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A pastor’s heart

Archbishop James. P. Keleher’s arrival brought a kinder, gentler style of management to the archdiocese

Story by Joe Bollig

Father Bill Bruning had been a priest and a high school chaplain for only a few months when he was faced with a tough pastoral dilemma.
Two frightened Catholic high school seniors, a boy and girl, came to him with a problem: an unplanned pregnancy.
“In addition to all the confusion and fear and anxiety that comes with this, they faced the archdiocesan policy of expulsion for the boy and the girl, ” he said.
In reality, however, “usually, that meant just the girl,” Father Bruning said.
So with great trepidation, the young chaplain called his boss of only a month now, Archbishop James P. Keleher.  The two men had not yet met — had never even talked to each other, in fact.
Never in the world would Father Bruning have thought that in his first conversation with the new archbishop he would be asking him for a new archdiocesan policy.
Yet that’s exactly what he did — and, surprisingly enough, that’s exactly what he got.
Although Archbishop Keleher warned Father Bruning that it would take some time to change the policy officially, he went on to empower the young chaplain to handle the situation as he saw fit.
“Here is my policy, Father Bill,” said Archbishop Keleher. “You will treat this young couple the way a loving father would treat his own children. What you decide as a pastor is what I will support. ”
To say that Father Bruning was moved is an understatement.
“Right then, that told me that Archbishop Keleher had a tremendous heart and was truly someone I could confide in, ” he said. “I had only been a priest for a short time, and he had only been archbishop for a few weeks, but in my first contact with him he affirmed me as a priest. I knew that here was a loving man who wanted to run the archdiocese in the way of love. ”

Truly a
shepherd

When Archbishop Keleher became leader of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas in 1993, the priests of the archdiocese discovered that they shared their ministry with a man who had a pastor ’s heart.  They also found in Archbishop Keleher a leader who would support and encourage them, and work with them to transform the archdiocese in significant ways.
Father Tim Haberkorn, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Olpe and St. Mary Parish in Hartford, was also just recently ordained when he first met Archbishop Keleher.
“I met Archbishop Keleher at World Youth Day 1993 in Denver,” said Father Haberkorn. “This was just before he assumed leadership of the archdiocese, but we had already gotten word that he was coming to the archdiocese.
“From the first time I met him, I enjoyed his sense of humor, but also his commitment to the faith and the priesthood — not just his own, but the priesthood in general. He seemed from that first moment someone who would be very supportive of us priests, and it seemed that there was a special bond there. ”
Father Haberkorn found Archbishop Keleher to be someone who was trustworthy, easy to approach, and easy to talk with. And he always felt that the archbishop enhanced his own priestly ministry.
“I remember being asked by Archbishop Keleher to become spiritual moderator of the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women, and I thought I ’d do that for three years,” said Father Haberkorn.
“Here I am in my eighth year,” he added, “and I love it. Like I said, he has a way of strongly encouraging you to bring out the best of your talents to serve. Sometimes that means asking [his priests] to go the extra mile. ”
Father John Torrez, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in St. Marys and four other parishes, was still a seminarian when Archbishop Keleher came to the archdiocese. The archbishop ’s decision to send him to Rome to study, said Father Torrez, had a huge impact on his life.
Father Torrez especially remembers one discussion he had with Archbishop Keleher before being sent to Rome, in which the archbishop spoke of the importance of Father Torrez ’s Mexican-American heritage. When he became a priest, the archbishop told the young seminarian, he would be able to use this and his experiences in Rome as a means to build bridges between people.
“He made you feel appreciated and important,” said Father Torrez. “And by acknowledging there were certain things that you were contributing to the archdiocese, he made it very, very clear that . . . he cared about what you were doing. ”

Ambassador of
good will

It wasn’t only the seminarians and newly ordained who were won over by Archbishop Keleher ’s friendliness and commitment to them, however.
“I think that he has been quite an ambassador of good will,” said Father Ron Cornish, associate pastor of Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe. “He has such an outgoing personality. He made people feel important and was very approachable. I felt like I could ask him for anything. ”
When Father Cornish was in Providence Medical Center recovering from an operation, the archbishop went out of way to brighten his day in a very special way.
“Archbishop Keleher even brought Archbishop Naumann to me [at the hospital] on his first day here, ” said Father Cornish. “I was one of the first priests who Archbishop Naumann saw.”
Father Robert Pflumm, who is now retired but helps out at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood, said that Archbishop Keleher ’s pastoral sensitivity is not only second nature to him, but is just what the archdiocese needed at the time he was named here.
“When Archbishop Keleher was appointed in 1993, I was convinced that the Holy Spirit was really guiding our church, ” he said. “It was time for a more pastoral approach. Archbishop Keleher became not only our archbishop, but truly our shepherd. ”
“He was so friendly to people,” said Father Vince Krische, chaplain of the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas. “He was very open to working with people, and he made people feel at ease with him. He brought a spirit of joy and friendliness to the church. ”
But at no little cost to himself, said Father Jerry Spencer, pastor of Holy Name Parish in Kansas City, Kan. Archbishop Keleher ’s personal ministry, he said, represented a true sacrificial giving of self.
“He has been a man who has really given of himself untiringly, and he will always be known as a people ’s bishop,” said Father Spencer. “He has always enjoyed being with people, so in that regard he’s been one to reach out to and be available to people.”
“I think his cheerful Irish demeanor always made the Lord seem a little closer to people, ” Father Pflumm added. “That’s the impact he had on people.
“And I always felt that I could truly be myself around him, and that was very important for me as a priest — to feel comfortable enough with your archbishop to be truly able to talk with him and know that he ’s listening to you. He always made me feel good about being a priest, and being his priest. ”

A source of
inspiration

The church’s standing and visibility in society was heightened by Archbishop Keleher’s natural effervescence, said Father Michael Mullen, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan., and director of seminarians for the archdiocese
 “Someone said — and he hadn’t been here very long — that he was maybe the best-known person in northeastern Kansas, barring none,” he said. “And part of the reason was his ability to get out and mix with and greet people from all parishes and regions, and to keep up those contacts. ”
Priests in special ministries often had additional opportunities to witness the archbishop ’s leadership and experience his support.
Father Mullen is a case in point.
He felt all aspects of his ministry benefited from the example and support of Archbishop Keleher.
Father Mullen, moreover, believed the archbishop went out of his way to offer him personal encouragement.
“His effect on me has been very positive,” said Father Mullen. “I think he has inspired me to a deeper spiritual life, to be more attentive to daily Mass, and to take time for Divine Office. He ’s always been involved with my work as director of seminarians. He’s always been very ready and available to give advice when questions came up. I think he ’s been affirming of my work as a priest, whether at Bishop Ward High School or at the parish. ”
Father Bill Porter, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish felt similarly affirmed, specifically by Archbishop Keleher entrusting him with the founding of a new parish. He also appreciated the archbishop ’s ability to connect with people.
“He’s a very approachable man and has a great sense of humor,” said Father Porter. Although he “is an excellent homilist who uses humor to drive home a point,” said the Leawood pastor, it’s less his engaging speaking style and more his engaging personality that draws people to him.
 “It’s just his way — his quick wit and the snap of his eye, and his smile,” said Father Porter. “It’s almost a magnetic attraction.”
 Father Krische found him to have a collaborative, rather than a directive, way of leading.
“His style was supportive,” said Father Krische. “He allowed people to develop a vision and to see it through. He didn’t say this was how you had to do it, but he gave us the freedom to do what we needed to do to accomplish it. ”
And he’s only one of many who is happy to hear that Archbishop Keleher plans to stay in the archdiocese and make himself available to help as needed.
 “I look forward to him continuing to help us with confirmations and other pastoral ministries, ” said Father Spencer, “and to his personal interest in what we’re doing.”
 “It’s great that he’ll continue to bring that Irish wit and spirit and his devotion to the church in the archdiocese. ”

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Archbishop James P. Keleher (right) joins Father Michael Mullen at St. Patrick Parish in 2004 for one of the scores of parish events he attended that year.