When he first came to visit St. John’s University, Timothy Backous was a young man on his way to the University of Chicago, planning to become a lawyer. Little did he know that he was going to spend most of the rest of his life as a part of the St. John community.
First, he enrolled as a student in the fall of 1971, then after graduation in 1976 (he likes to say he pioneered the five-year degree), he spent a year teaching English as a volunteer at a monastery in the Bahamas.
“One of the things that struck me was the natural beauty of those islands,” he reminisced, “I tried to get to as many as I could….I remember more than one bumpy trip flying in those mail planes, flying from one island to another.”
After his time away, he came back to St. John’s to teach at the prep school. It was during his year there that he decided to join the Order of St. Benedict.
He wasn’t sure, however, if this was the path his life would end up taking. “When I got to college I was probably the most unlikely person to become a priest,” Father Tim remembers, “I was not a wallflower.”
“I kind of decided I would give this lifestyle a chance,” Father Tim said, “I remember saying to somebody ‘I don’t expect that it will be a lifelong thing, but it would be fun to tell my grandkids that I had been a Benedictine monk when I was young.’”
However, he had found his calling. “I liked the place,” Father Tim reminisced, “I liked the spirit of the community,”
Father Timothy has now been a Benedictine monk for nearly 35 years – serving in both the campus ministry at St. John’s University and as the school’s athletic director. He is presently the headmaster at St. John’s Preparatory School.
There he sees his role is to educate young people in a liberal arts prep school in the Catholic tradition, as well as to show them what the Catholic faith offers the world.
“What we are modeling of the church itself,” Father Tim avers, “is openness and support of the other ways of believing. We would never ever think of telling our Moslem or Hindu students, or Jewish students, that theirs is a worthless faith.”
Instead, the school welcomes students of all faiths and religious backgrounds, as well as students of Catholic and Protestant backgrounds who are not active in their faith.
The school is run under the auspices of the Order of St. Benedict, an order that came to Minnesota in 1856. Five monks, originally from Bavaria, came here to serve the needs of the German immigrants of this area.
Still today, most of the area’s Catholic Churches are served by Benedictine monks. “One of the most important works we do in the monastery is pastoral work,” says Father Tim.
“I really think we are in a transition era right now, but if I read the tea leaves correctly,” Father Tim opines, “this community is going to get much more serious about serving the poor, that’s our next horizon.”
However, as the order’s numbers decrease he sees changes ahead, such as a greater role by the laity, such as those who serve as Oblates, “they basically join the community and then they live the rule of Benedict to the best of their ability in their everyday lives.”
Also, in an age where married Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Anglican pastors can become Catholic priests, he expects that eventually Catholic priests will be allowed to marry as well.
One sad part of the history of his order is that of the sexual abuse scandal that has come to light in recent years. “We all regret the fact that it happened because of the injury it caused,” Father Tim says, “and I think the monastery is very determined to make sure that message is front and center.”
“I was just talking to somebody who was sexually assaulted as a young man here,” Father Tim goes on, “and he asked me what has changed now that makes you certain that this won’t happen again?”
“Now we are mandatory reporters,” Father Tim states, “we are obligated to report it and that is a good thing. [Also], kids nowadays are more likely to report this stuff, and to talk about it, the fact that it happened, rather than keep this terrible secret.”
Looking back, he has never regretted his decision to become a monk, headmaster and priest, but he does think of what other paths he might have taken. “Once in a while I think about whether or not I could have been a good spouse and a good parent,” Father Tim wonders, “and there are moments when I wonder what that would have been like.”
Looking ahead Father Tim does not see himself slowing down, indeed he jokes that his retirement may well double as his wake, and while he likes his role at the prep school, he wouldn’t mind a chance to teach a course in ethics as well.
He would want to make it relevant to the outlook of students today. “I think our culture is being more contentious,” Father Tim states, “there is no sense of forgiveness, forgiving someone for doing wrong is weak, being tolerant is unacceptable.”
“What’s virtuous,” he goes on, “it seems to be money, power, self-righteousness, self-indulgence; those are the kind of messages that they [the students] are getting as being valuable.”
“They live in a generation I think where the signals are that it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught,” Father Tim says, “I think that’s prevalent and needs to be changed.”