Archdiocese Local

‘In the hands of the Lord’

Archbishop Emeritus Keleher trusts in the Holy Spirit to pick the best pope


by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — There was a time when not only did the pope never retire — but bishops didn’t either.

“We’re used to bishops retiring, but remember, that’s only recent and came out of the Second Vatican Council,” said Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher, who retired on Jan. 15, 2005.

“Like the pope, they remained either until they were so incapacitated healthwise [that they couldn’t continue] or passed away to eternal life,” he continued. “They didn’t retire. It wasn’t the custom.”

Although what the pope emeritus did was unusual, it was the right decision.

“I commend [Benedict XVI] for this,” said Archbishop Keleher. “I think it was a wise thing he did, and it breaks new ground for future popes to be able to do that when they feel they no longer have the energy and strength to carry out the demanding role of the papacy.”

Unquestionably, the burdens of the papacy have increased since Pope John Paul II stepped into the shoes of the fisherman on Oct. 16, 1978. The next pope needs to be someone who can carry those burdens.

“I think we probably want to look for, perhaps, a younger cardinal to take on the burdens of the office,” said the archbishop. “The pope has become such an important part of the whole world, even to the non-Christian world. Therefore, I think they should choose someone who is still vigorous — older, but not too old.”

Most who become bishops do so when they are in their middle 40s to 50s, he said. The youngest cardinals range from their mid-50s to early 60s. If the cardinals choose a younger pope, he could be in his early 60s, said Archbishop Keleher. Anyone in his 80s, he said, might be considered too old.

Among other factors, it’s important to balance health and stamina with experience.

“I think it would be wonderful to have someone in his 60s or early 70s,” said the archbishop. “Benedict gave great service and he was in his late 70s when he was elected. It would be nice to plan for a pope to serve 10 or 15 years.”

However, if an older cardinal in good health is the best candidate and is able to carry the burdens of the office, then the cardinals should vote for that person, he said.

Archbishop Keleher would like to see someone who is fluent in a number of languages, and who would continue to lead the church in the true spirit of the Second Vatican Council and the beauty of Catholic Tradition.

He would also like to see the next pope continue the new evangelization, a movement begun by Pope John Paul II and carried on by Pope Benedict XVI.

The new evangelization, explained the archbishop, involves “getting our own Catholics more knowledgeable and more involved in proclaiming their faith by the way they live, and to pass it on. In particular, I’d hope that the domestic church, the church of the home, could be passed on to the new generations that come from that domestic church.”

Like his predecessors Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, the next pope must be a good teacher and communicator.

“I think the teacher part remains important,” said the archbishop. “At least speaking from the American point of view, until recently our ability to communicate the teachings and doctrine of the church have not been so successful.”

“They’re getting increasingly better,” he continued, “and I think Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI really helped us in that regard. So, to continue to press the need to know the truth as Jesus has taught us will be a very important factor.”

Pastoral experience is important, said the archbishop, but the pastoral quality comes from who the person is, not necessarily the length of time he’s spent in a diocese.

“I remember talking to a bishop who one day became a cardinal — no names given — but he was basically in the diplomatic service of the Curia,” said Archbishop Keleher.

“He was made the bishop of a large diocese in the United States,” he continued. “He was worried about it because he didn’t have pastoral experience. But in the end, he did a wonderful job and was well-liked. Even in a curial position, you can tell who is pastoral and who maybe lacks pastoral skills. I think you’d want someone who can deal with people in a positive way — who can challenge them when necessary.”

Although Archbishop Keleher is interested in the conclave, he won’t follow it obsessively. It’s all in the hands of the Lord, anyway.

“It’s going to be God’s blessing,” he said. “I’m not into the politics of things or how they chose. I think we have a wonderful way of choosing a new pope.”

“Since I have been on this earth, all I’ve seen in the papacy is gifts, beginning with Pope Pius XII and every one thereafter,” he said. “All the popes who’ve been in office since World War II or before have been gifts from God, and so I just think the same thing is going to happen.

“And I think each one kind of fits into the epic of the age that we’re in. I do believe that the Holy Spirit is active, and that he will inspire those cardinals to pick the best one.”

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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