When I was preparing Sunday Reflections for yesterday I had intended to include an article by a Columban seminarian. But, by chance, I came across some videos featuring Fr Ralph Beiting and included one of them. As I listened to him I felt all the idealism that he inspired in me and in many young people when we worked with him in 1969 and 1970 during Easter and summer vacations.
One of my friends who, when she was a college student went with me and some of her friends to Fr Beiting’s parish in Kentucky for Holy Week and Easter Week 1970, found his words on St Francis bringing her in touch with her late mother who had visited Assisi. My friend and her young adult daughter went on a pilgrimage to Assisi last year after finding some souvenirs from there among her mother’s effects. They took that as a sign to go there also – and a legacy from her mother made the trip possible.
Another friend, whom I met in Kentucky in the summer of 1969, responded on Facebook. He said, After watching the video, I am as impressed with his speaking as I was when I first heard him in 1967. I drove for him on numerous speaking tours and never got tired of hearing him talk. His message is always so fundamental. Radical (root). and his style is like crystal. I heard him speak for about 90 minutes once to a Catholic men's group in Utica NY. He had 'em for every minute. He also noted, They say he is still pushing his staff as hard as ever.
I first went to Lancaster, Kentucky, for Easter Week of 1969 with a group of students at the college near New York City where I was studying at the time. A ‘chance’ encounter with one of them on the way to class when I asked her what she was planning to do for Easter led to my going with her group. I remember doing lots of cleaning up work, getting buildings ready for the summer programmes, which included Bible classes, house-to-house visitation, summer camps where poor children could have a holiday from Monday morning till Friday afternoon, Black and White kids together at a time when there was very little social interaction between the two. Boys would go one week, girls another.
The six weeks I spent in Kentucky in the summer of 1969 is the only extended experience in my life that I would like to re-live, if that were possible. (A glorious winter’s day skiing in January of the same year, my only time to try it, is the only short-term experience I’d love to re-live). The Kentucky experience was one of discovery. I discovered that I had the ability to sit and listen to individuals. That is because a number of the college students I was working with, and one or two older persons, approached me and opened up to me. I had been totally unaware before that of this quality that others saw in me.
Along with that I realised that different persons have different gifts and that when we put them together it serves the whole community and there’s no reason to be envious of one another. Father Beiting had the great gift of being able to get college students – and some hi8gh school students – from many parts of the USA to give up part of their summer in the service of others and to enable them to do so effectively.
Father Beiting was also demanding. In 1969 he would not allow the young men to grow beards – because the people in the area were suspicious of such persons. The following summer he didn’t insist on this particular point. But he insisted that every volunteer attend Mass every day. Volunteers at the Father BeitingAppalachian Mission Center are still required to do so.
Despite his age – he’s now 88 - and many infirmities Father Beiting was still preaching on the streets last summer, as he has been doing for most of his 63 years as a priest.
In the video on top Aimee Logsdon, a college freshman working on one of Father Beiting’s projects during the spring break of 2010, says that the reason she and her companions were there was to bring Christ to all the people in the area and how we grew together as sisters. The video invites young people to Find God in the Poor, Find God in Nature, Find God in your Brother and Sister by serving the poor during their short spring break.
One of the things that struck me as a young priest when I went to the USA in 1968 was the reservoir of idealism I found in so many young people. It was the time of the Vietnam War and the USA was a very divided society. But I found this idealism in people on both sides of the issue.
I remember one young man saying to me when we were working together with Fr Beiting in the summer of 1969 that we wouldn’t find the kind of Christian community that we were experiencing there when we went back home – but he knew now that it was possible.
When I watched the young people talking about their spring break experience I felt a joy in my heart. Here were young people, inspired by a then 86-year-old priest to discover God’s presence, to discover the Risen Lord Jesus in serving others, especially those who are poor.
Volunteers from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students
Mary O'Regan wrote an article recently in the Catholic Herald, an English weekly, Meet 10 of the world's most amazing priests. Many 'amazing' priests - maybe 'amazing' isn't the adjective I'd choose - have touched my life. Certainly, one of the most outstanding is Fr Ralph Beiting. Long may he live!
All photos from Facebook of Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center, taken by Kaija Jeantet (see comment below).