St. Thomas Aquinas said “three things are necessary for the salvation of man: To know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do.”
It’s implied, of course, that after knowing “what he ought to do,” the good and purposeful person will, in fact, do it.
The more jaded among us will say, especially in the midst of this election year’s hyperbole and simplistic falsehoods, that there aren’t many who know what they ought to do — for themselves, for their families, for those less fortunate. There aren’t many, it sometimes seems, who will actually take the steps necessary to do what God has asked us to do.
But from time to time one person, one comet in a sky filled with background stars, will catch our attention.
Monsignor Ralph Beiting was such a person.
He died in Ashland, Ky., on Aug. 9 at age 88, closing his eyes after a liftetime filled with “knowing what he ought to do” and doing it.
As many already know, Msgr. Beiting spent his life’s ministry in Eastern Kentucky — a place practically bereft of Catholics. After his ordination in 1949, he was assigned to those Kentucky counties in Appalachia where Catholics were more myth than reality, where poverty was as common as coal dust.
When the monsignor was assigned to Eastern Kentucky, it was to a three-county area the size of the state of Rhode Island. In all that territory, he once said, there were only eight known Catholics — “and three of them were children.”
The daunting numbers apparently phased him not one bit. What others saw as bailing a lake with a thimble, Msgr. Beiting saw as his simple mission. “We sell God,” is the way he explained it to Joseph Duerr, the retired editor of The Record.
Back in 1973, Duerr spent about two weeks with then-Father Beiting, traveling mostly in Letcher County, as the priest stopped on street corners or at the intersections of rural roads, to bring God’s message to the towns, hills and hollows of his far-flung parish.
The result of this one man’s efforts became the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP), which he founded in 1964, and which has spread the word of God and offered a helping hand throughout the region. In fact, CAP is now said to be the 15th largest human services organization in the country.
All because Msgr. Beiting knew “what he ought to believe … what he ought to desire … and what he ought to do.”
It all began with the man’s presence and his “street preaching,” Duerr said last week in a telephone interview.
“He was gregarious and outgoing,” the retired journalist said. “When I was travelling with him, he had another priest and a group of seminarians and college students who played music. They’d travelled around in a couple of counties with their guitars, and they’d stop at an intersection in a hollow somewhere and start by playing Gospel music.”
When people gathered, Msgr. Beiting would begin to preach, telling them not only about God but about the Catholic Church and it’s willingness to help them.
“The purpose of his street preaching was to dispell all the myths and rumors people had about Catholics,” Duerr noted. “In that part of the state, people still thought Catholics had horns or tails, and he told people that the church was their friend, that it was there to help.”
What Msgr. Beiting presented in the hills and hollows “wasn’t high theology,” Duerr added.
“He just thought the chuch was there to serve the whole community, not just the few Catholics,” he said. “By the time I was there in ‘73, they’d built a few Catholic churches and Father Beiting would always mention the priests and the parishes. He’d tell people ‘If you ever need any help, go there and he will help you.’ ”
In a story in The Courier-Journal following his death, Msgr. Beiting was said to have been pelted with vegetables and even shot at during his early efforts to introduce his faith — and to lend a hand — in the far reaches of the state.
Despite those obstacles, Msgr. Beiting was said to be a man with an ecumenical spirit. In a mid-60s interview with The Courier, he lamented denominational differences. “When we stop fighting between us, the people will begin thinking of God,” he said. “I feel my religion is a better mousetrap and we are going to get our share of members.”
And he was right.
Over the years Msgr. Beiting was recognized for his life’s work — he was honored by former Kentucky governor Paul Patton; received Catholic University’s 1999 Lifetime Service award; and was given honorary degrees by St. Joseph’s College of Maine and by the University of Dayton.
Once when he was being presented an award for his Appalachian work, Msgr. Beiting told those gathered that “we aren’t here (in Appalachia) by accident. God sent us here to do his work.”
And he did it.
Whenever we doubt the ability of one person, one effort, to produce good, to change things for the better, we should remember the life of Msgr. Ralph Beiting. Then we should act as he did, and do what needs to be done.