I’ve written a fair number of words about my friend Father Dan Begin and have decided for various reasons to begin sharing them now and then. A few years ago, when my church, St. Cecilia in Cleveland, was threatened with closing, a friend and I met with Father Dan and asked him to talk to us about handling life’s changes. The conversation went like this.
Our parish is facing change.
The “clustering” process, by which some Cleveland parishes will join together and some will close, is underway in our diocese. Hence, it seems appropriate to ask Father Dan about life’s constant: change. Sometimes welcome, sometimes cataclysmic, change is a part of all of our lives. It creates trauma, it scares us, and it’s often hard to deal with. How does Father Dan handle life’s changes? What advice does he have for the rest of us?
“In theory, I can say it’s very easy,” Father Dan responds with a laugh. He reminds us that change is really going on all the time. We just don’t realize it. “Every minute is a death and a life,” he says. “Every minute, every second, something dies, something remains the same, and something’s new.”
This is the way life goes from the moment of conception to our death. But most of the time, we don’t notice.
“I don’t know why that is,” Father Dan admits. “I don’t know if it’s because we’re just so focused on what we’re doing. So, for example, when I was going through school, all I was worried about was getting out of it. Some changes were very dramatic, and I missed them. All these changes were taking place – in my family, in my body – but all I knew was I just wanted to get out of school!”
Such changes go on all the time, under our radar. Then, every so often, we notice. Someone dies, or we lose a job, and we have to make big adjustments. “When you put it into perspective,” Father Dan points out, “change gives us an opportunity to treasure certain times. When someone dies, for example, their story becomes permanent, like an artwork that’s going to speak forever. The grieving process is a wonderful coming to grips with what is.”
So, in theory, change is both inevitable and positive. That’s in theory.
“In reality, it sucks,” he says with a smile. “It takes so much emotional energy to sort out what’s fact from fiction, to sort out what you think you had before the change and what you really didn’t have.”
We can, he notes, prepare for change by simplifying our lives. Some of our fear of change comes from feeling that we have so much to lose. He explains, “When you don’t have a lot of things, you can move, you can go. When I was in the seminary all the things I owned fit in my pocket. And I still had room, so I could go wherever I wanted. For a long time I used to pretend I was moving every year, so I’d never have all that junk but …the stuff just keeps coming. People keep giving me things, nice things. And they don’t like it when I give them away.” He laughs his wicked laugh.
What we can count on is that change will come. Though change is inevitable, Father Dan points out that sometimes it’s natural, and sometimes it’s forced on us. He says, “Often in our society we push things. We push how soon we know we’re dying.”
In a way, the clustering process is rushing what might be a natural evolution. “What bothers people about the clustering thing,” he muses, “is that they would like things to die naturally.”
He’s seen the consequences of forcing change with those he counsels. Often people in recovery, working the 12 Steps, come to Father Dan for help. The 5th Step, for example, asks that we “admit to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” He explains, “When I do 5th Steps with people, I find that many of them were snatched out of situations that were horrible. And instead of making them better, it made them worse. For example, people were taken out of situations where they were being sexually abused, but it wasn’t their choice, and so they felt even more powerless.” It doesn’t mean they should have remained in dangerous situations, he hastens to add. There just has to be a more empowering way of rescuing.
When the diocese, or clergy, or formal committees take over the merging or closing of parishes, the natural process–which might be the actual “death” of a particular parish–is short-circuited. Painful as that natural ending might be, it might be healthier to let it happen, rather than imposing a formal and bureaucratic process.
Other questions about clustering and church closings relate to the ministry of the Catholic Church in the city. Not surprisingly, after thirty years serving the city, Father Dan has interesting things to say.
“My ministry is mostly not to Catholics. The African-American community can do very well without being Catholic. They don’t need us. They have very fine churches. It’s a sacrifice for them to be part of our life. Every funeral I do, 90% of the people aren’t Catholic.”
Our churches, St. Cecilia’s and Epiphany, offer a home to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and a Hunger Center and serve the urban neighborhoods in various ways. But, according to Father Dan, the Catholic Church needs the city more than the city needs it. The Church needs African-Americans, and it needs people who live in the city. “The Church,” he says plainly, “cannot be healthy without them.”
And the threat of this particular change strikes home for Father Dan as a priest and as a person. He’s spent almost thirty years in the city. He has sown seeds and seen some of the harvest. He notes, “My problem is I feel the call to the city more than I feel the call to the Church.”
Now, he explains, it’s a little harder to work “sunup to sundown” on the sowing when you don’t know if you’ll be in the city to see the harvest. “People are calling me,” he says. “Everyone’s asking me, ‘What’s going to happen if the church closes? What will you do? Where are you going?’ I don’t have the answers to any of these questions.”
He goes on. “I have to deal with a society that’s demanding answers about what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day. I have to be able to say, ‘I don’t know.’” For inspiration, he quotes the lines often attributed to Mother Teresa: “If they knock it down, build it anyway.”
He says. “If it’s worth building, it’s worth building as well as you can, right now. You didn’t build it for them. What happens to it after is out of your control.”