|May 21, 2012 • VOL. 50, NO. 9 • Oakland, CA|
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Bishop Floyd Begin, a bridge builder for all
Blessed Pope John XXIII, under whose direction the Diocese of Oakland was founded 50 years ago, once declared that an anniversary is not just an opportunity to remember but also an obligation. This golden jubilee gives us occasion to burnish the treasures in the life of our diocese. Those five decades bring to mind a multitude of dedicated laity and clergy, each of whose contribution to that history should be related. A book, however, could hardly contain the names and deeds of all those women and men, who by generous and cheerful actions and words witnessed to their faith in Jesus Christ. In this article I will confine my remarks to just one of them.
That excitement and insight of Paul VI suited Bishop Begin well. He translated the direction of the pope as "to build bridges to all men and women." As seemingly heady and ambitious was the statement, the bishop had credentials for it.
First of all, he had anticipated the council's ecumenical directions at his installation. A Presbyterian minister from his own Euclid Avenue in inner-city Cleveland, the Rev. John Bruere, came to the installation. For the atmosphere of those days he was prominently featured at the ceremony.
In September, a month before Bishop Begin went to Rome, he invited 150 Protestant ministers and their spouses to the Claremont Hotel for dinner. The evening went well. Robert McAfee Brown, at that time on the faculty of Stanford, was the speaker. He began by noting that in Boston there was no "Cushing Concourse." Nor was there a "Cardinal Cooke Parkway" in the Empire State. But in so many places in Alameda and Contra Costa counties there was the sign, "Begin Freeway." Bishop Begin ended the evening by remarking that he did not know why he had called all together but he just wanted to tell them, "I love you very much." Those words echoed in the atmosphere of the East Bay for half a century.
On March 17, 1963 the report was brought to him that a new institution developing in Berkeley had as its purpose graduate theological education that would embrace an ecumenical setting. The bishop's immediate response was, "That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Dialogue at that level could not have been brought about by human ingenuity." My solemn conviction is that he was providentially the bishop to complete the elements at the Graduate Theological Union. Not only did he like the idea, but he liked very much the visionary John Dillenberger, dean of the GTU, who was a frequent visitor to the chancery office as well as to the bishop's house in Piedmont. Four years later, on Feb. 20, 1967, after reflection, consultation and responsible maneuvering, Bishop Begin would open the gathering of the local bishops delegated to decide about the GTU, repeating his conviction again, "Obviously this is the work of the Holy Spirit."
Congenial Catholic leadership helped. In place was the Dominican Father Kevin Wall at St. Albert the Great Priory with much homework done and a demeanor that would assure the bishop as well as encourage him.
The bishop was comfortable enough with his own educators. Bridges were indeed in place. He had a warm relationship with Sister Mary Dominic Engelhard, as president of Queen of the Holy Rosary College of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose. Sister Mary Ambrose Devereux, president of Holy Names College, was also part of mutual admiration. Their relationship related to the Berkeley initiative as well as to the college. The bishop well knew the heritage of the Christian Brothers in the Diocese of Oakland. He was however displeased with the Moraga graduation address in May 1962 by Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, who spoke of warning signs of anti-clericalism. The discomfort level surprisingly lasted some years before the welcome mat was out again for the eminent church historian.
One special outreach of the bishop is noteworthy. The new chancellor in the mid-'60s of UC-Berkeley was Roger Heyns. Moving to Berkeley from the Office of Vice President for Academic Affairs at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, Chancellor Heyns brought competence along with extraordinary insight and a most agreeable manner to the position during the heat of the '60s protests. In somewhat over a month's time Bishop Begin invited the chancellor to the house in Piedmont for dinner prepared by the talented and beloved Sister Lydia and Sister Thomasine. Shortly into the evening the bishop asked the chancellor "What can we do to help you?" Chancellor Heyns spoke of that outreach the rest of his days. His arrival in Berkeley had stimulated more advice than anyone would want to receive about the need of order, direction, sensibility. Bishop Begin's warmth was deeply appreciated. A lasting friendship was formed.
That bond was not out of character in relation to Berkeley. Bishop Begin arrived near the end of a long capital campaign engineered under the Paulist Fathers and the pastor, Joseph Quinn. It represented a major enterprise, abandoning the venerable Newman chapel on the north side of the campus to build the Mario Ciampi design on the south side. Under the bishop it became not just a student center but an important and richly servicing parish during the Vatican Council and post-Council years.
Almost forgotten has been the building of a Catholic center at Cal State University in Hayward and the friendship with the long serving president, Ellis McCune. The bishop's initiative was among the first services to Hayward students. Additionally, the bishop made sure there was a priest attached to all the institutions of higher learning in the two counties.
It was all part of the building of the bridge.
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