Path to the priesthood was paved with courage and trust

Deacon Clem and his sister Maggie Davis play a board game during her senior art show at Washburn University in Topeka. PHOTO COURTESY OF DEACON KENNETH CLEM

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sometimes, you can be doing something you love and enjoy but still recognize that something is missing.

That’s what happened to Deacon Kenneth David Clem. 

He was studying psychology and working with children with special needs. As fulfilling as these were, he had a nagging sense that he should take a different path.

“The idea of the priesthood came to mind and it didn’t go away,” said Deacon Clem. “Finally, in conversation with my parish priest, I came to the decision that seminary isn’t a place you go when you know for sure. 

“It’s a place you go to figure it out.”

Deacon Clem, 28, is one of three children of Kyle and Audrey Clem. His parents live in Burlingame and attend St. Patrick Church in Osage City. His father, who was a Baptist before becoming Catholic, does accounting for the BNSF Railway. His mother is an optometrist’s assistant in Topeka. 

He was raised in a conventional Catholic family: Sunday Mass, prayers at meals, Mom (when they were little) teaching them simple things about the faith. Since there wasn’t a Catholic school nearby, all the kids went to public school.

As is usually the case in small-town parishes, Deacon Clem served Mass as a boy — a lot.

“I was a regular altar server and, for a time, served at least every other week if not every week,” he said, “especially during the summer, because we were one of the few families that stuck around during summer.”

He was very close to his religious education teachers and, during his middle school years, his class would troop up to Topeka once a month to do service work at a food kitchen.

After graduating from Burlingame High School in 2009, he went to Emporia State University to study psychology. He wanted to work with kids who had special needs, especially those with autism. 

It was during his undergraduate years that the idea of the priesthood came to mind. And concurrently, he was becoming more devout, attending daily Mass.

Naturally, it was his parents who first formed him in the faith, but later and important roles were played by his pastor Father Anthony Ouellette and several laypeople, who served as witnesses to Christ through their humble lives of faith.

“They were definitely the big shapers in my life at that time,” said Deacon Clem.

With guidance from Father Ouellette, and concluding that it was OK to not be 100% sure of his vocation before he entered the seminary, he decided to take that first big step. He entered the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary, near Chicago.

It was while in the seminary that his vocation was confirmed.

“It happened during my fourth year in seminary,” said Deacon Clem. “At Mundelein, we do spring internships in our dioceses to live and work in a parish, to experience what parish life is like.

“I was at St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee. Living there and working with the people, I experienced parish life and the daily life of a parish priest. I found so much life in it. Every day, there was something new drawing me closer and closer in.

“Definitely, God spoke to me, showing this is where he wanted me to be.”

It took years of prayer and discernment for Deacon Clem to conclude that the priesthood was where God wanted him to be, and it was something he wanted as well. Now, the commitment has given him a new energy for service, and he’s looking forward to parish life.

“I enjoy listening [to people] and being with them in their times of sorrow and joy,” he said. “I want to not just be a part of people’s lives, but to journey with them. I have that deep desire to be that bridge between God and his people.”

This is a very high calling — but also a difficult one at a time of scandal for the Catholic Church. 

“During this turbulent time in the church’s history, the scandals of the abuse crisis, I think, inspire a deeper conviction in myself to be a genuine and holy priest,” he said.

“It does take a bit of courage to step into that,” he added, “but, at the same time, it takes just as much — if not more — to place our reliance and trust in God. Even when we ourselves are not courageous or brave enough to step into something like that, we know that God is. 

“Jesus leads the way before us. It’s not the gentlest road, but he walked it, and there is no better.”

He was ordained a deacon by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann on May 19, 2018, at Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa. He will be ordained a priest by Archbishop Naumann on May 25 at the Church of the Ascension in Overland Park.

Deacon Clem’s advice to men who think they might have a vocation to the priesthood is to discern with trust and confidence.

“Go for it,” he said. “If it’s where you are supposed to be, God will let you know.

“If it’s not where you are supposed to go, he will let you know.”

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