Two childhood stories about Carl Kemme, the next bishop of Wichita, stick out for his oldest brother, Mark.
Carl in elementary school, dressing up like a priest and playing Mass in the backyard of their Illinois farmhouse.
“I always thought he did that so he would get out of doing chores like the rest of us,” Mark Kemme said.
And when Carl was a young teen, before he had his driver’s license, driving their grandmother four miles down country roads to Mass every morning.
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No surprise then, when, as an adult and an actual priest celebrating actual Mass, the Rev. Carl Kemme – who will be ordained as Wichita’s bishop on Thursday – spurred the following memory from his friend of 40 years, Monsignor Robert Kurwicki of Jefferson City, Mo.
The two were granted a three-month sabbatical in Rome in 1999, and Kemme decided he’d try to learn Italian, immersing himself in dictionaries and books and getting quite good at it by the end of the trip. When the two priests visited some people in northern Italy before heading back to the States, the parish priest there asked whether either of them wanted to preach at Mass.
Well, Kemme said, “I’d love to,” Kurwicki recalled.
“So he worked out a very short but thoughtful homily. He got up and preached to them in Italian. He said, ‘We came to Italy for three things: to pray, to study – and to eat.’ It brought down the house.
“He’s a very quick learner,” Kurwicki said.
That may be one reason why – in addition to his Midwestern farm-boy roots – Kemme already feels comfortable in Wichita, despite living in Illinois virtually all of his life.
Pope Francis appointed Kemme as the 11th bishop of Wichita on Feb. 20, almost a year after then-Wichita Bishop Michael Jackels was named archbishop of Dubuque, Iowa. Kemme was vicar general and moderator of the curia for his home diocese of Springfield, Ill., at the time.
He will be ordained Thursday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Wichita. He said he’s excited and ready to get going.
“It’s an important day for us,” Kemme said of the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, which covers 25 counties in south-central and southeast Kansas.
It’s so important that he is giving children and teachers in the diocese’s Catholic schools and the staff at the chancery a day off Friday in thanksgiving.
Kemme’s ordination Mass at 2 p.m. will be broadcast live on TV and online. The public is invited to a Mass offered by Kemme at 9 a.m. Friday at the cathedral.
The ordination will draw 950 invited guests, including Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, who was part of the conclave that elected Pope Francis last year. His trip to Wichita will be a poignant one, as George has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy; he had to cancel his trip to Rome this past weekend for the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII. He has asked that the process to choose his successor commence.
Kemme looked to the Chicago archbishop for guidance when the Springfield diocese was between bishops four years ago and Kemme was put in charge in the interim.
“He took me under his wing,” Kemme said of George. “He could not have been kinder to me in that year.”
Kemme’s ordination also will see, among the 24 bishops expected, the coming together of all three living previous bishops of Wichita, the two living previous bishops and current bishop of Springfield and the three bishops of other dioceses who started as priests in Wichita.
The apostolic nuncio, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, also will attend.
Some of the bishops will just have returned from the canonization in Rome. Kemme said he met Pope John Paul II twice, when he was able to celebrate Mass with him in his private chapel when Kemme was visiting Rome in 1989 and on that sabbatical in 1999.
“That was very moving,” Kemme said.
‘Down to earth’
Family and friends in Illinois are expressing sorrow at Kemme’s departure – and assurances that the people in the Diocese of Wichita will love him.
“He is a very down-to-earth person, very pastoral, easy to talk to, very understanding,” said Marlene Mulford, chancellor of the Springfield Diocese.
The motto that he’s chosen as bishop – “humilitas,” Latin for “humility” – is one of his hallmarks, associates say.
Jonathan Sullivan, diocesan catechetical director in Springfield, regularly attended Kemme’s Masses, and he said he could tell that Kemme “was never just preaching to those of us in the pews, but he was preaching to himself as well ... that deep humility he has.”
‘Role of service’
Apart from six years spent in college in St. Louis, the 53-year-old Kemme has lived in the environs of the family farm in Illinois, able to visit his parents every few weeks. To him, Wichita is a big city; Springfield has about 120,000 people, he said.
Kemme said he plans to spend his first year in the Wichita Diocese getting to know the priests and people and have them get to know him. He will get to work quickly, beginning Saturday with a Confirmation Mass in Fort Scott.
After being ordained a priest in 1986, he served as a pastor for years, then was named to administrative roles. His associates say he was always trying to get back to being a pastor.
A recent retreat that focused on the bishop martyrs of the early church “kind of situated me spiritually” for his new office, Kemme said.
“It’s a role of service to the church, not a role of prestige or privilege,” he said. “This is what we do for the building up of the church.”
He said he would be taking his cues from Pope Francis, whom he loves for being a pastor even as pontiff.
“Even in such a grand scale, he seems to be able to connect with people individually, and that’s a gift,” Kemme said. “His simplicity, his humility, the fact he’s chosen to live in a simpler place and to ride in a regular car and to prefer not the trappings of the pontificate but the real ministry of it I think signals to the whole world and certainly to the church of a whole new dynamic.”
Kemme has decided to have his pre-ordination luncheon with friends and family Thursday across the street from the cathedral at the Lord’s Diner, which serves dinner each night to the needy. The diner’s staff members will prepare the luncheon.
“I’ve asked that the meal be ... just a simple meal that we can share in the same place where our brothers and sisters ... rely on that for their daily bread,” Kemme said.
Kemme is the third of six children, the first three brothers each just a year apart in age. Eldest brother Mark said he and Carl are the most alike and are like their father – easy-going. All members of the family will be in Wichita for the ordination, as will many friends.
“The Diocese of Wichita is very blessed,” Kurwicki said. “He’s going to love the priests and people very much. I’m happy Pope Francis has selected him, and he will be an outstanding bishop for the people of Wichita, and they will love him.”