A Confident Catholic

Rev. Robert Louis Beloin, RIP

In the parishes I’ve belonged to, and I imagine in yours as well, we pew-sitters are always being encouraged to invite our friends to Mass. When I was a student at Yale, worshipping at St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel, I actually did. I was eager to show off what went on there, as if it were a window into the best of me. And, in particular, I was proud to introduce my friends to the chaplain, Fr. Bob, whose homilies were as good as any lecture I heard during the week and whose casual conversation was a delight. I knew the liturgies where he presided would communicate everything I cherished about my faith better than I could.

Fr. Robert Beloin, who died September 23 at the age of seventy-one, was one of two chaplains at St. Thomas More during my college years. Sr. Jo-Ann Veillette died, also too soon, in November 2016. I returned to campus a few weeks after her death to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Golden Center, a splendid Catholic student center that stands next to the chapel and that was still in the planning stages when I was an undergrad. I had been asked to join a panel of graduates reflecting on our days at St. Thomas More. As I looked back at the paradise I had found there, I was struck by the memory of what I decided to call “confident Catholicism.” Fr. Bob and Sr. Jo-Ann created that atmosphere and welcomed everyone into it.

The confidence I am referring to was nothing like triumphalism. At St. Thomas More, I found a community of believers who were simply, calmly confident that the Catholic faith had a natural place at Yale, and in the modern world in general. Fr. Bob made being a Catholic seem like the most sensible thing a person could do. For him, the expansion of St. Thomas More was necessary not just to create a refuge for Catholic students, but to enhance the intellectual and spiritual life of the university as a whole.

It was easy to believe in that vision when you listened to Fr. Bob preach. His homilies were masterful. Always centered in the day’s scriptures (and not only in the Gospel), they were thoughtful, polished, and challenging without being hectoring. He could teach and correct and inspire, all without going on too long. Once during my junior year, preaching on the “seventy times seven” passage in Matthew, he explained that, sometimes, loving as Christ commands requires a person to forgive the same sin over and over. I remember the timing because, during that year, we had all lived through the shock of 9/11, and alongside that trauma I carried my own personal troubles, as college students do. That homily reached me in a moment of both universal and personal brokenness—a moment in which Fr. Bob, somehow, said precisely what I needed to hear. He showed me what needed fixing in my life to help me live up to the Gospel, but with gentleness, leaving me with the sense that I might actually be able to do it.

He was a man who rejoiced in the bounty of God’s goodness.

The chapel wasn’t a cult of personality; rather, it was a strong community made possible by the tireless dedication of one person perfectly suited to lead it. With his oversight—and with the collaboration of many lay ministers—the liturgies were always carefully planned and prepared. I had never experienced the Easter Triduum the way I did there, celebrated in deed and in word as the high point of the year, with no trouble or expense spared. Adult baptisms were performed in a small pool built for the purpose (a permanent one has since been installed). It was a lesson in approaching worship as a joy and not a burden.

Fr. Bob believed in putting Scripture in everyone’s hands. He encouraged the development of “small church communities,” Bible-study and faith-sharing groups that met regularly throughout the semester in whatever space they could find. There were retreats, service opportunities, community outreach programs, and a steady calendar of lectures and fellowships—far more than I could ever make time for without failing my classes. It all grew out of the conviction that what we as Catholics call Truth, with a capital T, is not too fragile to be handled—even by laypeople, even by young people. Fr. Bob was confident that the Truth we profess can withstand critical inquiry, and that good-faith inquiry into matters of religious truth is both possible and necessary. It all sent the message that the Catholic faith was worthy of my time and energy—that it had something to offer me personally, and that it could help me learn what I had to offer, too.  

I cannot recall Fr. Bob ever taking an embattled culture-war stance, as so many faith leaders do. He never fell to moping about how unfair the world is to the church or how hard it is to be a Catholic in a secular environment. He was a man who rejoiced in the bounty of God’s goodness. Aren’t we lucky to be Catholic, he seemed to say—and perhaps he literally did say it—with all these riches to explore and share. This remained true even in 2002, when the church’s sex-abuse scandal took over the headlines. It was a crisis to be faced seriously, but not a reason to despair. Fr. Bob’s confident faithfulness buoyed us up.

That experience of confident Catholicism, and the friendships that grew in its light, is my most cherished memory of my college years. It has sustained me in the years that followed, as I searched for other faith communities that would challenge and support me. There have been fat years and lean ones, but through it all I drew strength from the knowledge that Fr. Bob was still there where he belonged, delivering thoughtful, revelatory homilies even when I was hearing humdrum ones. I know I wasn’t the only one who had him always in the back of my mind, the ideal of a pastor.

I saw Fr. Bob at a Commonweal event in 2016, and as we chatted he told me with pleasure of the plans he’d made for retirement: he would complete his twenty-fifth year as chaplain at Yale and then step down and turn his attention to everything else he had been wanting to make time for. And then, in January 2018, came the diagnosis of brain cancer that took it all away.

It was easy to be grateful for the Catholic faith, in all its splendor and quirks and maddening failures, when Fr. Bob was in the room. He made it easy to trust that somewhere in the church’s long tradition of prayer and belief you might find an answer to even the hardest questions. Grieving with others who loved him this week has made me realize just how much I depended on his confident faith. It’s a coming-of-age of a most unwelcome kind to have to face this great loss, the loss of him, without him. Requiescat in pace.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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