Pope Francis could have found a more qualified person to become the next bishop of Wichita, the pontiff’s choice said Thursday during a news conference to introduce him to his new flock.
But it seems in keeping with the pope’s emphasis on bishops who stay close to home and who are there for their people that he chose Monsignor Carl Kemme – a priest with no advanced degrees beyond those normally required of a priest and one who has never lived outside his Diocese of Springfield, Ill. – to be the 11th bishop of Wichita.
“In all truthfulness, I know many other priests who are much more qualified than I am, more intelligent, more gifted in language skills, administration and communication,” Kemme, 53, said at the news conference. His current office is that of vicar general for the Diocese of Springfield.
Even though people had often suggested that he would be a bishop someday, he said he told them: “That won’t happen, because God is good.”
“Without a doubt, Pope Francis could have chosen a far more qualified candidate,” Kemme reiterated. “But in God’s mysterious plan, he has chosen me, which is a humbling and sobering experience. I receive all of this as a sign of how God often chooses the least qualified, the weak and the sinful to accomplish his mission in the world.”
Kemme (pronounced KEH-mee) will be ordained bishop of Wichita on May 1.
The diocese has been without a bishop for almost a year, since Michael Jackels was appointed archbishop of Dubuque, Iowa, last April. He was installed there on May 30. He had been bishop of Wichita for eight years.
There are about 117,000 Catholics in the diocese, which covers 25 counties in south-central and southeast Kansas.
Kemme has had experience leading a diocese – he served as administrator of the Springfield diocese when it was between bishops, in parts of 2009 and 2010. But the farmboy who grew up in the middle of Illinois has spent much of his 28 years as a priest in parishes in that area.
His family – his parents, four brothers and one sister and their families – still lives there, too.
He found out about the appointment on Feb. 11 and had to keep it a secret. He said he told his mother about it while he was driving to Wichita on Wednesday, and, once she had gotten over the shock, she said, “Oh, I’ve got to get my hair done now.”
Kemme told her she had a little time to get it done before May 1.
He said that date was chosen for his ordination because it was the earliest time that the apostolic nuncio to the United States – the pope’s ambassador – as well as consecrating Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., and the bishop of Springfield could all be there.
The announcement of Kemme’s appointment was made at noon Rome time Thursday – 5 a.m. in Wichita. The first person to call Kemme predawn was his friend Edward Rice, the auxiliary bishop of St. Louis.
“You got a gem,” Kemme said Rice told him, referring to the Diocese of Wichita.
In his brief time in Wichita, Kemme said he had already been impressed by the work being done by the diocese for the poor, in particular by the Lord’s Diner and Catholic Charities, and by the friendliness of the people.
Kemme said he knows that he is becoming a bishop during challenging times. He said that in the light of scandals in the Catholic Church, “I think the most important thing is we have to be humble. We have to recognize that people have been hurt, and we can’t hide that or hide from it.”
In light of challenges to the church’s teaching by the government and in society, “to limit the church to be who we are,” Kemme said, “I like Pope Francis’ accompaniment. It’s not enough to say abortion is wrong,” for example, but to take care of women who are pregnant so that the church is “accompanying people to a better option” and abortion isn’t even considered.
“Our actions will speak louder than our words.”
In his leisure time, Kemme said he likes hiking, traveling – though he promised to stay close to his new home – arts and music, from classical to country to jazz and big band. He loves to read, especially classic novels and those by Charles Dickens.
While he said he enjoys college and high school basketball – not the pros so much – Kemme said he just found out about the Wichita State Shockers’ unbeaten season at dinner Wednesday night at Redrock Canyon Grill, where the Loyola game was playing.
And “I do like the Cardinals,” Kemme said, although his dad is a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan. While he’s always lived close to his hometown of Shumway, Ill., he did go to school in St. Louis, and he had a three-month sabbatical in Rome where he learned some Italian.
Kemme said he recognizes that in his new office he will need to know more than his rusty high school Spanish, and he wants to become familiar with social media.
He started his first morning in Wichita by celebrating the 8 a.m. Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with only emergency lights because the power had gone out during high winds Thursday morning in Wichita. The outage also forced the diocese to move his news conference from the downtown chancery to the Spiritual Life Center, near 45th Street North and Woodlawn, and delay it by an hour.
Kemme said he would head back to Springfield on Friday and probably make another trip to Wichita sometime before his ordination as bishop on May 1.
He said he would be sad to leave his family and the priests and people of his diocese in Illinois, but “you are now my new family, and with you I will make my new home.”
“I’ve always believed very strongly that bishops are wedded to their diocese. And I want to pledge to you … my love, my constant support. I want to vow to you my life, my constant support, the work of my heart, the work of my mind, the work of my hands, my daily prayers and my pastoral concern.
“My friends, the fact that our journeys have now intersected by God’s providence and that from now on we will journey together makes me very happy, very happy indeed.”