“Hell-raiser in a collar”

That’s how this Plain-Dealer profile describes the Rev. Bob Begin, Cleveland’s “rebel priest,” who has grown savvier as he has grown older, but still with the same zeal on behalf of his flock. The story focuses on Begin’s campaign to fight Bishop Richard Lennon’s order to close Begin’s parish, the 129-year-old St. Colman’s Church, one of 50 parishes Lennon ordered closed in a downsizing plan last March.

All parish closings are painful and exceedingly contentious, the merits of each case a saga like a Russian novel. St. Colman’s is in a poor area and provides a vital service to the community as well as to parishioners, and so it is natural–and right, I’d say, from afar–to champion their cause.


And yes, I cite this story as a counterpoint of sorts to the post below on the pope’s letter for the Year for Priests and his invocation of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney–but truly not so much to say one model is better and one worse, though I and many others might empathize much more with Father Begin. Rather, I think Begin represents another aspect of a dedicated pastor, perhaps every bit as much as Vianney. Yet it is an aspect that is too little appreciated, I think, by the powers-that-be simply because it smacks of a “wordly activism” that Benedict XVI warns clergy against.

Above all, however, I was struck by Father Begin’s approach to this campaign–standing firm but consulting others and “keeping a cool head.” That is a difficult balancing act for many groups in the church, especially reform groups, who are marginalized by the power structure, which often leads to them to become more outspoken or radicalized, which then confirms the suspicions of the authorities who pushed them away in the first place.


Here is an excerpt from Begin’s story:

Begin, a lawyer, wasted no time organizing parishioners and filing a formal appeal with the diocese.

“The biggest struggle was to keep it from becoming adversarial,” he said. “And so many people wanted to be adversarial. Thank God it didn’t come to that. I would have gotten fired and they would have had to evict me from the rectory.”

On the brink of taking it to the streets again, Begin sought the guidance of retired Bishop Anthony Pilla, who advised him to work patiently through the diocese’s appeals process.


“I told him to keep a cool head and trust in the Holy Spirit,” said Pilla.

Begin obeyed.

And after two meetings with Lennon, Begin convinced the bishop that St. Colman’s social services were vital lifelines to the neighborhood’s poor people and that the church was capable of operating in the black.

Last month, Lennon rescinded his order and kept St. Colman’s open. Two weeks ago, a congregation filling the church to the back burst into applause during a Mass of celebration.

“We’re so thankful, we’re serving ice cream and pizza in the church hall after Mass,” Begin told the happy gathering from the altar. He then led them in a chant, “The church is the people! The church is the people! . . . ”


For Begin, it was the people who saved St. Colman’s, but without his leadership, his followers say, the people would have been lost.

“He had the right tone, despite his reputation as the rebel priest,” said Eileen Kelly, outreach minister at St. Colman’s. “He was calm, not confrontational.

“It takes courage to speak to authority – truth to power. Bob has that courage and he has the experience. He was the right person for leading us.”


Comments read comments(5)
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Mike L

posted June 19, 2009 at 10:53 am

Two things stand out for me. The first is a reasonable priest that was willing to listen to advice. The second is a reasonable bishop that was willing to listen and change his mind. What a wonderful winning combination. I hope we see many more stories like this.
Congratulations to both of them.

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Ben Caduff

posted June 19, 2009 at 10:54 am

It would be great to see both “types” of priests raised up and honored, rather than one or the other. We need both Vianneys and Begins as priests in our church today, but we are encouraged to be either/or in our thinking, rather than both/and, which is actually closer to Catholic theology. Thanks for bringing forward both to our attention.

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Steve T

posted June 19, 2009 at 12:51 pm

The Holy Spirit will keep the both/and in the church. Have faith. What a victory!

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posted June 20, 2009 at 9:37 am

I don’t think that this is the kind of “activism” that Pope Benedict is warning about. Clearly, there was an appeals process set up and Father Begin used it in a very pastoral manner. We have to obey our bishop, but we don’t have to ignore routes that he has provided to plead our case.
Both kinds of priests are necessary. St. Jean Vianney is the patron of parish priests who we pray to constantly at the seminary. He is surely a great, great example.
It is equally inspiring to see caring pastors like Father Begin working for the People of God.

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Your Name

posted June 22, 2009 at 8:30 am

Fr.Begin is hardly a rebel, but rather, a true pastor. Priest’s and parishioners do not fare well when they openly reject the authority placed over them. It is wonderful to see a little reasoning together going a long way.

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