Kerry A. Robinson: From sorrow to joy, trusting in the new life to come

Father Bob

Kerry Robinson and her late friend and colleague, the Rev. Bob Beloin, Catholic chaplain at Yale University.
Photo courtesy of Kerry Robinson

In the season of Lent, a Catholic leader grieves for her late friend and for her church, confident in the paschal mystery that out of suffering and death comes new life.

It was nine months from diagnosis to death for my closest colleague and friend, the Rev. Bob Beloin.

I was with him when he experienced his first symptom. We had met on a beautiful fall morning in October 2017 to take a long walk and talk about our work on behalf of the Catholic Church -- mine with the Leadership Roundtable and his as the Catholic chaplain at Yale University.

Without warning, he was suddenly unable to walk with his usual ease and brisk pace. It was perplexing, but neither of us was unduly concerned.

As fall ended and winter began, Father Bob was increasingly certain that he was OK. The solution, he said, was simple and likely arthroscopic in nature. He was persuasive. I was relieved. But in January 2018, I took him to the doctor anyway.

Since then, I have often yearned for the blissful ignorance of that fall day and ordinary time -- before the worsening symptoms, the doctor visits and tests, before the MRI and the biopsy and the diagnosis of glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

Over the next many months, as Father Bob underwent treatment, the Catholic Church to which he had devoted 45 years of exceptional pastoral leadership was once more embroiled in crisis. Another wave of sexual abuse scandal and distrust was breaking across the church. Throughout the Catholic world, the faithful demanded healing and justice for survivors and transparency and accountability for church leaders.

In the midst of this, an archbishop came to visit. He arrived at Father Bob’s residence visibly upset by the crisis, and he proceeded to speak at length about the failure to protect children, the concomitant distrust of church leadership, and the anguish of survivors and their families. The tumor had robbed my friend of much of his physical mobility but little of his formidable intellect. He listened attentively to the archbishop’s lament.

Realizing the distressing nature of the discussion in light of his pastoral visit to a priest living with advanced cancer, the archbishop apologized, leaned closer to Father Bob and asked, “Where do you find hope for the church?”

Father Bob’s answer was immediate and clear: “My hope resides in the laity.”

I was proud of him, but not surprised. He was a fierce advocate for lay leadership, the role of women in the church, and authentic collaboration between clergy and laity. His support for the gifts and talents of laity was one of many reasons why he was nationally recognized as a consummate pastoral leader.

Our very friendship had been formed through an ordained-lay partnership committed to expanding Catholic life at Yale. For 10 years, I had worked with him as director of development for the St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale, where he served as chaplain.

As the archbishop prepared to leave, he thanked Father Bob for his priesthood and then knelt beside him, bowed his head and asked for his blessing. I cried at the grace and redemptive beauty in that moment.

During his last months, as Father Bob pondered the enormity of his illness and its consequences, he remarked many times how narrow and focused his life was becoming. I told him it was a necessary paring down to what was essential -- a matter of life and death.

Visiting him daily at the chaplain’s residence at St. Thomas More, I took my cues from him and tried always to be a joyful, reassuring presence. Once, he caught me silently crying and asked the reason for my tears. I confessed that I was afraid. I feared that the joy and inspiration I had received from our long friendship would end when his life ended, that I would no longer be motivated to keep working to strengthen the church, that my passion and zest would be forever muted.

Father Bob, though, was adamant that nothing would change. He made me promise that after he died I would always use the present tense whenever I thought or talked about him and our friendship. He reminded me of what our faith attests: life after death, the community of saints, the eternal nature of love and soulful friendship in God.

Now it is Lent, and Father Bob has died. The twin crises of sexual abuse and distrust of leadership in the church are global in nature. The suffering feels acute -- personal and communal, institutional and international.

This year I resisted Lent, wanting to remain back in the fall, back in ordinary time when my friend was still alive. But now I embrace it. No one can outrun the seasons, even those that are liturgical. To be Catholic and to be penitent at this moment in the church’s history seems both right and just. I grieve for my friend and for my church, but I understand that grief is the price we pay for love.

The season of Lent helps me focus and pare down. Fasting, prayer and the call to generosity sharpen my resolve to acknowledge what I believe in faith, to appreciate what I most value, and to act accordingly. I am preparing for new life.

The truth is, Lent is meaningless without the hope of Easter. Everything belongs. Life and death are intertwined. The community of saints is for the living and the dead. I talk to Father Bob every day, and true to his word, he inspires and motivates me -- present tense. I am emboldened in my vocation to call the church to greater accountability, co-responsibility, openness, justice and competence.

Deep within the Christian imagination is the paschal mystery -- that out of suffering and death comes new life. In moments of anguish, I remember the women who stood at the base of the cross, of Mary Magdalene at Christ’s tomb. Women bore witness to new life. All of Christianity rested on that faithful witness.

This Lent, I yearn to empty myself of all that stands between God and me, that I might be filled with God’s imagination, desire, love and will, to bear witness to new life for the church. Interpreting the signs of new life can only be done in communion with others -- women and men, ordained, religious and lay, acting collectively on our baptismal responsibility. I pray for the grace to remain with others through this long Lent, confident in Easter.

Soon, 40 days of Lent will yield to 50 days of Easter. The greater proportion of joyful days of celebration is not incidental. Winter will turn to spring, and during the first week of Easter, we will bury my beloved friend’s ashes.

The gift and poignancy of accompanying Father Bob for the nine months of his illness is both memory and metaphor. On September 23, 2018, he was born into eternal life, unafraid, grateful for his full and abundant 71 years on earth, respected and loved by many, radically at peace, and immensely, even joyfully curious about the new life to come. From sorrow to joy, I, too, trust in that new life.