Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian

(First in a series of articles featuring the men who will be ordained priests)

When student John Baab was majoring in business marketing at Radford University from 2004 to 2008, he was learning how to present products in such a way that people were willing to purchase them. As a student intern and later as an employee for then-Dominion Resources, he applied that knowledge for nearly four years, selling natural gas and electricity to companies in Northeastern states.

Due to what began with “a profound experience of God,” as he described it, that changed. The former manager of direct mail sales campaigns will be integrating and applying those skills in a different way, to a different group of people — those he will be serving as a Catholic priest for the Diocese of Richmond following his ordination by Bishop Barry C. Knestout, Saturday, June 2, at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

God’s invitation

One Sunday in 2008, the fifth of Carl and Cathy Baab’s seven children was worshipping at the cathedral.

“I had a profound experience of God at Mass one day — that our faith is true. God loves me more than I can ever understand,” the Richmond native recalled in an interview with The Catholic Virginian, Monday, March 26. “I saw the priest, Msgr. (Patrick) Golden, processing; I just felt like this was a glorious vocation, but at the same time, one that comes with some costs, and I felt like God was inviting me to think about it.”

Those “costs,” according to Deacon Baab, delayed his immediate acceptance of that invitation.

“I had an interest in marriage and so it took me a few years after that experience to come to a conclusion about what I wanted to do: Get married or become a priest?” he said.

During that time of discernment, Deacon Baab continued working, which provided him with “time to grow as an adult and in my faith — to really make the faith my own.” He dated “a couple of girls,” was living on his own, and eventually accepted God’s invitation.

“I realized the desire for priesthood was stronger than the desire for marriage,” he said.

‘Incredible experience’

Deacon Baab, 31, began his formation for the priesthood at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore in 2012. He is grateful for the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation the seminary provided, as well as for the financial and prayer support he has received from people of the Diocese of Richmond. (The 2018 Annual Diocesan Appeal has committed $400,000 to fund the cost of room, board, tuition and health insurance for 30 diocesan seminarians.)

He spoke enthusiastically about the experiences he had serving in parishes during summers and his pastoral year.

“Learning about the people of God, the Church, has been an incredible experience,” he said. “What has motivated me to continue to pursue the priestly path is really getting to know people, learning their struggles, their joys and hopes and also being edified by their holiness.”

He added, “It is really a gift from God to be welcomed into people’s lives and their relationship with God and the Church.”

Acknowledging the trust people place in priests, he continued, “You get to see firsthand how God is loving them, helping them, strengthening them, and that’s just amazing to be a part of that.”

Evangelization is also a priority for Deacon Baab. (See accompanying article below.)

“I have a lot of friends and family members who grew up Catholic and have fallen away from the faith for various reasons,” he said. “I see my ministry in a special way as dedicated to working toward bringing those people back into the fold — going after the lost sheep, as Jesus said.”

Recognizing strengths

During formation, Deacon Baab said, seminarians learn to maximize their strengths and grow in areas that might be weak. He acknowledged public speaking and leadership as strengths.

“I’ve learned I’m a good public speaker and the Lord has given me a depth spiritually and helped me convey that in my preaching and other examples of teaching,” he said. “That’s one strength I learned about since becoming a deacon — the power of preaching and God giving me a gift for that.”

Regarding leadership, he said, “The seminary and pastoral experiences give you a lot of opportunities to grow in your leadership skills. That, coupled with work experience and even before that, has helped me to see that I have leadership strengths that I hope to use and take advantage of as a priest and eventually as a pastor.”

Open to what God wants

As ordination day nears, Deacon Baab’s strong desire to be a priest is surrounded by a mix of emotions, e.g., nervousness and excitement.

“It’s a serious endeavor,” he said of becoming a priest. “People’s salvation is at stake in some ways and you are a big part of that. So God entrusts you with that and he’s there with you; he’s providing for you. You don’t have to do it on your own.”

As he did while discerning his vocation and then during his seminary years, Deacon Baab has counted upon his prayer life.

“Prayer at the deepest level is being with God. It’s a communion, receiving his love, his mercy, his goodness, and sharing myself with him,”  he said. “Thomas Merton said prayer is two freedoms coming together. There’s a passive and an active dimension to prayer. Listening, being with, receiving, but also speaking, having that conversation with God, being quite open with God about where you’re at, but also being open to what he wants to give you.”

Apply marketing principles to evangelization

Deacon John Baab sees parallels between what he did in marketing and what he hopes to do in his priestly ministry.

“In marketing you are trying to convey your value — what is valuable to the customer, your audience, and why they should choose it over others. To some degree, that is the same thing you’re doing when you evangelize,” he said. “You’re trying to show your audience the value of being part of the Church and having a relationship with God, partaking in the sacramental life.”

With the Church’s emphasis on evangelization, this is a good time to make that application, according to Deacon Baab.

“It’s timely because we have a great portion of the population that still has some semblance of belief in God but they don’t see the value in being part of organized religion, coming to church,” he said. “Marketing gets you to think about where the customer is at. What’s going through their minds?  What are their interests?”

In order to evangelize, the deacon said, priests and Church leaders need to refocus in order to better understand those they wish to reach.

“What are their needs? What are their wants? How can we make the experience of Church — without being untrue to our traditions — more appealing to them?” he said. “It’s important that we look into that and try to work at that as leaders in the Church.”

Noting when it comes to evangelization “we can’t just do everything the way we’ve always done it because it won’t work,” Deacon Baab said a more active approach is needed.

“To some degree, when we preach, when we teach, when we go out and evangelize, we have to think about what will make sense to them, what will convey value of the Church, of active participation in the Catholic faith,” he said.

Deacon Baab knows marketing techniques alone won’t do it.

“You have to speak to their hearts. And the Gospel does speak to their hearts. We know that,” he said. “It’s the Holy Spirit that is driving this. You can’t get to the person’s heart without the Holy Spirit awakening them.”

– Brian T. Olszewski