Earlier this year, a symposium was organised in New York by Monsignor Michael J Wrenn around the theme of Monsignor George Kelly's famous book 'The Battle for the American Church'. Among the speakers was Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne. In a recent edition of his archdiocesan weekly, 'Catholic New York', Cardinal John O'Connor paid the following tribute to Monsignor George Kelly.
Never in the more than 20 years since I first met Msgr George A. Kelly have I met him without thanking God that this erudite streetwise prelate is on the Church's side. He has written a library-size stack of books, each more provocative than the other, each bursting with dynamic orthodoxy from fly-leaf to finale.
When I first became a bishop for the armed forces in early 1979 and was confronted with a highly complex and intellectually challenging task, peripheral to my pastoral duties but important to the Church, it was to Msgr Kelly that I turned before all others. His insights proved indispensable. If I have had to give an address in an academic setting, it is to this academician's works that I have turned to get a sense of the field, a context of what is being thought and written, pro and con his own positions.
Why this column at this time? Maybe because the summer always makes me think about this clerical Jimmy Cagney in what must be among the last of the straight straws in the world. Maybe because already we are more than halfway through the final year before the millennium and I am poignantly conscious that neither Msgr George nor I will be likely to clock too many years after the bell tolls. Maybe because I have been feeling modestly guilty about having missed a more than somewhat classy symposium held in his honour this past April, even though the missing was not my fault.
Msgr Kelly was for years the tireless father, producer and general factotum of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, both the organisation of scholars itself and its incisive publication. The publication may well be the most extensively underappreciated journal around; the work of some of the least-appreciated Catholic and Catholic-minded intellectuals in the country. Were there no other reason than for his giving the world the Fellowship, Msgr Kelly deserved the highest-level gathering of scholars that could be gathered, and he got what he deserved. The intellectually formidable Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne, Australia, was one of them. He was my house guest, and awed me by recounting the essence of the scholarly papers presented in abundance.
For many years Msgr Kelly held forth on the campus of St John's University, in Queens. A member of the faculty, he simultaneously founded and directed the Centre for Advanced Study of Catholic Theology. Previously, as director of religious education for the Archdiocese of New York, and esteemed by His Eminence, Cardinal Spellman, he developed a major reputation as a student and champion of labour. (During the ill-fated strike of cemetery workers, well before my time in New York, Msgr Kelly objected strongly to the supplanting of gravediggers by seminarians.)
But speaking of which - gravediggers, that is - let me assure Msgr George A. that this column is intended as a long overdue tribute, not a premature obituary. But it's a tribute he must, and I know gladly will, share with a very large band of brothers. Every once in a while this calloused conscience of mine finds itself ashamed to look around at the legions of indescribably faithful priests who have taught, preached, ministered, celebrated, sacrificed for lifetimes of fourscore years and more, and recognised that they have served with little notice and with rare plaudits. In singling out one, Msgr Kelly, who has never wavered for a billionth of a second in his dedication to the Church, I point my gratitude to the countless numbers filled with the same zeal, a vast forest of faithful oaktrees.
I missed your symposium and your party, Msgr George, and although I sent a letter of apology, I want as many people as this column reaches to know of my gratitude to you, scholar in a straight straw, foe formidable of theological and scriptural chicanery, working man's best friend. Ad multos annos.