Priest’s life includes journeys to India, TV show, Neville album
BY MARK H. HUNTER
Special To The Advocate
September 14, 2012
ZACHARY — Mother Theresa is best known for how she cared for the poorest of the poor of India, but the Rev. M. Jeffery Bayhi remembers her for something more personal.
During a visit to her Missionaries of Charity mission in Calcutta in 1993, he knelt for an hour in prayer on a concrete floor causing his knees to lock up and his legs to lose all feeling.
“It was really so comical — that dear, diminutive woman trying to help this big ox to his feet,” Bayhi, who stands 6 feet, 4 inches and weighs 324 pounds, writes in his book, “Paved With Souls,” a memoir of his India experiences.
Bayhi, 58, the pastor of 1,400-family St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Zachary and its mission church, the 300-family Our Lady of the Assumption in Clinton, made seven trips to India during the 1980s and 1990s, experiences that, he said, changed his life.
“I’ve described it as the best, worst thing I’ve ever done. I even told Mother one time, I look so forward to coming here and then I can’t wait to leave,” Bayhi said recently at his St. John the Baptist office. “I can’t wait to get clean, I can’t wait to get the pollution out of my nose, I can’t wait to eat a meal that doesn’t have … gunk in it, (but) I keep coming back because it is so rich, such an incredible experience.
“Mother Theresa was famous for saying that she enjoyed the freedom of poverty. It was not that she owned nothing but nothing owned her. I was able to experience that with her,” Bayhi said. “Stuff didn’t really matter — souls did.”
Bayhi has traveled widely, met with Pope John Paul II, hosts “Closer Walk with Father Jeff Bayhi,” a weekly, national Catholic TV show, and is widely sought after for speaking engagements. He and his two churches support Sister Eugenia Bonetti, an Italian nun who, at great risk from organized crime, rescues women from sexual slavery across Europe.
He’s authored several books and in 1996 recorded a CD with Aaron Neville, called “Doing It Their Own Way,” a contemporary meditation on The Way of the Cross.
“Father Jeff Bayhi is a dynamic priest who has served the church at the level of parish (as vicar, as pastor), Diocese of Baton Rouge (as vocations director) and Province of New Orleans (as host of Closer Walk television ministry),” Bishop Robert W. Muench wrote in an email. “Many have benefited from his distinguished ministry.”
Bayhi grew up in Baton Rouge, the grandson of a Maronite Catholic immigrant from Lebanon, and is the son of Alfred A. “Mr. Buck” and Margaret Bayhi. To pay the bills for sending his five children to Catholic school, “Mr. Buck” worked full-time at Exxon, used his vacation time to work holidays at the Post Office and planted a small “truck farm.”
“Growing up, in our house, you were in the hospital or you were on your death bed if you didn’t go to church,” Bayhi said. “My Dad was a wonderful example. After working all night in the plant, he’d change into his suit and go to church at 6 o’clock and come home and go to sleep.”
His parents recently celebrated their 66th anniversary.
Bayhi’s two oldest brothers, George and Rick, are retired, while third brother, Dennis, operates a landscaping business and younger sister, Jane Woods, is executive director of the 19th Judicial District Attorney’s Rape Crisis Center and Victim’s Assistance program.
Bayhi played basketball, football and baseball in school and graduated from the now-defunct Cathedral Prep in 1971. He also played guitar in what he calls a “grease band,” playing mostly 1950s era music.
He attended St. Joseph Seminary College in St. Benedict, called “Saint Bens,” by alumni, where his life suddenly changed in 1973, during a Holy Week fast.
“I was out by myself, out by a lake and was doing this inventory of life and there was this overwhelming sense of gratitude, a sense of blessings, it was at that moment becoming so gratefully aware of everything that God had done for me that enabled me to say, ‘OK, God, you call it: I’m showing up,” Bayhi said. “That’s really where my decision for the priesthood came and the courage to terminate the relationship with a girl that I’d had for four years.
“It wasn’t my first awareness of Christ, but it was my internalization of my relationship with Christ that it got past my mind and got to my heart,” Bayhi said.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1974, then earned a master of divinity from Notre Dame in New Orleans in 1979, and was ordained a priest at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Baton Rouge that same year. He then earned a doctorate in pastoral counseling from Graduate Theological Foundation in Donaldson, Ind. in 1993.
Bayhi has traveled a dozen times to Medjugorje, Bosnia, where in 1981, it is reported, the Blessed Mother appeared to five children.
“People come there looking for God and anything that involves the Blessed Mother,” Bayhi said. “The Blessed Mother always points back to her son, not herself. There is a misconception that we (Catholics) worship Mary. We don’t. We honor Mary, but we don’t worship her.”
He often heard pilgrims’ confessions, he said. “For those who want to come back to Christ, they are very, very powerful stories of people who have lost their way with God.”
He produced a video of his Medjugorje experiences called “Two Men’s Journey to the Top.”
Bayhi served as pastor for St. Jules Parish in Belle Rose from 1984 until 1995, then was named director of vocations and seminarians for the Diocese of Baton Rouge. It was during that time he was flying to a Colorado conference when he penned his meditations on The Way of the Cross.
For several years he read the 15 meditations during services and occasionally played his own music, but in 1996 through some mutual friends he collaborated with blues singer Aaron Neville to produce “Doing It Their Own Way.” The 45 minute CD features Bayhi speaking the meditations and Neville singing the hymn, “Were You There?” to coincide with the stations of the cross.
“I truly believe that there are times when you are doing something for the right reason (and) God takes over and gives you what you need,” Bayhi said. “We met in the studio for the first time. (Neville) liked what I’d done and in an hour and 15 minutes we were through. We both realized that if God wants something to happen, it will happen.”
All the profits from the CD and his books go into the non-profit Metanoia Corp., with plans to someday build a youth and retreat center.
In 2001, following the death of the Rev. Harold Cohen, Bayhi took over the Closer Walk Ministry, a weekly, half-hour television program aired nationwide on several Catholic channels.
Many of his lessons are extemporaneous, a technique, he admits, that led last year to rumors he was dying. In one November 2011 episode, he discussed how he was counseling a friend suffering from health problems and stated he could personally relate to a “terminal illness.”
“No, I’m not dying,” Bayhi said with a laugh. He also uses few notes for his sermons. “I trust the Holy Spirit is going to use me to bring to bear what God has in store for the people.”
Bayhi wants readers to know he has very strong convictions regarding Christian morality and family values, but he is also compassionate and cites Jesus as his prime example.
“He wasn’t going to apologize for the truth, but he had great compassion and love for them,” Bayhi said. “I hope that is something that I’ve developed and people understand.
“I might disapprove, but I can still love you and care and support you. I think the role of priestly leadership today is to proclaim the truth with great clarity and great charity,” Bayhi said. “And one without the other is never sufficient.”