Friday, June 26, 2009

Rebel Ohio priest wins his latest battle

Rebel Ohio priest wins his latest battle

June 20, 2009

CLEVELAND ­ He was Cleveland's rebel priest, a hell-raiser in a
clerical collar who broke laws to draw attention to the immoralities
of war, racism and poverty. He took on the government, the military,
the weapons industry and the Catholic church. He destroyed property,
was jailed, suspended from the priesthood and targeted by the FBI.

That was 40 years ago, when the Rev. Bob Begin first took his vision
of Christianity to the streets.

Today, at age 71, he appears calm and contemplative, a far cry from
the angry young man who splattered blood inside Dow Chemical's
corporate offices and hijacked the sanctuary at St. John Cathedral to
protest the Vietnam War. The white-haired, bearded Begin, now pastor
of a socially conscious urban church, has the bearing of a
distinguished sage, not a bullhorn militant. But the fire that drove
him in his younger days burns with the same intensity. And Begin
still fights The Good Fight.

"It's who I am," he said in a recent interview. "It doesn't go away."

Begin's latest battle ended in victory last month when he led a
grassroots resistance against an order by Bishop Richard Lennon of
the Cleveland Catholic Diocese to close Begin's 129-year-old parish,
St. Colman's, on West 65th Street.

The order, issued in March, was part of Lennon's downsizing of the
diocese by 50 parishes.

Begin was the only priest interviewed by The Plain Dealer who
publicly criticized the bishop's decision and vowed to fight it.

"We have a conscious obligation to continue our ministry," he told
the newspaper in March. "That's not negotiable."

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 werevital 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.
Earlier this month, a congregation filled to the back of the church
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."

Begin's courage and experience come from years of disturbing The
Powers That Be with his simple Christian gospel.

"He's not intimidated by any power or institution," said his brother,
the Rev. Dan Begin, one of his 12 siblings. "He follows his heart,
his mind and his faith. Our mother always said, 'Do what you are
supposed to do.' "

Forty years ago, Begin felt he was supposed to do whatever it took to
stop an immoral war in Southeast Asia. On a snowy January night in
1969, he led a group of protesters into St. John Cathedral downtown
to take over a midnight Mass.

Begin and the Rev. Bernard Meyer, who has since left the priesthood,
got to the altar before the scheduled priest, the Rev. Monsignor
Francis Carney, and began saying their own Mass.

A Plain Dealer story at the time said Carney called police and
shouted to the congregation, "This is not a Mass. These are not
priests. Please leave." He then shut off the lights. But Begin and
company lit candles and read a statement condemning the war and
challenging the very Christianity of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese.

Begin came off the altar to distribute communion, but another
cathedral priest grabbed his hand, spilling consecrated hosts to the floor.

Two dozen billy-club clutching cops arrived, shoving, kicking and
carrying the two priests, their followers and two newspaper reporters
out the doors.

Begin and Meyer were booked for trespassing and immediately suspended
from the priesthood by Bishop Clarence Issenmann.

But that didn't stop the clerical comrades.

Less than two months later, Begin and Meyer were among nine anti-war
activists who broke into Dow Chemical Co. offices in Washington,
D.C., to protest the company's manufacturing of napalm, Agent Orange
and plastic body bags, used in Vietnam.

Known as the "D.C. 9," the protesters poured human blood throughout
the offices and threw company files out a fourth-story window. They
were arrested, jailed and charged with burglary and destroying property.

A month later, Begin, speaking through a bullhorn, told 1,500
students at Kent State University: "The revolution is begun and
either you come along with the revolution or the revolution will run over you."

Looking back on his hell-raising days, Begin said, "It's hard to
measure the effectiveness of all that. But eventually it was popular
opinion that stopped the war."

Asked whether he would do it again the same way, he said, "Yes, given
the same circumstances." Though he admitted he's a smarter
hell-raiser today than he was back then.

"For most struggles, you have to wait for the right timing," he said.
"It takes strategy. It takes time. I know a lot more now than I did
then. I know you don't rush into things all by yourself.

"I have a vision about what society should do. But my approach now is
like downloading a computer. You keep clicking 'next' and 'continue.'

Four years after the Dow action, Begin was sentenced to four years
probation after pleading guilty to unlawful entry.

Begin would remain suspended from the priesthood for two years.
During that time he organized and lived in a communal house on
Cleveland's near West Side known as the Thomas Merton Community.

It was a place where poor people could get a meal and a bed. One
night an angry husband, looking for his battered wife who was
sheltered in the house, pulled a gun and shot at Begin from across
the street, missing the priest and hitting a bedroom mirror.

Another night, a drunk thrown out of the house by Begin shot out the
windows of the priest's car.

Begin, free on bail in the Dow case, worked as a nursing home orderly
through a temporary work agency.

But every cent he made went into the Merton house and he was so
broke, he had to hitchhike from Washington, D.C., after meeting his
lawyer there.

Bishop Issenmann, whom Begin once described as "a nice guy, but he's
got this authority hang-up," eventually reinstated the exiled priest.
But Begin continued to agitate and embarrass the church, challenging
its commitment to peace and social justice.

In 1973, he told The Plain Dealer, "I still have axes to grind. I'm
ready for confrontation."

Asked back then why he didn't leave the priesthood since he was so
upset with his superiors, Begin responded: "I want to stay in the
church.The bishops will have to deal with me whether they want to or not."

Issenmann held a hard line against Begin ­ even taking away his
salary after he was reinstated ­ but Issemann's successor, Bishop
James Hickey, was more tolerant. He gave Begin a salary and paid his
tuition to law school.

Hickey's successor, Bishop Pilla, who became head of the diocese in
1981, went further. He had confidence in Begin and gave him the
support he needed to fight poverty in Cleveland.

"With Pilla, everything changed," said Begin. "Now we had a bishop
who loved the poor. Under him there was never a need to do
confrontation in the church."

Thus, Pilla tamed the rebel.

"That's quite a significant achievement," laughed the retired bishop
during a recent interview.

But back in the hell-raising days, Begin's conduct was no laughing matter.

"I was sad," said Pilla. "I was asking, 'Why do we have to get to
this point?' I didn't doubt his sincerity, but it hurt the church."

Pilla regards Begin's militant actions as past "mistakes."

"But you've got to be patient with young people," he said. "And I
think we have to look at Bob's dedication to the poor and his
commitment to save St. Colman's."

Under Pilla's reign, Begin worked tirelessly on the city's lower West
Side, creating social services that thrive today.

He founded shelters and support programs for battered women, homeless
people, AIDS victims and Central American refugees. He established a
bail bond fund to spring poor people from jail ­ leading to his own
arrest one night because he didn't have a permit to serve liquor at a

While working for the poor, Begin found time to protestU.S. military
policies in Central America, traveling to El Salvador, Guatemala and
Nicaragua to observe human rights violations.

He learned Spanish and today is learning Arabic so he can help
refugees from the war in Iraq.

"He brought a conscience to this community," said former
Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar, who grew up and still lives on the
near West Side. "He was the hippie priest. He wore sandals with no
socks. Like Jesus. My mother thought he was terrific."

One night Oakar and her mother went to St. Patrick's Church on Bridge
Avenue. "And there was Father mopping the floors after a homeless
meal," she said. "He's a very humble guy."

Oakar said Begin's takeover of the cathedral was a wake-up call for
many Catholics to put their faith into action.

"That kind of dramatic episode called attention to the fact that the
church had to be more outspoken against the war," she said. "It shook
everybody up.

"And he was ready to take the same tactic in the battle to save St.
Colman's. He sure as hell wasn't going to give up that church without a battle.

"Father Begin is an original. He's one of the heroes of my Catholic faith."


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