by Joyce Duriga
MUNDELEIN, Ill. — On a recent fall day in the basement of the library at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary here, Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher stood at a podium in front of a blackboard discussing the Second Vatican Council with a group of pre-theology students from around the country.
That day’s topic was “Dei Verbum,” the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. This is just one of the 16 documents taught in Archbishop Keleher’s “Documents of Vatican II” class — the same class he began teaching more than 30 years ago as rector of Mundelein in the late 1970s.
The class meets once a week from 9:15 a.m. to noon. And though there is certainly plenty of material to cover each day, there is plenty of laughter to accompany the learning. Archbishop Keleher, whose lecture style is breezy and full of jokes and personal stories, also doles out advice to the future priests along with the theology.
In the past, the archbishop taught at Mundelein for nine weeks each fall. This year, however, the university switched from a quarter to a semester system, so he now teaches eight weeks of the course and another professor will finish the semester.
Archbishop Keleher spends three or four days a week at the seminary during this time and the weekend with his sister in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette.
“She loves it,” he said.
Archbishop Keleher first returned to seminary teaching in 2005 after he retired and was succeeded as archbishop by his coadjutor, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. He recalls being at Holy Name Cathedral in downtown Chicago following an event for seminaries when the then-rector Father John Canary approached him.
“I was sitting in a pew after the ceremony and Father Canary came up to me. He said, ‘Jim, since you’re now retired please come back and teach.’” The rest is history.
For the first few years, Archbishop Keleher taught a course on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But since at the time, no one was teaching his old “Documents of Vatican II” course, he suggested it be put back in the curriculum.
Why does the archbishop enjoy teaching?
“My theory is that as long as I can teach fine young people like these seminarians, I will stay young,” he said. “I feel young at heart when I teach.
“And at 82, you know, it’s still working!”
The students, especially the seminarians from the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, enjoy having him there. And they look after him, making sure he gets from place to place and sometimes carrying his bag.
Deacon Adam Wilczak of St. Matthew Parish in Topeka first met the archbishop when he was in junior high, at a vocations event. Now, as a seminarian, he has taken both the archbishop’s catechism class and now the one on the documents of Vatican II.
“Theologically speaking, he’s one of the successors to the apostles, so it’s an awesome thing to have him teaching our class. But he’s also very dynamic, very charismatic,” said Deacon Wilczak. “You can feel the love that he has for Christ and his people as he’s teaching the class.”
The Kansas City seminarians see Archbishop Keleher each week in class. But they also see him at meals and Masses and he usually joins them for their weekly Holy Hour for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. The archbishop also takes them out to dinner a couple of times when he’s at Mundelein.
“Every time I encounter him, or I meet him or I talk to him, it makes me want to fall deeper in love with Our Lord. [I want] to spend more time in prayer, and just become a better man and prepare for the priesthood,” said Deacon Wilczak, “because I can see what it looks like after it’s been lived well for many decades.”
Like Deacon Wilczak, Dan Morris from Sacred Heart-St. Joseph Parish in Topeka had the archbishop for class twice.
“He loves teaching,” said Morris, a third year theologian. “To see him be able to return to the seminary after serving as archbishop, after being rector of the seminary — you can tell that he’s returning to something that he’s very passionate about.”
All of the guys love him, said Morris. His style of teaching is one that begins with a story.
No other group of seminarians at Mundelein has their bishop or archbishop emeritus there for class, an advantage that has not escaped archdiocesan seminarians.
Having Archbishop Keleher around helps keep home closer, said Morris.
“We’re not as removed from the archdiocese and benefit from having one of our own archbishops present here on campus with us,” he continued.
Being present to the seminarians is important to Archbishop Keleher.
“The [Second Vatican] Council says that the bishop is to be a shepherd for his priests and his seminarians, and he is to be a friend to them,” he said. “He should teach — that’s the primary office of the bishop — and the priest’s [role] is to proclaim the Gospel. But also there has to be a bond — very important — between the bishop and his priests and his seminarians.
“While I’m not the active archbishop, I help him by being here.”