A.J. Barker teaches religion to high school students at Saint Thomas Academy.
AJ Barker

Alumnus Finds a New Mission and Culture

As more than 20 sixth-grade boys tumble into Mr. Barker’s room for religion class, oxford shirts are tucked in, ties are straight and voices are loud.

Barker smiles at the innocent chaos around him as he calmly walks to the whiteboard to start the period with a prayer. The volume drops and class begins.

A.J. Barker was a standout athlete in high school and a D-I football player in college. Now he is an alumnus of the Master of Arts in Catholic Studies program and a religion teacher at Saint Thomas Academy, an all-male, college prep Catholic school in Mendota Heights, Minnesota.

Barker runs for a touchdown as a wide receiver for the Minnesota Gophers.

His road to the front of a classroom, not to mention the Catholic faith and Catholic Studies, was neither straight nor smooth. But it was intentional, and he draws on that experience as he travels down a new road deeply immersed in the mission and culture of Catholic education.

As a talented athlete, Barker’s first mission was to find success on the football field. He was a professed atheist, and he viewed the world through a godless lens. But this mission was interrupted when his football career ended abruptly during his senior year of college. The culture upon which he had built his life crumbled beneath him.

The soul searching began, literally and figuratively. It was a dark, lonely time filled with equal measures of anger and self loathing. Fortunately, his well-grooved discipline and desire to seek excellence served him well as he searched for answers.

All within a secular context, Barker used this time to get healthy, to meditate and to seek virtue. “I wanted to know the truth of things and I was trying very hard to do this without God,” he said.

He consumed everything he could find in art, literature, culture, poetry, psychology and philosophy. He read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Kierkegaard and the Bible, among others. He wrestled with the literary, philosophical and spiritual “giants” and identified with their struggles. A painfully slow process, Barker started to think that perhaps “this religious thing was not what I first thought.”

Barker eventually “stumbled” across Introduction to Christianity, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s 1968 groundbreaking work on the Apostle’s Creed, and everything changed. “I read it in a week and found the answers I was looking for,” he said. “I could confidently say ‘yes’ to each of the statements in the Creed. I finally found God.”

Fast forward through his conversion and entrance into the Church. Barker next started down a path of inquiry that led him to Catholic Studies. None of this happened easily or overnight, but it happened with Barker-style purpose. In December, after two years as apart-time CSMA student, Barker successfully defended his thesis, “Toward the Common Good: The Natural Law and the Modern World,” with honors.

Thus, Barker’s new mission has begun. Now, all within a context of faith and reason, he speaks passionately about the integration of faith across the spectrum of a Catholic school – in the hallways, the classroom and on the playing field. He frequently asks, “How do these students see themselves?” and “How do they see God and the Church?” Barker knows that his students do not yet have the answers, but he believes these are the questions that should permeate the culture in which they are being formed. The Catholic Studies mission of exploring the impact of the Incarnation on thought and culture is Barker’s new mission.

“I can’t make a student holy, but I can try to expose him to the content of virtue and holiness,” he said. “I believe that is the core of Catholic education –that we are teaching more than just mathematics or science or language or history. Sharing in the life of grace opened to us through and in Christ is the point of it all. It is truly worth everything.”

This story is featured in the spring 2022 issue of Lumen.