Archbishop James P. Keleher celebrates 20th anniversary in Kansas
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — He was flat on his back, recovering from spinal surgery, when Bishop James P. Keleher of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., got a call from a papal diplomat.
“Bishop, the Holy Father wants you to become the archbishop of Kansas City,” said Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan. “Do you need some time to think about it?”
Even laid up as he was, Bishop Keleher didn’t hesitate. Kansas had always appealed to him.
The answer was an immediate “yes.” He even knew enough to ask the nuncio a very important question.
“I asked him twice, ‘Which Kansas City do you mean?’” recalled Archbishop Keleher. “And he told me, ‘Kansas City, Kansas.’ Before we hung up, I said, ‘Once again, which Kansas City are we talking about?’”
Whenever Archbishop Keleher went to Rome, Archbishop Cacciavillan would tease him, “Jimmy, why did you ask twice about where you were going?”
Although born and raised in Chicago, the big city boy fell in love with the interplay of town and country life after he was appointed bishop of Belleville in 1984. And he saw in the appointment to Kansas that same dynamic.
“I never really felt like an outsider,” said Archbishop Emeritus Keleher. “I loved the plains [in] Kansas. I loved the cities in Kansas. Secondly, I fell in love with the people of Kansas. They were so welcoming and gracious.”
When asked if he would move back to his native Chicago after he retired in 2005, his answer was an emphatic “no.”
“Kansas is my home,” he said. “It’s hard to beat Kansas.”
Archbishop Keleher received his appointment on June 28, 1993, and was installed as archbishop on Sept. 8, 1993. Now, 20 years later, he had to wait to celebrate his anniversary until he could find the time — he just returned from teaching at the University of St. Mary of the Lake-Mundelein Seminary in Illinois.
Archbishop Keleher left quite a legacy from his 12 years at the helm of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
Some of the more notable include the establishment of Prairie Star Ranch in Williamsburg; the opening of new Catholic schools at a time when other dioceses were closing theirs; the co-hosting of the National Catholic Youth Conference — not once, but twice; and an archdiocesan-wide Jubilee 2000 Mass held in Topeka.
During his years at the helm, Archbishop Keleher also was responsible for the appointment of more laypeople to various advisory boards in the church, establishing the Santa Marta and Villa St. Francis retirement homes, and boosting archdiocesan vocations.
“When I came, the archdiocese had only three seminarians, and one left soon after I arrived,” said Archbishop Keleher. “I was horrified.”
He learned a lot from serving as bishop and archbishop.
“What people look for in a bishop, or in a priest, is approachability — that’s the magic of Pope Francis — and a sincere spiritual life,” he said. “You can be a very spiritual person but if people don’t feel like you welcome them, it doesn’t do much good.”
Oh, yes. And some administrative ability helps, too.
No leader, however great, can go it alone.
“[A bishop is] very smart if he enlists very competent people to assist him,” said Archbishop Keleher. “I had a wonderful group of advisers I met with regularly.”
He had two priests who would usually take opposing sides on issues, and he’d listen while they traded arguments and viewpoints.
“And when the conversation was over, I saw the light of what I really should do,” said Archbishop Keleher. “It was very important for me to have people like that, who would be very honest with me and tell me what they thought.”
Pope Paul VI established a rule that bishops are required to submit their resignations at age 75, although resignations are not always immediately accepted.
Archbishop Keleher was already preparing for this transition long before he reached that date. He wanted a smooth transition, so he asked the Holy Father to send him a coadjutor bishop — a successor.
That successor was Coadjutor Bishop Joseph F. Naumann, who was appointed on Jan. 7, 2004, and installed in March. On almost a year to the date, on Jan. 15, 2005, Archbishop Keleher resigned at age 73. He added “emeritus” to his title.
Although many men find retirement to be a difficult and uncertain time, Archbishop Emeritus Keleher embraced his role.
“Two things help a priest or bishop who retires,” he said. “As long as they are physically able, there are many things they are able to do. Basically, the administrative [duties] change . . . but they can still celebrate Mass, anoint and preach.”
Archbishop Keleher didn’t want his presence to inhibit or in any way detract from his successor, so he planned to skip his first post-retirement chrism Mass. Archbishop Naumann, however, insisted that he participate, and that gracious spirit has made for a warm working relationship ever since.
Archbishop Keleher has had a full, busy retirement. He teaches a class about the documents of the Second Vatican Council at Mundelein Seminary for two months each fall.
When classes are over, he returns to the archdiocese to help Archbishop Naumann as much as he can. Two of his major commitments here in the archdiocese are prison ministry and confirmations — about 15 a year.
“The only time I had a regret was the first time I sat at an ordination — I had done them for 20 years — and the new archbishop was doing the ordination for the first time,” said Archbishop Keleher.
“And there was a moment when I said to myself, ‘I wish I was doing that,’ and then God sent a grace,” he continued. “‘James [God said], do you want to assume all the responsibilities of this archbishop, including his administrative tasks? The angry phone calls? The insulting letters?’ and I said, ‘Lord, no! I really don’t!’”
The best thing about retirement is more time to pray, said the archbishop. He spends many hours in his home chapel.
One of his favorite items is a silver pectoral cross, depicting the Good Shepherd, given to him by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. It symbolizes what he hopes he was and is.
The archdiocese will celebrate its 200th anniversary on July 19, 2050. What would he hope would be his legacy among those celebrating that day?
“That he was a good shepherd,” said Archbishop Keleher, holding that cross.
“That would be wonderful. And maybe bury me with my Good Shepherd cross.”