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In late June of last year the Rev. Steven Bauer packed his possessions-clothes, books, and iBook computer-into his new Chrysler Sebring and drove to St. Benedict’s Parish on Chicago’s North Side. It had been only a month since Cardinal Francis George had placed his hands on Bauer’s head and ordained him a priest. Now, Father Bauer’s heart pounded hard with nervous excitement as the St. Benedict’s bell tower-visible from more than a mile away-came into view. “I was entering a new home, a new role, a new job, a new identity,” the 34-year-old Bauer recalls a year later. “My whole world was changing as I’m driving down Irving Park Road watching the bell tower grow.”
Steve Bauer had lived a secular life and found it wanting. He left that life behind to be a priest, believing it was what God had created him to do. Despite sacrifices and long days, after a year as the associate pastor at St. Benedict’s, he says he is very happy. “It’s been a very fulfilling year spiritually, personally, and ministerially,” he says. “I can see that I’m able to have a positive impact on people’s lives, and in that sense I’m having a positive impact on the world.”
Bauer has found happiness in a vocation that few choose. There were only 38 men in his class at Mundelein Seminary (the major theological school of the Archdiocese of Chicago), many of them from overseas-Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Poland, and Vietnam-and many also embarking on second careers. “One was a gourmet chef,” Bauer says. Nationwide, Bauer was one of only 533 priests ordained in 2004, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a research institute at Georgetown University. (By comparison, 994 men were ordained in 1965, CARA says.)
Though his choice of vocation sets him apart, Bauer remains a regular guy in many ways. He loves The Simpsons, science fiction movies, and German beer, roots for the Cubs, and still gets together with old friends for a monthly Saturday night poker game. But he also wears black clothes and a clerical collar, and the wedding ring on the third finger of his left hand was an ordination gift from friends signifying his marriage to the church.
“He’s a what-you-see-is-what-you-get person,” says the Rev. Bob Heidenreich, who left St. Benedict’s in August after 14 years as the church’s pastor. “He’s not different from other people his age, except that his calling to be a priest has shaped him differently.”
STEVEN Bauer grew up in Wheeling, the son of an East German immigrant father who worked as a boilermaker and a German American farm girl who came from Iowa to Chicago for college. As a child, Bauer attended St. Joseph the Worker Church in Wheeling with his family, but he wasn’t particularly religious. His sense of spirituality began to deepen at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where he graduated with a B.A. in rhetoric in 1993. He lived for three semesters in a Catholic dormitory, joined a Catholic youth group, and began re-evaluating his faith. “I knew the do’s and don’ts, but I wanted to know why. Why does the church teach these things?” he explains. “In learning the why, I found a real integration of life itself that the world didn’t seem to have before.”
He continued his religious inquiry while working as a graphic designer after college, teaching religion classes at St. Joseph the Worker and taking part in a Bible study group. After a few years, he quit his design job to work for a year with a ministry program that conducts religious retreats with students. The fulfillment he got from guiding other people spiritually, the sense he felt that God was working through him, led Bauer to begin considering the priesthood.
Still, he wasn’t certain. He took another graphic design job, but it left him feeling there was more to life. “The best the world had to offer me wasn’t good enough,” Bauer says. “That’s when I knew only God could fulfill the desires in my heart.”
The choice to enter the priesthood requires a vow of chastity and a simple lifestyle, but people who knew Bauer well found his decision natural. “We already saw that he had this deep spirituality about him, and his personal dedication to other people, his caring for other people,” says his mother, Judy Bauer.
“He’s simply not a selfish person, so he won’t miss the material things that others may,” adds Tony Benvenuti, who has been a friend of Bauer’s since high school.
Of course, Bauer was giving up more than just material things. He had been in love with a girl in college, though the end of the relationship had left him heartbroken. Since then, he had dated other women, though none seriously. Now he was committing himself to a life without romantic love, marriage, sexual intimacy, and children.
Bauer is unabashed and forthright about being a virgin. Since childhood, he has believed in the Catholic Church’s teaching that sex is a gift from God that should be saved for marriage, a belief reinforced by the problems he saw sex causing his fellow U. of I. students-"people getting angry and bitter and resentful, and [getting] sexually transmitted diseases,” he remembers.
In today’s culture, a vow to live without sex may be the most unorthodox sex-related practice of all, but Bauer thinks he can find a greater fulfillment in its place. “The deepest desire of the human heart is not for sex, but to love and be loved in return, to have some kind of intimacy,” he says. Bauer maintains that his loving connections come from his relationships with friends, family, his parishioners, and the divine. “Part of the sacrifice [of the priesthood] is realizing that God can fulfill that love.”
While his immediate family and friends were supportive of his decision, some colleagues at his design job found it strange. “To my face nobody expressed any criticisms, but I know there were people who didn’t quite get it,” Bauer says. “[Their reaction was] you must be some Bible-thumping Jesus freak.”
Bauer felt more at peace with his decision as he proceeded. He underwent the battery of psychological tests and background checks the seminary required and then began the course of study. Over five years, he advanced through the levels of ministry, while studying philosophy, theology, morality, church history and doctrine, scripture, spirituality, and homiletics (i.e., preaching). The curriculum aside, it was much like any other graduate school. Seminarians are no longer cloistered. Instead, the dorm rooms have high-speed Internet connections, and Bauer regularly visited friends and family. Even so, he sometimes felt overwhelmed by his commitment. “That’s natural,” he says. “You don’t make a major decision on how you feel one day.”
The unfolding clergy sex abuse scandal also forced Bauer to re-evaluate his choice. He recognized that some people would view him and his vocation with suspicion. “In my own prayer life, I came to the realization that I’m not going to let other people’s sins stop me from serving Christ,” he says.
Bauer received his master’s of divinity from Mundelein in May 2004. He said his first Mass as an ordained priest at St. Joseph the Worker, but he was already assigned to St. Benedict’s, on Irving Park Road between Damen and Western avenues. German Americans once dominated the neighborhood, but it’s now a bastion of gentrification, with new houses and young professional couples replacing the older residents and their houses. The vestiges of the neighborhood’s past make the area a good fit for Bauer-he holds his youth group leadership meetings at one of the remaining German restaurants and makes it a point to have a beer with dinner.
The congregation at St. Ben’s, as the church is known, is large, with 2,200 families registered as members. More than 200 babies were baptized at the church in the past year, and more than 60 couples were married there. The ceremonies keep Bauer busy. In addition, he says one of the two masses held each weekday morning, and conducts two of the church’s five weekend services. He works with the parish schools, visits patients, hears confessions, and offers counseling.
He enjoys preaching and sprinkles his sermons with pop culture references. Benvenuti sees the change from the shy friend he remembers from high school and college. “Sharing the good news seems to give him strength,” Benvenuti says.
Still, the emotional and spiritual demands of his ministry can take a lot out of him. During his first year at St. Ben’s he comforted the parents of a dying newborn child, baptizing her in the intensive care unit and leaving the hospital in tears. He has heard parishioners’ confessions of adultery, alcoholism, abortion. “I’ve heard everything,” he says with a wave of his hand. “Except cannibalism.”
He knows that priests risk burnout, so he tries to avoid working on his day off each week. Instead, he goes to his parents’ home in Wheeling, where he can sleep in until 10:30 and then spend the day doing nothing more difficult than a crossword puzzle.
Overall, he says, his first year as a priest has filled him with profound satisfaction. “I have a much clearer understanding or appreciation of the fact that God works through me,” Bauer says. “We talked about that in the seminary, but [there] it was theoretical. Going from talking about it to living it is really amazing.”