Archdiocese Local Religious life

‘Left with the best’

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

“The first couple of days were strange.”

Or so Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher recalls his official “retirement” three years ago. On Jan. 15, 2005, Coadjutor Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann succeeded him as prelate of the archdiocese.

The intervening three years, on the other hand, said Archbishop Keleher, have proven Confucius right: “Choose a work that you love and you won’t have to work another day.”

“The beautiful thing about a priest or a bishop retiring is that the main things we do — preaching, Eucharist and counseling — none of that stops,” he said. “And those things define me.

“They’re at the heart of who I am as a priest.”

What does stop, he explained, are the more burdensome tasks — the lengthy meetings, the financial worries, the personnel issues and the boxes overflowing with correspondence just waiting to be answered.

“Those kinds of things — all of a sudden — they’re gone. And so, in a way, retirement is a very beautiful time for a priest or a bishop,” he said. “We’re free at last.”

Few regrets

The archbishop still has an office at the chancery that he visits once a week and he continues to be active in the archdiocese, helping out with functions and events when he can (and wants). He and Archbishop Naumann have a close friendship — so much so, that the single piece of advice he has for anyone facing retirement is “get a coadjutor!”

“I just think the coadjutor idea is wonderful,” he said. “I knew who would take my place, he knew what he was stepping into. And we established a very good relationship with each other, which continues.”

The rose garden of retirement does have a few thorns, admits the archbishop, some responsibilities he truly misses. He is by nature a people person and says he sometimes longs for the volume of personal interaction and the busy social calendar he used to keep.

But what he misses most is of a more spiritual nature: ordinations.

Not only did Archbishop Keleher ordain many priests for the archdiocese during his 12 years here, but he enjoyed the rare opportunity of ordaining two bishops.

“I felt like I was in the apostolic times, passing on the Holy Spirit to those men,” he said. “It was a wonderful, spiritual experience.”

All it takes to help keep regrets at bay, confided the archbishop, is a glance at Archbishop Naumann’s work schedule.

“I miss those things [like ordinations],” he said. “But then I think, ‘That’s only part of the archbishop’s package, and if I’m going to do ordinations, I’m going to do everything else.’

“So that regret passes very quickly — but it brings back wonderful memories.”

A heart for Kansas

Though always canonically attached to this archdiocese, once retired, Archbishop Keleher could choose to live wherever he likes. He is a native of Chicago, but claims the hometown of his heart will always be Kansas.

“I love the churches, the priests and the people,” he said. “I go back to Chicago on occasion to visit my family who live there, but that isn’t my home anymore.”

When he was still the archbishop, he attended an event at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary near Chicago where he had taught when he was a young priest and where he had been rector. While there, Archbishop Keleher was asked by the rector if he would be willing to return to teach at the seminary once he was retired.

Archbishop Keleher happily agreed that within a year of his retirement, he would teach two courses for three fall semesters, commuting to Chicago and back to do so.

He spent that first year boning up on his subjects and preparing lesson plans for his classes, “Documents of the Vatican” and the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

When he finally returned to the classroom after an absence of more than 25 years, he discovered the only thing he loved more than his material, was his students.

“I had 20 young men from all over the country,” he said. “They were very idealistic. They loved the magisterium of the church — the teachings of the Holy Fathers and the bishops. They had a great sense of humor and a great sense of joy, and I was inspired by them.”

The feeling was mutual. When the archbishop completed his three-year commitment last fall, seminary officials asked whether he would agree to take on new classes.

For the archbishop, though, the inconvenience of commuting grew to outweigh the pleasure of teaching.

“Flying back, driving back, it’s too much, so I’m just going to stick around here during the next beautiful fall,” he explained. “This is my home. They’re very good to me here.”

Slowing down

Archbishop Keleher is eager to continue his ministry to youth, minus the long commute, of course. During his years as archbishop, he enjoyed celebrating many all-school Masses at local high schools. Now he longs to find a way to work with them in a more informal setting.

“What I’d love to do is just have a time of reflection with young people and maybe do a Mass for a smaller group, just a couple of classes,” he explained.

The desire for slow and intimate reflection carries over into the archbishop’s personal prayer, an aspect of his life he hoped retirement would impact positively.

His prayer life now is more relaxed and peaceful because he doesn’t feel the constant push to get back to work, to get things done. He loves to share the Mass with parishioners at Curé of Ars in Leawood and to spend time in the chapel in his home.

Time for reflection

Retirement has allowed the archbishop to deepen his relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary, he said, whom he refers to as his queen mother.

“I always call her the queen mother. I see it this way — she’s a queen because of her relationship to Jesus, and, because of that, she is our most powerful intercessor with Jesus,” he said. “But she’s also our mother. So she’s not only powerful, but she cares about us.”

Archbishop Keleher also has a great devotion to the saints, particularly St. Nicholas, whom he says embodies the essential qualities of a good bishop.

“To me, he is the spirit of joy and generosity,” said Archbishop Keleher. “That is how a bishop should be.”

Modern saints like St. Maximilian Kolbe and Blessed Mother Teresa also hold a special place in the archbishop’s prayer life, as does Pope John Paul II, who is already a saint in the archbishop’s heart.

“What happened when John Paul died and how the media handled it was just beautiful,” he said. “Despite the fact that they agreed with practically none of his theology, they recognized the love that was so obvious.”

The example of Pope John Paul

At this stage of his life, said the archbishop, Pope John Paul’s example is particularly pertinent. He, like other bishops of his generation, felt privileged to be a personal witness to the pope’s incredible ministry. He remembers, particularly, Pope John Paul’s courage and grace in the face of declining health.

“I remember him in his healthy days back in the 80s, when we would go for our ad limina visits,” he recalled. (Ad limina visits are made by heads of dioceses every five years to report to the pope on the status of their dioceses.) “We would have four meetings with him in the course of that week in Rome, and that was wonderful.”

When Archbishop Keleher went to Rome in 1995 to receive his pallium, however, he saw firsthand an example of the pope’s deteriorating health.

“It just happened that I and another archbishop were right next to him during the Mass,” he recalled. “I noticed his hands shaking and then afterwards they were saying he had Parkinson’s [disease].”

The last personal encounter Archbishop Keleher had with Pope John Paul was shortly before his death.

“Archbishop [Naumann] and I saw him probably three months before he died,” said Archbishop Keleher. “He could hardly talk, but you’d just see the holiness of that man.

“He would wave as best he could, and it was just beautiful to see. He was something very, very special.”

Fading away

The former pope’s courageous example has been foremost in the archbishop’s mind in recent days as he works to rehabilitate his knee.

His formula for dealing with pain, however, said the archbishop, is a bit different from that of the late pope.

“It’s complain, complain, and complain,” he said with a laugh.

But on a more serious note, he’s quick to point out that knee surgery is hardly likely to be the last health hurdle he’ll face. He’ll deal with whatever comes, he said, whether it be good, bad, or even ugly, the same way.

“One of the saints wrote, ‘God has a plan for us,’” said Archbishop Keleher. “I think part of prayer is to understand and to accept the plan that God has for us. And I think that helps me.”

For now, Archbishop Keleher has plans to enjoy his life in Kansas. He’s looking forward to a spring filled with “confirmations and all kinds of other events people would like me to come to.”

And he can sum up in one word where he plans to spend all that time he once spent teaching and commuting.

“Relationships — with the Lord, with our family, with people,” he said. “That’s what I have here, and I wouldn’t want to lose it.”

“I remember General MacArthur,” concluded Archbishop Keleher. “He was a great orator, and he once said that old generals never die, they just fade away.

“Well, that’s what I’m going to do — just fade away.”

Then he stopped, grinned, and added: “Very slowly.”

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

Leave a Comment