The long road home

After years of searching, Holy Name's new priest found his calling

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If every priest comes to the church with a gift, Father Ernest Bayer arrived with his past. What he learned in the two decades it took him to reach the priesthood is what makes him special. His own path gives him compassion for young people struggling with their faith, and it helps him reach out to people of other denominations with an open mind.

It's a journey that began when he was in seventh grade. He had been raised Catholic but was bored with religion.

"I was looking for something more, or at least something other," he said. "I was thinking that religion was just a collection of children's fairy tales.

"So I started looking for the truth in science."

Bayer's family was from Connecticut but moved to Durango when he was in sixth grade. He spent his middle school and high school years in the outdoors -- climbing, skiing and backpacking, pastimes that would become lifelong passions.

"God was evangelizing to me through nature," he said. "I started to wonder, 'Is there a creator?' and, 'What holds all this beauty together?'"

In high school, Bayer was invited to a Bible study held by a group of college students.

"I hadn't really studied the Bible, so I went with an open mind," he said. "I was impressed by the people who were there." One of the college students reached out to him and took him rock climbing, mountain biking and hiking, all the while trying to steer his thoughts toward God.

"He gave me a Bible and encouraged me to read John," he said. "It was a turning point for me.

"John certainly seemed to believe what he was saying, and I learned that the apostles gave their lives for what they believed. I decided to believe it."

Bayer reaccepted Christianity at age 16 after a few years of searching, but he didn't immediately return to the Catholic faith. Instead, he joined a small Christian church in Durango.

It wasn't until his family moved back to Connecticut that he started going to a Catholic youth group.

It was there that he had a profound experience that forever changed the way he viewed Catholicism.

He went on a retreat in the mountains of New Hampshire.

"We climbed a mountain and came back down," Bayer said. "We went back to our cabin and started a fire. After dinner, we sat around the fire, and the priest led a Mass."

Bayer looked around and saw his friends sitting on the floor and on a couch. He watched the priest, who he had spent the afternoon getting to know.

"Suddenly it clicked. I saw that the liturgy goes back to the Last Supper with a small group of people who knew each other well. Since then, that has always been a cornerstone for me."

Whenever Bayer can, he tries to hold liturgies in people's homes or in other intimate atmospheres.

"The liturgy or the Mass is a ritual we go through together," he said. "It's a ritualized expression of what we believe."

When Bayer was a senior in high school, a priest invited him to consider the idea of joining the priesthood.

"I decided to be open to it, but I wasn't convinced that it was right for me," he said.

Bayer went away to college to study English literature at the University of Hartford. The idea of becoming a priest stayed with him, and after graduation, he decided to study at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. The seminary is one of the oldest in Europe.

"I thought about it for four years, but even then I wasn't ready to become a priest," he said. "I wasn't comfortable about making a permanent commitment."

He was unsure about the vow of celibacy, he said. "I thought that I could work for God as a married man. I just wanted to see." He spent years working in youth ministries in California and Michigan, but the thought of priesthood never went away.

In 1996, after dating and considering marriage, Bayer felt he finally had to decide. He was 34 years old.

He went to a Jesuit monastery in Los Altos, Calif., for a 30-day silent retreat. For 30 days, he prayed five times a day and attended guided meditations. Once a day, he met with a spiritual director.

"The retreat is designed to help people make a discernment, which is different than a decision," Bayer said. "It's designed to steer you toward God's will." By the end of the 30 days, Bayer was ready to become a priest.

"A Jesuit told me that priesthood is a wonderful life if you're called to it. If not, it can be hell. You have to make sure you aren't going against your nature," Bayer said. "God really impressed upon me that his love for me was strong and that he was enough for me. I realized I didn't have to be afraid of celibacy."

Now 43, Bayer was ordained into the priesthood in 2001 and assigned to St. Michael's Catholic Church in Craig. Until 2004, he was the assistant priest serving the 100-mile circuit between Craig, Meeker and Rangely.

"I hit four deer," he said. When it came time for Bayer to pastor his own church, the position in Steamboat opened, and Bayer announced that he was "willing to go."

He arrived at Holy Name Catholic Church on June 13.

When he isn't serving parishioners, Bayer mountain bikes and backpacks. He has a ski pass and is looking forward to a season of powder days.

For now, his job in Steamboat is to observe his new parish, he said, but he eventually plans to put his energy into youth ministry, music ministry -- he plays the guitar -- and into a program designed to help people go through the process of the spiritual search.

"Because of my own journey to Catholicism, I'm very interested in that process," he said.

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