Still sharing his wisdom at 82

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Sunday, November 10, 2013

Archbishop James Keleher gestures as he teaches his class on Sept. 19. The 82-year-old is a former rectory of Mundelein Seminary. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

On a recent fall day in the basement of the library at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, Archbishop James Keleher, retired archbishop of Kansas City, stood at a podium in front of a black board 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, which he began teaching back when he was rector of Mundelein in the late 1970s.

The class meets once a week from 9:15 a.m. to noon and there is lots of laughter and joking along with learning. The joking is led by Archbishop Keleher, who doles out advice to the future priests along with theology.

He only teaches half the semester since he is needed back in Kansas City for archdiocesan duties.

By teaching at Mundelein, Archbishop Keleher is returning to his roots. He was born in Chicago in 1931 and belonged to St. Felicitas Parish. He graduated from Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary in 1951.

Cardinal Samuel Stritch ordained Keleher a priest in 1958. He was 26. Keleher earned a doctorate in sacred theology from Mundelein and, in 1962, became an associate pastor at St. Henry Parish in Rogers Park.

In addition to his pastoral duties, Keleher taught and was in administration at Quigley North, Niles College, Mundelein Seminary and Quigley South. In 1978 he was named president and rector of Mundelein Seminary, where he also served as an associate professor of systematic theology.

In 1984, Keleher left Chicago when he was appointed the sixth bishop of Belleville by Pope John Paul II. He was named the third archbishop of Kansas City in 1993.

He returned to the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in 2005 after he retired as archbishop of Kansas City. He recalls being at Holy Name Cathedral 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.

Why does the archbishop enjoy teaching?

“My theory is 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 for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, enjoy having him there. And they look after him, making sure he gets from place to place and sometimes carry his bag.

Deacon Adam Wilczak of St. Matthew Parish in Topeka first met the archbishop in junior high school during vocations events. He took both the archbishop’s catechism class and later his one on Vatican II documents.

“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,” Wilczak said. “You can feel the love that he has for Christ and his people as he’s teaching the class.”

No other group of seminarians at Mundelein has their retired archbishop or bishop for class.

Being present to the seminarians from Kansas City is also important to Archbishop Keleher.

“The 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 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.”