By John Andrews
Father Zhaojun “Jerome” Bai, S.V.D., has Catholic roots as deep as many Westerners. His family, belonging to the tribe that made up the last dynasty to rule China before it came under communist control, practiced the faith freely until the revolution of 1911.
The Catholic Church in his home village of Erbadan was destroyed during the revolution, but unlike other parts of Communist China, it was eventually rebuilt – in time for him to have the experience of growing up in the faith and ultimately discerning a vocational call to the priesthood.
Fr. Bai’s journey has led him to the Diocese of San Bernardino, where on July 1 he began serving as Parochial Vicar at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Rialto. In a Diocese that celebrates Unity in Diversity, offers Mass in 13 languages and is supported strongly by the presence of international priests, Fr. Bai is the first Chinese born priest ever to serve here.
Learning to preach in English, and especially Spanish, has been challenging, he admits, but coming from China to the United States has not been a big culture shock.
“The culture is really OK,” he says. “There are some differences but not too much. In church, it’s very simple.”
His cultural acclimation skills are no doubt aided by the fact that he is a missionary priest. Fr. Bai belongs to the Society of the Divine Word Missionaries. How he came to the SVD Order is a familiar tale. As a young seminarian in China, Bai went to study in Beijing where he met a German SVD priest, Father Arnold Springer. The missionary spirit of Fr. Springer made a big impression on young Jerome and he made his first vow with the order in 2007.
He arrived in the United States in 2010 to study English and was preparing to return to China two years later when he was offered the chance to stay and study theology. He received his Master’s Degree in Theology in May 2014. In April of the following year, after 17 years in seminary, he was ordained a priest in Chicago.
The seeds of his vocation took root many years earlier when he was an altar server in his home Diocese of Jilin. Again, it was the example of a priest, Father Yang, who helped him envision a life of priestly service. For Fr. Bai the model that priests can provide for young men in discernment is important and powerful.
“There have been those good examples for me on the journey,” said Fr. Bai, adding that Fr. Springer, his SVD mentor, kept in touch with him throughout his time in the seminary. “They pushed me.”
He originally learned Mass in Latin. Mandarin Mass came to his home diocese in the 1990s. Though he acknowledges that preaching in his native tongue allows him to be more instinctive and emotional, he has only presided over a Mandarin Mass four times since his ordination.
This is the tradeoff of being a missionary, he says.
“Wherever we are, if we try to do our best to serve the people, to celebrate the Sacraments with a heart of respect, that’s good enough.”
He also says the life of a missionary priest offers insight into the ministry of Christ, Himself.
“Going to a country and learning the language and the culture, it’s a way to experience the Theology of the Incarnation.”