school and about as long as medical school and residency (between 6-8 years). I don’t want a lawyer or physician who took a “short course.” And we should expect our priests—who are doctors of souls—to be good, holy and competent! I’m proud that Mundelein Seminary is committed seeing that our graduates are all three.


The Very Rev. Thomas A. Baima is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago currently serving as Vice Rector for Academic Affairs of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary and Professor of Dogmatic Theology.

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