Last week, one of the most remarkable men I have ever met was called home to God. He probably won’t get more that a footnote in most books that tell the history of the Catholic Church in the United States but the effect of his work of over sixty years of priesthood is greater than that of most of the bishops who lead dioceses and his evangelical fervor to serve the gospel to his final breath at age 88 is worthy of a saint.
Ralph Beiting was a native of the diocese of Covington Kentucky, a diocese in which he would serve his priestly ministry. Even before he was ordained he had a passion for the poor of Appalachia—an area in which the Diocese of Covington is located. Although Beiting’s family were themselves poor by most standards—and this was the depression—he knew how blessed he was compared to the heartbreakingly wretched poverty of the “mountain-folk” of Appalachia. After only a year of ordination he was made pastor of a parish “the size of Rhode Island.” There was no church. There was no rectory in which he could live. And there were very few Catholics. There was, however, huge suspicion about Catholics, and especially Catholic priests, from these uneducated rural people whose religious experience were mostly in snake-handling “pentecostal” assemblies or independent Baptist-style churches where the ministers were no better educated than the souls entrusted to them. Father Beiting (actually he was named a Monsignor in 1970 but always just called “Father Beiting”) knew that his mission wasn’t just to the Catholics and he knew that the needs of his people—all his people of whatever religious background—wasn’t primarily spiritual. There was need for health care and education. There was a need for safe-havens for abused women and children. Many of the people needed decent housing—few had electricity and fewer had indoor plumbing—even a kitchen sink. Prejudice was rampant—not only against Catholics but even more so against African-Americans. Smaller groups of Hispanics and Native Americans also suffered from the prejudice. Children had no hope for their future and no pleasure in their childhood. In 1957 Father Beiting and another priest, a Father Kamlage, used their own money to buy a piece of property and start a summer camp. It was not a specifically “Catholic” camp but a Christian camp—one where any Christian child would feel welcome in the faith—and remember this was several years before Vatican II and ecumenism. Even more dramatic—it was racially integrated and this, in the Old South, was a dramatic breakthrough. This was before Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. Because the camp was not segregated, the Diocese of Covington would not sponsor it but that did not stop Father Beiting and the camp was incorporated on its own. It was also about this time that Father Beiting founded the Christian Appalachian Project an interdenominational not-for-profit organization that offers a wide variety of services tending to the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of people in Appalachia. It is the 12th largest human services charity in the United States. Father Beiting was not one who did things the old-fashioned way of keeping Catholics in their ghetto and just leading them in their devotions. He had a radical approach to ministry that few understood at the time. He was a pioneer Apostle.
But Father Beiting was not just a social worker—he was an evangelist and his passion to provide for the bodies and minds of his neighbors was matched by a desire to touch their souls with the Word of God. Living in an environment of fundamentalist preachers, he adopted their style and bought a truck and a sound system and drove around preaching the gospel wherever he could set up shop—in the small towns of eastern Kentucky, in parks and recreation areas where people had gathered, in the parking lots of taverns and small rural restaurants. He didn’t say Mass on these circuits. He brought some musicians to sing gospel music and he preached like few Catholics then or now know how. His style of street preaching showed the local people that Catholics had the gospel and were centered on a saving faith in Jesus Christ. He won over many people who had once been suspicious of him—and once he won them over he put them to work making a difference in Appalachia. He may not have made them Catholics—and that was not his intention—but he opened their eyes to see that the Gospel calls us to serve the needs of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters. He did not, however, neglect his priestly duties and he built over 20 Catholic Churches in the areas where he served.
I met Father Beiting only once. He said Mass one day at a parish I often attend. It cost me. I don’t know how he did it, but I left church that day with an empty wallet although I had arrived fairly flush. He was already in his mid-eighties but a man of great vitality and energy.
Friends of mine often drove down to Kentucky to help him in his various projects. Father lived in a converted garage that had become a two-room apartment. He would turn over the bedroom to guests and sleep on a cot himself. From his front door, you could look up and see the mountain-top vacation home of a prominent American fundamentalist “evangelist” to which the “evangelist” would be helicoptered in and out from his offices in Virginia. That is a different kind of Christianity and a gospel that I suspedt is not quite faithful to that of Jesus.But (pseudo) Evangelicals aren’t the only ones to hear in the gospel only what they want to hear. Another native of Covington—one who did not stay there to serve the poor—is Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore. Explaining why he was switching from Kentucky to study for the Archdiocese of Washington, Lori told his seminary classmates at Saint Pius X Seminary in Erlanger KY that “there is no upward mobility in Covington.” Well, no there isn’t if you want to claw your way up the hierarchy, but as Father Beiting’s life shows us—if heaven is your goal, there is plenty of upward mobility in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky.