by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — You may not know it, but the Yellow Brick Road runs from Chicago to northeastern Kansas.
Well, maybe not for Dorothy and Toto, but it did for Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher.
The archbishop was born on the South Side of Chicago. His family was devout Irish-Catholic, and priests were respected in the Keleher household. It was no surprise when his pastor pointed him to a minor (high school) seminary.
“Jimmy, you ought to be a priest,” said Msgr. Jim Walsh. “You should go to Quigley. I’ll take you down there and show you around.”
And so began the journey of James Patrick Keleher. The Yellow Brick Road wound from Chicago and down to the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, before it would bring Archbishop Keleher to his beloved “heartland,” the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
The priesthood and journey of Archbishop Keleher was celebrated during a Mass on April 12 commemorating the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood on April 12, 1958, by Cardinal Samuel Stritch in Chicago.
Archbishop Keleher was the main celebrant and homilist. He was joined at the altar by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, two deacons and 45 priests of the archdiocese.
The day was filled with affection and laughter, appreciation and prayer.
It began with the Mass in the Savior Pastoral Center’s main chapel and continued with a tribute luncheon that turned into a somewhat gentle roast, with master of ceremonies Msgr. Michael Mullen of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kansas.
The tag-team for the tribute (or roast, if you prefer) was provided by the two men who served as the archbishop’s vicars general: Msgr. Thomas Tank, pastor of Ascension Parish in Overland Park, and Msgr. Charles McGlinn, now retired from Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood.
Monsignor Tank recounted how, many moons ago, he had been sent by Archbishop Ignatius J. Strecker to check out Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.
The seminary rector — Father Keleher — made a lasting and good impression.
“At the time Archbishop Strecker was retiring as our archbishop, the [apostolic] nuncio sent out a letter asking for recommendations,” said Msgr. Tank.
The letter requested first that we give our input on “the type of bishop that we needed,” said Msgr. Tank, “and secondly, even to mention a few names of individuals.”
“I’ve never told Archbishop Keleher this,” he continued, “but I did put his name on the list that I sent back in, because I really thought at that time that we needed a low-maintenance archbishop.”
“I was totally fooled,” he deadpanned to great laughter and applause.
Archbishop Keleher’s arrival in Kansas was met with a great sense of joy and enthusiasm, he said.
“He came in and really took the archdiocese by storm because of his love of people,” added Msgr. Tank, “not just some people, but everyone.”
“If you ever went out to dinner or lunch with [the] archbishop, he’d always say to the waiters and waitresses, ‘What’s your name? What do you do? Where do you go?’
“There was an absolute concern for everyone — that whole sense of hospitality. Believe me, it’s one of the greatest gifts Archbishop [Keleher] has given to our archdiocese — that sense of warm hospitality, of welcome, of trying to reach out to individuals.”
“Long before Pope Francis talked about the joy of the Gospel,” Msgr. Tank said, “Archbishop Keleher was living it so very beautifully.”
Then turning to the archbishop, he said:
“Archbishop, you’re also a wonderful example for all of us, an example of reaching out to the peripheries, of being so concerned with those who are so marginalized and are hurting in our society.”
“We really have been blessed with your presence, with the witness of life that you give, of being truly that sacramental presence of Christ.
“Truly, you image Christ so beautifully in your life.”
For his part, Msgr. Charles McGlinn started out by noting the positive effect Archbishop Keleher had on vocations.
“Archbishop, you’ve always been really interested in the youth and supported them in the church in so many wonderful ways,” said Msgr. McGlinn.
“When you came, I think we had three seminarians,” he noted. “At the end of your tenure, I think we had 30-plus. You had a lot of help. . . . But if it weren’t for you, we’d still have aught-three.”
Then he, too, offered the archbishop his sincere thanks.
“You have been a wonderful gift for the archdiocese, and especially for the presbyterate,” he said. “I think you epitomized the qualities of a wonderful priest for us, and have created such great fraternity and unity within this fraternity.
“You were the personality who really pulled it together.”
“The whole church has benefited from it,” he concluded. “For that and so many other wonderful gifts you’ve brought to the archdiocese, I thank you.”
Building on a firm foundation
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann was next to address the group, expressing his appreciation for Archbishop Keleher’s leadership and the firm foundation he laid for his successor to build upon.
“Coming to the archdiocese here, there was such positive momentum in the life of the church,” said Archbishop Naumann. “You created this culture, and we’re living off of that energy and momentum.”
Archbishop Naumann went down a long list of his predecessor’s achievements: recruiting a good staff and ministry leaders, building up vocations, establishing Prairie Star Ranch as an investment in young people, supporting existing schools and building two new schools, building new parishes and more.
“It’s true, you’ve got that personality that people are drawn to and like to be around, and it’s because of the joy you bring,” said Archbishop Naumann. “If we believe what is in the Gospel, how can we not be filled with joy? You exemplify it.”
He said he was grateful that Archbishop Keleher asked for him to be his coadjutor, giving him those nine crucial months to get to know people and the lay of the land prior to his transition into his current role.
“After that fateful day . . . when Pope John Paul II accepted your retirement and I became the archbishop, you did everything you could to support me and encourage me, and also to encourage many others who love you to continue to stay engaged and help the church with its mission,” he said.
And most of all, said Archbishop Naumann, he was grateful for Archbishop Keleher’s faithfulness and friendship.
“You mentioned [in your remarks that] the evening is upon us,” said Archbishop Naumann. “We hope this is very early evening.
“The archdiocese needs your spirit and example for many more years, and your example to me of the ministry of bishop and to be a real shepherd for God’s people.”