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In south Louisiana, the world changed on Wednesday, Aug. 2, with the tragic death of Fr. Mark Beard. Today, my friend was laid to rest in Amite, Louisiana, and it's still impossible to comprehend his departure into eternal life.
A good friend of both Fr. Mark and I told others, "I think I know the sadness and confusion that the Apostles felt when Jesus died and before he was resurrected."
There's nothing that stings quite like the death of a good man. I would argue it's an experience like no other. The detachment of the saints is crucial in those moments — being able to mourn out of love while at the same time shunning the selfishness of our desire to have that person here when we know the Christian promise of eternal life that awaits us all. In reality, our lives are preparations for death and the eternity that comes after.
As Catholics, it's never for us to judge where someone's soul was sent after death unless the Church tells us that person is in Heaven by way of beatification. I can only imagine what Fr. Mark would say if he were here to see people saying they know he is in Heaven while not praying for his soul.
"Don't wait till I'm dead to start praying for me," Fr. Mark would say.
I remember once he and I were walking through the St. Helena parking lot when a young child going with his parent to the car saw Father and was very excited to talk to him. In the midst of their conversation, he asked the young child, "Have you been praying for me?"
Being a good Catholic and a good priest is not easy, and he knew he needed all the prayers he could get, and I know that he would argue that he still does.
I first came to know Fr. Mark when I was in college. At the time, he was the only priest in my area I felt had real zeal for the Faith. He was the definition of lion in the pulpit, lamb in the confessional. He preached with genuine passion and a desire to spread the truth of the gospel. He would say that, at some point, he'd tried all the religions, so he knew how to speak with anyone. To this day, I've never met a priest more compassionate in the confessional. It almost seemed like he was more sorry for your sins than you were.
In my seminary application form, there was a question about priests you knew that you admired and wanted to emulate. Fr. Mark was my obvious first choice on the list. I wanted to make an impact like his. He turned a no-name parish in the middle of nowhere into a campus full of beauty and Catholic truth that people would travel long distances to visit. Fr. Mark would tell me he tried to build something new at the parish every six months. The parish would constantly have groups come on tours, and Fr. Mark loved to meet all the people.
I don't agree with everything Fr. Mark did and said. He and I definitely disagreed on different things. I say that because I know he wouldn't want anyone to paint him as the perfect person who could do no wrong. But even with all our differences, I had the utmost respect for him because his love for Jesus and zeal for souls were so tangible.
There are tons of stories out there about the great things Fr. Mark did during his life, but I'd like to share a couple personal memories that stand out above the others.
The first was when I stayed at Fr. Mark's parish over Christmas break one year while in seminary. A group of us went to a couple nursing homes to visit the elderly and sing carols. Near the entrance to one of the places we visited, a woman sat on a bench, visibly upset. I believe she was crying. I felt bad for her, but I did nothing, walking right past her and saying a little silent prayer in my head that everything would be alright.
We entered the facility. Fr. Mark was a little way behind us. He stopped. He talked to her for a while and then prayed with her — the things I should have done. He was the actual definition of pastoral. He would constantly go out of his way for people, whether or not they were Catholic.
The other situation occurred during the same visit with Fr. Mark. It was December 2018. A waste management worker in a nearby town discovered a dead baby in the trash. The police investigation is still open as to whether the baby died from abortion or was a premature stillborn. Fr. Mark offered to bury the child after being told the story. I attended the burial, along with many others, wanting to give the baby the dignity it had been deprived of by its parents. Many local businesses stepped up and donated their services for the little boy's funeral. The child was named Maximilian Kolbe, a nod to the great saint.
A friend also shared with me:
Seeing the great need for an inexpensive burial option, Fr. Mark raised the money and quickly constructed a tomb in Amite Memorial Gardens, in Amite. He loved the people in Amite and St. Helena parishes and believed that everyone should have the dignity of a burial. In October 2017, the first person was laid to rest in what is now called 'Arimathea.' There are 19 people buried in this tomb, which can hold up to one thousand urns. The names of the buried are engraved on a plaque. Fr. Mark's mother decided that she wanted him to be buried next to those that he showed mercy and so kindly buried without question. He will be buried in a tomb next to Arimathea.
The individual who had previously notified Fr. Mark regarding the Maximilian child recently reached out to him again, sharing news of three additional deceased children that had been reported by the coroner's office. These infants varied in terms of gestational ages, but any other details about them and how they died were unavailable. Naturally, Fr. Mark promptly agreed to conduct a service in their honor. On July 13th, a service was held and the three children, named Joseph, Joseph, and Rosalie (coinciding with the feast of Mary, the Mystical Rose), were laid to rest in the Arimathea tomb.
Fr. Mark played a major role in building a priest retirement home next to St. Helena Church so that priests would be able to live in community, especially those who couldn't afford to buy or rent a place after leaving active ministry. He and a friend also bought a retreat center in Chatawa, Mississippi. They have since turned it into a thriving place to encounter God, called Our Lady of Hope.
In Fr. Mark's last Sunday homily before his death, he preached against abortion, contraception, the need to get off the fence and be all in, and even talked about his judgment:
You and I have got to stop apologizing for being Catholic. You need to learn your Faith. Yes, we [clergy] have let you down — no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Yes, we make it confusing because different priests speak different ways; that is true. And sometimes I'm not sure where [Pope] Francis is going; that's a true statement, too, but it doesn't change the fact that you need to know the truth. And I'm gonna tell you, I am not going to stand before Him and say, "Well Lord, I would have pitched it, but you know there's going to be pushback," because now that sin's on me. I've got my own set, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I'm not going to burn for another.
And preach the truth he did. He got in trouble multiple times for standing up for Catholic moral teaching; he specifically defended Church teaching on same-sex sexual relations. When asked why he does what he does, he answered, "Because people are starving for their Faith."
For me, it's at times like these that God is most manifest in the world. The way He provides in these situations is always mind-blowing. Fr. Mark would be proud of the way people have come together since his death.
Through Fr. Mark, God proved once again that one man can make a profound impact on the world, changing the lives of so many individuals for the better. And through his legacy and the faithful Catholics Fr. Mark leaves behind, God proves that Fr. Mark wasn't the Savior; he was merely His faithful instrument, and His ways forward are better than ours.