I know this blog site is becoming somewhat like the “Obituary” page in any local newspaper and I am sorry for that but today I write with a particularly heavy heart. At about 1150am this morning, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville called me on my cell phone to tell me that my dear friend and his predecessor, Archbishop Thomas Cajetan Kelly, O.P. had died in his sleep sometime this morning. It was horrible news for me for there have been few figures as prominent in my journey to priesthood and its subsequent ups and downs as +Tom Kelly. He was present at my ordination to the priesthood and all smiles at my ordination as a bishop, soon sixteen years ago. Always a phone call away, my day was often brightened when I would pick up the phone and hear, “Kelly here!”
For most of his life, his Dominican community laid claim to his heart. He loved being a Dominican. When he was working in the office of the Apostolic Delegate in Washington or as Associate General Secretary of the episcopal conference, he lived and thrived in one small room at the Dominican House of Studies, large enough for a small bed, a desk, a chest-of-drawers and one chair – a desk chair – no bathroom, that was down the hall. The source and summit of his day was Mass with the Dominican community and praying the divine office in choir. The rest of his day was the spiritual equivalent of “chump-change.” He had no bank account, little money, no car, and when not in his Dominican habit he wore clothes I was sure were from the local St. Vincent de Paul Thrift shop. He thrived on being and living a monk and how he loved his Dominican brothers.
As a General Secretary of the Conference (he was brought to the service of the Conference by Bishop Joseph L. Bernardin) he was known to all of us as witty, humble, the best listener in the world, and a thorough product of the Second Vatican Council which he embraced with joy and deep commitment. At the time the General Secretary’s position entailed almost automatically becoming a bishop and how he dreaded that inevitablility. Soon he was ordained an auxiliary of the Washington archdiocese so for about four years he shouldered the twin burdens of working in an office from nine-to-five Monday through Friday and confirming many evenings and on week-ends. It was at that time that he had to give up living with his Dominican brothers, who knew him by his name in religion, “Cajetan.”
He had never had a bank account in his adult life so one day the Chief Financial Officer of the NCCB/USCC took the new bishop to a branch bank to open a checking account. The whole hierarchy of the bank was there to meet the mendicant since the Conference also did its banking there. Forms were filled out and completed and then came the awkward moment when the branch Vice-President said to +Kelly, ‘usually to open an account there is an initial deposit. Bishop, how much would you like to deposit?” Kelly looked stricken with fear. He opened his wallet and all present saw there one ten-dollar bill. He pulled it out, gave it to the Vice-President and said, “will this do?” The conference CFO was turning red with embarrassment but the bank VP said, “yes, that will do nicely.” After securing the deposit slip for ten dollars all rose and headed to the door when +Kelly suddenly said, “can I write checks now?” to which the bank official said, “as long as they are not for more than ten dollars!”
At the end of his term, in 1983 he was named Archbishop of Louisville. Wanting no part of an episcopal residence or an omnipresent priest secretary or an elaborate vehicle, the monk chose quickly to sell the house he inherited as Archbishop and move into two rooms on the third floor of the Cathedral rectory in downtown Louisville where he was as happy as that proverbial “clam at high tide.” He quickly fell in love with the priests and people of the archdiocese driving himself (rather dangerously I would say) in a small car.
Like most archbishops and bishops of the late eighties and nineties, Archbishop Kelly became entangled in the clergy sexual misconduct issues of the day and I know that he later wished he had handled some of them differently. But he was so proud of his archdiocese and its good priests and as an archbishop, he loved and cared for his suffragan bishops in the dioceses of Kentucky and Tennesee also. He also cared deeply for his friends from other times and Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe and myself were two of those more lucky ones. +Michael and I will be present in Louisville on Monday and Tuesday for the final farewell on earth of our friend. It’s the least we can do for someone who was always there for us.
There are not many people left at the bishops’ conference who will remember the +Kelly years but those who are there and who do would all say the same thing: he was a joyful and humble servant of the Lord and of the Church. We liked working for him and with him. He was always happy where he was be it in the cubicle of a monk in a monastery or presiding at liturgy as a bishop. A great story teller, the people of Louisville will remember him as a wonderful preacher (as a son of Dominic in the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, one would expect as much.) While he never lost his love of his religious community and his brothers, +Thomas Cajetan Kelly, O.P. died in love with the Church of Louisville which he inherited through God’s plan. Installed in the same Louisville arena where the night before “Hulk Hogan” had wrestled with some nemesis (he made mention of that in his inaugural homily), this priest of God never ever wished to call attention to himself, but only to the Lord whom he served. I was blessed to be in his company, to be counted as a friend, and to have a mentor so deeply committed to leading a Church in the years following the Council. I feel his death very deeply and very personally.