‘Many a fine tune’

Friends gather for a gentle ‘roast’ of Archbishop Keleher
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by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Among those who know and love him, Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher has a reputation as a raconteur extraordinaire.

His stories and personal parables, which often appear in his famous three-point homilies, have delighted parishioners and prelates alike for decades.

The tables were turned, however, during recent celebrations on Dec. 11 and 12 of the archbishop’s 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest and the 25th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop.

A few of his fellow clergy took the opportunity to share their favorite stories about “Uncle Jimmy” during a dinner following a vespers service on Dec. 11 at Savior Pastoral Center in Kansas City, Kan. Nine bishops and 85 priests attended the event.

Relatives present were Rita Zick, the archbishop’s sister, and Father Marty Marren, his cousin from Chicago. Speakers were: Archbishop John Vlazny, from the Archdiocese of Portland (Ore.); Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, OSB, from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis; and Father Bill O’Mara, from Chicago.

Other distinguished clergy present were: Bishop Robert Finn, of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph; Bishop John Gaydos, of the Diocese of Jefferson City; Bishop William L. Higi, of the Diocese of Lafayette (Ind.); Bishop William J. Dendinger, of the Diocese of Grand Island (Neb.); Bishop Emeritus George Fitzsimons, of the Diocese of Salina; Bishop Michael Jackels, of the Diocese of Wichita; Bishop Emeritus Daniel Ryan, Diocese of Springfield (Ill.); and Msgr. Walter Rossi, rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C. Archbishop Vlazny has known Archbishop Keleher since the two joined the faculty of Quigley Preparatory Seminary North in Chicago in 1963. He recalled the day they were both summoned to the rector’s office.

“I wound up being assigned to teach music,” said Archbishop Vlazny. “And I said, ‘All I’ve done is play an accordion as a kid,’ and the rector said, ‘Then play records.’”

“And [Archbishop Keleher] was assigned assistant athletic director,” Archbishop Vlazny continued with a smile. “We had to show him the difference between a football and a basketball.”

One of Archbishop Keleher’s jobs was oversight of the intramural sports program. The problem was, with then-Father Jim in charge, no one went out to the basketball court.

“He’d be sitting in the equipment room, and [the students] would all be sitting around and chatting with the assistant athletic director,” said Archbishop Vlazny. “The guys loved to chat with [Archbishop Keleher], as we all do. It was a gift from the very, very beginning.”

Teaching was a bit of a struggle for young Father Jim back then.

“He was a bit of a soft touch, and it was very hard for him to give a ‘C,’” said Archbishop Vlazny. “That was the rock-bottom low in his class. But he taught, and the men learned, and the students loved him very much.”

When he needed to be, however, Archbishop Keleher could be tough. His toughness, however, was always tempered by pastoral gentleness.

“We all know him as a man of courage and conviction,” said Archbishop Vlazny. “He doesn’t try to avoid a challenge, but he is always able to soften the blow of his message, because of his approach as the ‘velvet hammer.’ You don’t even know when you’ve been slugged.”

A gregarious soul, Archbishop Keleher offered support to a number of his junior colleagues, said Archbishop Buechlein.

“The archbishop was a mentor for me [when I was] a new rector,” said Archbishop Buechlein. “He was at the great Mundelein Seminary, and I was at this humble southern Indiana seminary, but he treated me as an equal, and I appreciated that.”

Archbishop Keleher has continued to mentor him ever since, said Archbishop Buechlein, now 70.

“Now you’re teaching us to be ‘emeritus,’” Archbishop Buechlein told Archbishop Keleher, “and I appreciate that as well.

“And I’m watching very carefully.”

Friendship is an amazing grace with which Archbishop Keleher has been abundantly blessed, said Father O’Mara, a Chicago priest who has been a friend of the archbishop’s since childhood.

“He has many, many friends, and friendship is synonymous with Archbishop Keleher, because he makes friends so easily,” said Father O’Mara.

Even as a young seminarian, Archbishop Keleher’s conversational skills were appreciated by his classmates, said Father O’Mara. When their old (to them) parish monsignor took them out to dinner, young Keleher was the delegated schmoozer.

“We’d put Jim in the front with the monsignor, because he was the only one who could really connect with the monsignor,” said Father O’Mara. “He’d ask the monsignor many questions that we knew he knew the answer to already.

“But he knew how to converse.

“And he knew how to make friends.”

Father O’Mara couldn’t resist, however, telling how a story in which he, rather than Archbishop Keleher, was the star.

“When we were going on vacation together, we’d come over [to see the archbishop’s mother],” said Father O’Mara. “He’d say, ‘I’m going on vacation with Bill O’Mara,’ and she’d say, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful. I’m glad you’re going on vacation with him, because he’s such a good influence!’”

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, master of ceremonies, thanked Archbishop Keleher for all he continues to do for the archdiocese.

“One of the things I admire so much about Archbishop Keleher during his ‘emeritus’ years is that he’s made a special commitment to visit the prisons,” said Archbishop Naumann.

“What a beautiful ministry he does,” continued Archbishop Naumann, “but it is a little embarrassing when we have to say, ‘The archbishop is in jail again.’”

At the end of it all, Archbishop Keleher was given the opportunity for a “final rebuttal.” Surrounded by friends gathered from 50 years in ministry, the archbishop spoke on the importance of friendship.

“Friends are a gift,” he said. “You know, we say you make friends. You don’t make friends. Friends happen, and they happen by the grace of God, and they are the most precious gift any of us can have.”

“And the friendship depends on being in touch with each other,” he continued. “Never let that friend be there alone. Share your life with your friends — especially with Jesus in the Eucharist.”

As he looked ahead, Archbishop Keleher referred to a poem given him that expressed his fondest wishes.

“There’s many a fine tune that can be played on an old fiddle,” he said. “And I trust with God’s help I’ll be able to play some mellow music for you all on this fiddle for years to come before it is time to put it away.

“God bless you all!”

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