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Remembering Msgr. Kelly October 01, 2004

By Msgr. Michael Wrenn

Visitors to St. Paul's cathedral in London may or may not admire the edifice itself, but can hardly fail to admire the tribute to its architect, Christopher Wren, set into the pavement by his son. "If you want to find his monument," runs the Latin inscription, more famous than anything the father in his genius ever wrote, "then look around you."

The best monument to a man is the one he builds himself. Speakers at the 2nd annual Lucille Choquette Memorial Lectures, a 2-day colloquy in honor of Msgr. George A. Kelly (held in New York in 1999), were keenly aware of this, and repeatedly drew attention to the books and briefer writings of this astonishing polymath. Their remarks—collected in the book Keeping Faith, published by Christendom Press in 2000—dealt for the most part with critical problems in their own fields of specialization, such as Catholic social teaching, moral theology, and Scripture scholarship. They repay reading for the broad canvas they paint of the Church in the post-conciliar period. Nor do they neglect Msgr. Kelly's tremendous achievement in founding the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, now filling a virtual void in authentic Catholic scholarship.

It fell to me, however, to draw attention to his achievements not as an intellectual—and a genuine intellectual who never put on airs—but as a working parish priest and archdiocesan administrator.

Perhaps I should preface that account by confessing that as a young priest dealing with Msgr. Kelly, the New York archdiocesan official, I failed utterly to appreciate him. To be frank, I didn't like this particular monsignor. But how could a young man out to change the world not resent the bureaucrat who resisted his best ideas, no matter how eloquently they were urged—who even told him either shut up or get out? Anyone who met him could appreciate Ralph McInerny's crack that if George Kelly had gone to Hollywood instead of Dunwoodie (the New York archdiocesan seminary), Jimmy Cagney would have spent his life tending bar. It was only when I saw the success that crowned Kelly's endeavors, when I saw the lucidity and suspected the profundity of his intellect, when I caught a glimpse of a zeal that eclipsed mine—even mine!—and of a charity beggaring mere human sympathy; it was only then that I began to appreciate this priest par excellence.


George Anthony Kelly was born in 1916 into Good Counsel parish. In those days, as for the next half-century, New York Catholics tended to identify themselves by their parishes. "What in hindsight is remarkable about the parish is that from 1918 to 1945, one, two, or three priests celebrated their first Mass there every year," Kelly was to write in his autobiography, Inside My Father's House. "Somehow it was taken for granted that Good Counsel would ordain a new priest each year." Nor was that rare in the Catholic New York that nurtured men of Kelly's generation, and then of mine.

Kelly, himself a social scientist of achievement, has little patience for the kind of condescending psycho-social analysis that explains away the world that made him:

It is fashionable nowadays to pay attention to sociologists and psychologists when they dissect the psyches of priests from a purely unbelieving point of view. Priests were firstborn, they say, or the only child, or dogmatic characters, or mother's pets, or conformist types, or members of large families, and so forth, hardly suggesting a relationship of vocation to faith. Fortunately, none of us at the start knew we were any of those things. We did not even know we were part of a Catholic subculture and were using the priesthood as a stage in upward mobility for our entire ethnic group.

When we played at saying Mass as kids, in a secret corner of our parents' flat, we were only copying the men in the neighborhood we admired most. And without being able to explain it, we sensed that the most important aspect of the priest was his ability to say Mass. Deeply imbedded in our being by this time—no older than 10 or 11—was the understanding that the most important task for a priest was saving people's souls. So we fought to serve Mass, even at 5:30 on a dark wintry morning, disturbing our poor mothers who needed more sleep than we know.

Tempting as it is to reminisce with George Kelly, whose account of his boyhood calls back long-silenced voices from my own, I must push on to his active life. It began when he prostrated himself on the altar of St. Patrick's cathedral in the spring of 1942. The ordaining prelate was Archbishop (later Cardinal) Francis Spellman—the "Spelly" of countless Kelly yarns and the archbishop who was Kelly's boss until the silver anniversary of his priesthood, when the older man died. The new priest was immediately dispatched to Catholic University in Washington, DC, to earn a PhD in social science.

Msgr. Kelly's doctoral thesis, published as Catholics and the Practice of the Faith, drew on a summer-long census he conducted in Florida with the participation of two-thirds of the clergy of the St. Augustine diocese, which then covered practically the whole state. The experience led to the conviction that every new priest should be an apprentice census-taker.


It is an enlightening commentary on the myths of institutional cruelty that have surrounded the Church of half a century ago, and the Spellman administration more perhaps than any other, that when young Father Kelly returned to New York in the fall of 1945 for his first working assignment he was offered a choice: work either in Catholic Charities, or as dean of the social sciences at a new archdiocesan high school, or in a parish. It is a revealing commentary on the priesthood of that day that Kelly's response was: "Whatever you think." They thought a parish.

This is not to suggest that Kelly was without his share of disappointments at the hands of officialdom. His comment on that fact was simple: The Church lives on obedience. If I may be permitted my own comment: Nothing that George Kelly has contributed to the Church in this country over the past half-century may prove more constructive than the example of his obedience.

Such obedience didn't keep him out of two of the major struggles of the Catholic Church in our times: to maintain Catholic education and to maintain marital morality. In fact obedience thrust him into both. Moreover that his superiors would choose him to wage these battles says a good deal about the wisdom of these men: chiefly Cardinal Spellman but also coadjutor Archbishop John Maguire and others.

The reader of Msgr. Kelly's accounts of the struggles—political, ecclesiastical, theological—in these crucial fields of education and sexual morality would scarcely know the role he played in them. Modesty—a virtue that Kelly was too modest to pretend to—gets in the way of history here. But these two issues have been the focal points of his inexhaustible energies.

The confidence that Spellman eventually placed in Kelly said a lot also about a largeness of soul that some would deny to the New York cardinal, for as a young priest Kelly had found himself in Spellman's doghouse. That dated to what was surely the biggest blunder the cardinal ever made, when he confronted striking gravediggers and their wives, and ordered the seminarians to bury the dead. It was a bleak winter of 1949, and Kelly, less than 7 years a priest, devoted his regular labor column in The Catholic News to the right of working men to form a union for the purpose of collective bargaining even if they were working for a not-for-profit institution. Even though it was written before the gravediggers' strike, the union made much of it and from that time on Kelly was no longer a columnist. But he was not hindered from continuing his work with the labor unions.


Then in 1955 Cardinal Spellman appointed him Family Life director for the archdiocese. In Kelly's estimation, family life was the Church's most significant apostolate during the two decades between the end of World War II and the end of Vatican II.

"It spread like wildfire," he recalls:

The couples themselves were on fire for all that the teachings of Christ and his Church could give to the family. They would go anywhere to spread the word, the enthusiasm.

What an inspiring time of my life! The groupings of large families, the blessings of expectant mothers, of mothers after birth! I can't conceive of anything that I've done that gave me more happiness.

When I ran Family Life Day in St. Patrick's cathedral and brought together the golden jubilarians in the presence of the cardinal, eight bishops of the archdiocese showed up, and 150 priests. They came without any pressure from anybody. I just sent out invitations. The movement was so alive!

The Chicago priests did a good job but then bought into contraception, and the bishops became co-conspirators. In the early days of the movement nobody fought the Church's teaching; they just went ahead and had another baby. I think the bishops letting Charlie Curran off the hook destroyed everything.

(Father Charles Curran was a novice teacher of moral theology at Catholic University who, in the turmoil of the 1960s, was let go for unorthodox teaching on sexual morality. But after a widely publicized protest by students, he was reinstated by the bishop-trustees of the university, and given tenure to boot. Two decades later the university fired him at the insistence of the Holy See. He took the university to court but lost his case.)

In 1958 Kelly published his Catholic Marriage Manual, which sold a quarter-million copies and netted him almost a quarter-million dollars in royalties, every penny of which went to the New York Foundling Hospital. "Kids who hadn't benefited from marriage could at least benefit from a book on marriage," was a typical Kelly comment. In 1960 the Catholic Youth's Guide to Life and Love came out and "did superbly well."


Dr. James Hitchcock, in his talk to the 1999 colloquy on Kelly's work, recounts Msgr. Kelly's role in Rome as a member of what came to be known as the papal birth-control commission. He was one of the minority to stand fast for the Church's millennial teaching that contraception is an intrinsic evil. Some may think it Kelly's finest hour.

Then came Msgr. Kelly's entry into Catholic education. As he tells it:

After the close of Vatican II I was made Secretary for Education. My job was to create a department of education where every part of the system would be under the bishop. It would have taken 5 years to do it, but unfortunately Spelly died a couple of years later.

At the time of his appointment, the Catholic-school complex in the New York metropolitan area, comprising the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn, was the third-largest education system in the United States, behind the public-school systems of New York and Chicago.

"The bishops never knew what was going on in education," Kelly comments. "That's why it ran away. By the time I got on the scene the religion textbooks were already bad."

Msgr. Kelly had been in that office for a year when he met Father Joseph Cahill, CM, the valiant president of St. John's University. St. John's had been the first major target of secularizers in Catholic education, but it was a prize that would escape them so long as Father Cahill had his say. It was amid that struggle that Cahill journeyed to Manhattan from his campus in the Brooklyn diocese for a meeting on threats to the Catholicity of Catholic higher education, and that he met George Kelly. The meeting proved momentous. Four years later, Father Cahill invited Msgr. Kelly to take the university's new chair in contemporary Catholic problems. Cardinal Cooke agreed, but gave Kelly the additional job of pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church. (It is my honor to have succeeded him in that task.)


By this time the reader may have begun to wonder why George Kelly was never made a bishop. To raise that question here is not the digression it may seem, for it leads naturally into the next chapter of the Kelly story.

I couldn't begin to count the number of Catholics, clerical and lay, who have asked why this creative priest, this outstanding defender of the faith, this leader of men and women in the pew and in high academe, remained in the ranks of the clergy. In answer, a comment published in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly ventured into the mind of Divine Providence, claiming that Msgr. Kelly "might never have become the strategist and inspirer of Catholic intellectuals that he has been were he tied to the duties, and tied down by the caution, of a bishop." A more mundane answer is offered by the history of the Church since Vatican II. Priests of forthright, uncompromising orthodoxy were an embarrassment to the cautious authorities of the Church in America.

Perhaps calling them cautious is too kind. For a good two decades after the Council, many in high places at the national bishops' conference actively fostered dissent through favoritism to dissenters and the faint presentation of doctrine. Nobody has chronicled this tragedy, or outrage, more convincingly than Msgr. Kelly. His Battle for the American Church brought this drama to the attention of American Catholics in meticulous and, for many of us, heart-rending detail.

He continued the chronicle in subsequent books, including the above-mentioned Inside My Father's House. There, to cite but one example, he lists the dissenting theologians and other scholars enlisted by officials of the bishops' conference to explain Catholic teaching—chiefly on sex—to the nation's Catholics. He names names, quotes their dissenting positions verbatim, and recalls the responsible roles given them by top bureaucrats. Little wonder, as one former lawyer for the bishops' conference recalled, that when the name of George Kelly came up in top-echelon meetings, "everybody started foaming at the mouth."

Kelly lays this all out in a chapter of his autobiography devoted to the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, which he founded partly in order to offer the bishops' conference a pool of scholars of proven fidelity. Unhappily, those for whom this resource was designed have scarcely utilized it. Nonetheless the Fellowship will surely stand among Msgr. Kelly's outstanding achievements, along with his dozens of books and the hundreds and perhaps thousands of Catholics who owe their faith, or their families, or their courage—so much of what they hold dearest—to this unpretentious priest. For his monument these men and women need not look around, but within themselves.


Msgr. Michael D. Wrenn, a frequent CWR contributor, is the co-author (with Kenneth D. Whitehead) of Flawed Expectations: The Reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This profile served as the introduction to the book Keeping Faith: Msgr. George A. Kelly's Battle for the Church, from which it is adapted with permission.