How does a young man from Casa, Arkansas, population 179, wind up a Jesuit? By way of Oxford, of course!
Father Matthew Baugh, SJ, went to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship after graduating from Duke University with a degree in international development. He met the Jesuits who served as chaplains there, and one introduced him to Jesuit saints in spiritual direction: men like Edmund Campion and Aloysius Gonzaga. The encounter proved decisive for Fr. Baugh, coming at a time when he could sense the Lord opening up new horizons.
“I was 22 years old before I had any inkling of a vocation,” he said. “In my senior year, I had felt the Lord calling me deeper into prayer. When I got to Oxford and began going to evening prayer in our medieval chapel, I was overwhelmed by – astounded by – the beauty of the Faith.”
At the suggestion of his spiritual director, Fr. Baugh went on a silent retreat at an ancient Benedictine monastery, where a comic mix-up served to clarify his discernment. Upon arrival, he was mistaken for a young man coming to enter the monastery and was promptly shown to a bare cell with nothing in it but a wood-plank bed, desk, chair and crucifix.
“The sight of that room is seared in my memory!” he said. “In the moment, it didn’t strike me as austere so much as wide open. It’s as if part of me saw this beautiful thing and leapt forward before I even knew what ‘it’ was. Only later did I learn what was being asked.”
At the end of his time in England, Fr. Baugh returned to the U.S. to attend law school at Yale while finishing up his doctorate in international relations from Oxford. Halfway through the three-year degree, his vocation to the Jesuits became clear, and he went on a discernment retreat in Grand Coteau, La. With his decision confirmed, he felt a real sense of joy.
He entered the novitiate of the former New Orleans Province in August 2007 and pronounced first vows two years later. He studied philosophy at the University of Toronto, then taught politics and law at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala. He loved his three years at Spring Hill and found special satisfaction the final year, when he lived in a dorm.
“It’s a whole new opportunity for ministry,” he said. “In the dorm, students would come to my apartment late at night, when they’re most ready to talk. Conversations were deep. It was a real grace.”
Amid his theology studies at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Fr. Baugh directed the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program at Boston University, and, during his time as a deacon, preached at the school’s vibrant Catholic Center. Seven people became full members of the Catholic Church, including a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew. “They were an extraordinary group from such widely different backgrounds, and they received baptism with such childlike joy,” he observed, with clear delight of his own.
“Every university, by virtue of its mission, has to be catholic, with a lower-case C,” he said.
Father Baugh studied what it means for an education to be Catholic in the fullest sense.
Ironically, Fr. Baugh never attended a Catholic school until his theology studies, but he embodies their mission in his living-out of the Gospel and enthusiastic sharing of the Faith.
Following his priestly ordination in 2019, Fr. Baugh spent a year as associate pastor at St. Francis Xavier College Church. He is now a post-doctoral fellow in the Catholic Studies program at Saint Louis University.