By Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Although he’s a seasoned cleric, Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher admits he was a little nervous about being the retreat master for 20 deacon candidates recently.
Believe it or not, when it comes to giving retreats, he’s a rookie.
“I was really concerned about doing it,” said Archbishop Keleher. “I can give good talks, but retreats go on and on. I did it once. Forty years ago, I gave a retreat at Cardinal Stritch Retreat House in Chicago to some young priests, and it was so-so.
“I resolved it was my last retreat.”
However, when co-director of the archdiocesan office for the permanent diaconate Leon Suprenant prevailed upon him, the archbishop emeritus just couldn’t say “no.”
After all, he’s the one who brought the permanent diaconate to the archdiocese. In a sense, it’s “his baby.”
Call it rookie magic, but Archbishop Keleher hit it out of the park at the deacon candidates’ last formation weekend, Aug. 17-21, at Savior Pastoral Center in Kansas City, Kansas.
It was also on that weekend that the 20 men transitioned from being “deacon aspirants” to “deacon candidates.”
“I don’t know that words will ever say just how amazing an experience it is to have him lead you,” said Bob Ortiz, a member of Mater Dei Parish in Topeka. “He is so open-minded, so kindhearted, and such a great spiritual leader for us.”
The hard part wasn’t only saying “yes” to lead the retreat. Then came picking a topic. He first thought about drawing from a course he taught for years — the documents of Vatican II.
And then an inspiration hit him: the prologue in the Gospel of John — “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). And further along it says: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (1:14).
“I wanted to somehow fit that into deacons and their ministry, and show them in a special way that deacons have a very important role in proclaiming the Gospel,” said the archbishop.
He was further inspired by the joyful mysteries of the rosary, which are a meditation on the incarnation of the Word — Jesus Christ.
“I was able to find the power of the Word in each mystery,” he said.
Deacon candidate Ken Billinger was impressed by Archbishop Keleher’s warmth, genuineness and faith.
“One of the [apparent] things is his love of the faith really shines through, and his passion for loving people, too,” said Billinger, a member of Ascension Parish in Overland Park. “He uses the word ‘beautiful’ a lot, and you can tell that’s just in his nature. I was impressed by the memory he has at 85 years old.”
Billinger also liked the fact that the archbishop emeritus would set aside large blocks of time so the candidates could ask questions in a relaxed way and not feel time constraints.
“He allowed us to pick his brain, which was really cool, too,” he said.
Kristopher C. Kuckelman, also from Ascension Parish, also appreciated the archbishop’s Socratic interludes.
“He talked about his experiences as an archbishop and as a priest,” said Kuckelman. “[These were] just beautiful, flowing talks — each one he gave us. And he very much encouraged questions. I got the impression that he wasn’t afraid to answer any question we posed. He would have talked about anything we wanted to talk about. It was a joy to participate in that retreat with him.”
The relaxed way the archbishop emeritus conducted each talk was a real benefit to the men.
“He came with a wealth of knowledge and experience,” said John Williams, from Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park. “The way he delivered his talks, and spoke, and treated people was so personable that it felt like we were sitting at someone’s house having a conversation.”
“It was just a relaxed conversation,” Williams continued. “Those days can be long, especially Saturday when you get up early and go all day long.
“But the feeling of myself and most of us was that we couldn’t get enough of his wisdom and stories. It was edifying and a great time.”
As with all deacon candidate formation weekends, many of the deacons’ wives were present, too. They appreciated interacting with the archbishop emeritus during meals and informal times between classes.
“My wife fell in love with him,” said Kuckelman. He also said Archbishop Keleher was “genuinely interested in us, our children and everything about us.”
For his part, although he wasn’t sure “how I’d come across,” the archbishop found the warm reception he received from the deacons and their wives to be very helpful.
“Overall, I had a lot of casual time with them and their wives,” he said. “I got to know them, and they got a feel for me that was very helpful.
“I don’t know if I showed it,” he continued, “but I was actually very nervous. I never gave a three-day retreat with a Mass and four talks. And yet, for some reason, they seemed impressed, and I became more confident as the days went on. I think they liked me as a person.”
And he was impressed.
“Honestly, I was very impressed,” said Archbishop Keleher. “These gentlemen have been in studies for one year. I got the impression that they are very hardworking. It’s a very demanding course.”
It wasn’t only his many years of teaching in the seminary that helped him assess the class.
“I was very, very impressed with the quality of their questions,” he said. “And that was because of the education they’re receiving — it’s for five years.
“They’ll come well-prepared when they are ordained.”