The Catholic Register
September 10, 2023

How Michael B. became Fr. Michael Bechard

How Michael B. became Fr. Michael Bechard

After finding his way “into the rooms,” Fr. Michael Bechard is now comfortable in his own skin.

(Photo by Michael Swan)

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    Michael Swan
    The Catholic Register

If Fr. Michael Bechard hadn’t ever fallen into depression, hadn’t struggled with paralysing anxiety and hadn’t started drinking alone in his room to make it all go away, he probably would have been a decent priest — hardworking and conscientious, dedicated to the Church.

But Bechard did crawl out of that hole. He did find his way into A.A. meetings — the “rooms of recovery.” He became something more than another decent priest. He has that fire that drove St. Paul — no longer simply living his own life, Christ lives in him. He’s different now.

“Since I quit drinking, my depression’s gone. My anxiety’s gone. I’m comfortable in my own skin,” the Diocese of London priest told The Catholic Register. “I love being with people and I think I have a better sense of what’s really important, maybe, about the priesthood and about the Church — and what isn’t. I’m much more concerned now about the Church’s social mission. I think I’m much more interested in how we, as Catholics, embody the corporal works of mercy. How do we, as God’s people, now demonstrate and embody God’s love for those on the margins?”

Until July this year, Bechard ran a busy, amalgamated parish with two churches and a dozen active ministries. With homelessness and addiction rising in London, as it is in every Canadian city, Bishop Ron Fabbro has assigned Bechard to develop a ministry for the people in housing, addictions and mental health crises.

He is, of course, one of the seasoned pastors called in to teach at St. Peter’s Seminary. But he’s also the founder of Northern Bridge Community Partnership, a model of Indigenous-settler reconciliation that puts young people from the south into Dene communities across northern Saskatchewan and the Athabasca region of northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Northern Bridge students head north either for university coursework and experiential learning or for longer periods working together with young Dene colleagues on community development.

“I never would have done that had I not found my way into the rooms,” Bechard said.

The work in remote fly-in communities looks at addictions management, suicide reduction, harm reduction “and really seeking to empower young people to assume their rightful place in the community and to become leaders,” Bechard said.

“Early on in recovery, I was sponsoring Indigenous guys and had very little sense of who they were, or their context, or where they’ve come from, or their culture,” he said. “It was working with them that inspired me to seek out the ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph, which in turn then brought about the founding of Northern Bridge.”

There are lots of ways to run away from yourself. Alcohol is only one.

The blessing of Bechard’s addiction is that recovery required him to stop running.

“I never ended up in a treatment centre of any sort. I found my way into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous on the fourth of January, 2008. It was just after the Christmas holidays and I was, I guess, finally sick and tired of feeling sick and tired,” he said.

At the time Bechard was chaplain at King’s University College at Western University. One of the students he was in contact with had told him he was in recovery. Bechard called up the student and asked about attending an A.A. meeting.

“He suggested that it was a great thing that I was interested in learning more about Alcoholics Anonymous and that it would benefit my ministry in working with others. He would be happy to bring me to a meeting in a couple of weeks. I said, ‘OK. Well, my concern is not so much for other people. My concern is more immediate and it’s for myself.’ (The student) said, ‘I’ll be there in two hours.’”

'I came to meet people in the rooms of recovery that I also saw sitting on the sidewalk — and in them I saw the face of Christ'

-- Fr. Michael Bechard

The kid drove in from out of town and Bechard was at his first meeting that night. The priest was at first an anonymous Michael B. and just another alcoholic. There was no particular crisis. He wasn’t going to jail, hadn’t lost his job, hadn’t left his wrecked car in a ditch.

“I didn’t like my behaviour, but I think more importantly, I didn’t like what was going on in my head,” he recalled. “There was a tremendous sadness and a real sense of despair... I knew that I was meant to be better and I knew that God desired something better for me, and I couldn’t get there on my own.”

He had tried to quit drinking. It sometimes lasted a month, sometimes a day. At A.A., he heard that one drink is too many, a thousand drinks are never enough. “So there was almost like an insatiable appetite that nothing was fixing,” he said.

Along with his reliance on alcohol, Bechard had been prescribed a benzodiazepine variant called lorazepam, better known by the brand name Ativan. It’s not a narcotic, but it can be addictive and long-term use can be counterproductive in treating anxiety. Quitting lorazepam cold turkey often sends patients into a spiral of depression, so getting off the drug took some time.

Once the pills and the alcohol were gone, Michael B. got to know Fr. Michael Bechard.

“Ultimately, A.A. is a spiritual program and it’s really about connecting with not only our deepest reality of one’s self, but also with a God of our understanding,” he said. “So, for a lot of people in recovery who struggled with their relationship with the divine or with the Church or abuse at the Church’s hands, it allowed me the grace of being able to walk with some of those people... While I work upstairs (in the church), I found God and community downstairs where the meetings often happen.”

Learning to be vulnerable with the vulnerable made Bechard a better and a different priest.

“The story of my drinking and my struggles with anxiety and depression, that wasn’t the whole story. But I think for so long I had defined myself simply by my weakness  that I failed to allow God to bring me to someplace different,” he said.

“I feel particularly drawn now to minister with the poor, because I came to encounter myself as poor. I came to meet people in the rooms of recovery that I also saw sitting on the sidewalk — and in them I saw the face of Christ.”

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