Grappling With a Season of Death

DENVER-Jim Beckman just wants some time and space to cry. He hasn't had much of either lately.

But then again, neither did Jesus, Beckman learned at a recent youth conference in Denver.

“What would Jesus do?” Beckman asked rhetorically during an interview with the Register. “He'd go on.”

Beckman is the youth director at St. Frances Cabrini Church in Littleton, Colo., a parish that lost fourth teenagers to the April 20 massacre at Columbine High School. He's also full-time director of youth conferences for Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. A July 30-Aug. 1 conference in Denver was the fourth he's administered since the massacre.

“I don't know if I'm coping well or not,” said Beckman after he closed Steubenville of the Rockies, a regional youth conference attended by some 2,000 teen-agers. “I just depend on God every day to get me through this.”

In the past three months, Beckman has emerged as a pillar of support and strength for a host of Columbine parents and students who are coping with grief. When he's not directing a conference, he's ministering to grieving adults and children. In just three months he's attended the funerals of five people he knew and loved as friends.

On May 31, just one month after Columbine, Beckman's best friend was murdered. Aaron Land was a 20-year-old sophomore at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He was killed with fellow sophomore Brian Muha, 18, in a wooded area of Pennsylvania about 12 miles east of Steubenville. The two were slain after a burglary at their apartment.

Beckman was a pallbearer in Land's funeral, just weeks after the funerals of four members of his own parish youth group.

“It's been a summer of death,” Beckman said after the conference. “It has really caused a hunger in the youth, who are looking for something meaningful.”

In opening the conference, Beckman told the teen-agers, seated in a coliseum at the University of Denver, some of what he has been through. Many teens in the audience had been dragged to the conference by friends or forced to go by parents. Some obviously didn't want to be there and Beckman said he could empathize.

“I don't want to be here right now,” Beckman said. “I don't know if I can do this. Sometimes I don't know if I can go on. I am a broken man.”

Beckman said he's been frustrated by his inability to get some quiet time alone to deal with his own grief. He's prayed for such an opportunity, he said.

“For three months I've been wanting to cry, but there are so many people, with so many needs that it's just impossible,” Beckman said.

He said he took solace, however, in words ministered during the final Mass at Steubenville of the Rockies. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput expounded on the day's Gospel reading, which told about Jesus in the wake of the death of his cousin John the Baptizer. Archbishop Chaput explained that John was murdered for preaching conversion. When Jesus heard about his cousin's death, the archbishop said, he decided to withdraw to a quiet place in order to pray and recommit to God.

“Instead, he was placed in a crowd,” Archbishop Chaput said.

“His heart was moved with pity, and he cured their sick,” the Gospel reading says about Jesus' reaction to the crowd.

As evening drew, Jesus' disciples suggested he dismiss the crowds so they could go to the villages and buy food. Jesus instead decided to feed the crowds with what little he had — five loaves and a couple of fish.

“This reveals what God can do when we bring our five loaves and fishes to him,” Archbishop Chaput told the students.

Beckman said he gained strength from that speech. He decided it was no time for him to feel defeated. Beckman, who has directed Steubenville conferences for 15 years, said the time is ripe to help youth.

“We're definitely experiencing a rise in the spirit level of the youth right now,” Beckman contended. “With most youth today there is a hunger for the Holy Spirit just below the surface. They've seen the failures of our generation, which looks for fulfillment in all sorts of worldly things. Youth are more ready to grab the Gospel message than I've ever seen them. And since Columbine, they are looking for something worth dying for.”

—Wayne Laugesen

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