About Fr. Kevin Kelly
Whenever Archbishop Derek Worlock preached at a priest’s funeral we were amused at the ingenuity with which he managed to insert himself as a key player at each significant moments of the dead priest’s life – from their ordination to their death bed. I’ll try not to fall into the same trap.
Kevin’s extraordinary achievements are well documented by Wikipedia. I would encourage you to look it up. But each of you here has her or his own memories of Kevin. I’ll share some of mine.
A fellow priest remarked to me last week how well known and appreciated Kevin was both in the UK and internationally but amazingly less so in his own diocese of Liverpool. Kevin was hugely loved and appreciated by parishioners in all the parishes in which he served but perhaps less well known by priests who had never studied under him or had the privilege of working alongside him. Many were unaware of his role in co-founding the Association of teachers of moral theology and his work with the CAFOD and the International Catholic Theological Coalition for HIV/Aids Prevention. Kevin was self-effacing. He never promoted himself. He could come across as diffident and uncertain. He could be dismissed by some as a ‘woolly-minded’ liberal – as if his compassion and openness sprang from a lack of confidence or from a ‘broad-brushstroke’ approach to life – impatient with detail and discipline. But I recall him as a seminary professor and as Dean of Studies at Upholland.
Kevin considered his priority to be not primarily to lecture but to provide his students with massively comprehensive bibliographies on whatever was the subject in hand. The real work was to be done by ourselves in the library. Lectures were only a last resort if he felt an issue was not adequately covered elsewhere. Indeed, the first experience I had of hearing him expound on his own views was after my ordination when I heard him speak at the newly established Upholland Northern Institute of which he became the first director.
As a seminary professor, Kevin gave his time to seminars but above all to tutorials. If you asked him a question, he invariably answered ‘What do you think?’ It was almost a mantra. That was a revelation to any student expecting him to tell them what they ought to be thinking. ‘What do you think John?’
We were required to submit essays every couple of weeks. Deadlines were non-negotiable with Kevin. I recall when one of my first essays for Kevin was returned with the comment ‘Very Excellent’. Not just excellent but very excellent. I was chuffed – but less chuffed once I saw the mark he had given me - 14/20. Having read his comment, I had expected maybe 19/20. 70% was the highest mark Kevin ever gave to anyone. He had the highest of standards and he expected the same standards in his students. He had a razor-sharp mind coupled with acute attention to detail. He was one of the most organised and disciplined people that I have ever met. His desk was always tidy in the 1970s. It was just as tidy when I visited him in retirement in his flat in Formby, 45 years later, where he was still researching and writing.
The miracle of Kevin’s life was that he was able to integrate the thoroughness and creativity and imagination of academic theological research with an open pastoral heart. This was the key to his effectiveness as a theologian. Everything he wrote was underpinned by his acutely observed experience and understanding of the day to day lived situations of real people and their often intractable circumstances. Kevin, through reflection, prayer and his considerable brainpower, was able to produce rigorously argued and compassionately nuanced conclusions to the moral dilemmas of the day. Maybe not conclusions… Kevin had the capacity to live with questions rather than feeling obliged to know the answers. Always searching for the life-giving approach, he respected the sacredness and uniqueness of individual people’s lives and he refused to barge in with ready answers. And he encouraged others to do the same. Reluctant to pass premature judgment he never discounted the possibility of growth and development in any situation. The encouragement he practised pastorally was reflected in his theological writing.
And so it would be a mistake to characterise Kevin’s life as a story in two halves – academic and pastoral. He went to great lengths to honour both. During my time with him as a member of the Team Ministry in Skelmersdale, along with his nephew Chris who was to die tragically just a couple of years later – we were six priests and five religious sisters – towards the end of that time Kevin realised he could not do justice to his academic work in the presbytery. He agreed to commute between Heythrop in London and Skelmersdale. And he continued to do so when he moved to Our Lady’s Eldon Street. The train became his study. In 1992 in the Preface to his book ‘New Directions in Moral Theology’, Kevin had this to say about parishioners at Our Lady’s Eldon Street:
‘There is no doubt in my mind that the people in whose midst I am privileged to live in Liverpool play an important role in my understanding of Christian ethics. The very down-to-earth love and wisdom that is evident in their everyday living, despite all its hardship and ambiguity, provides an important resource for Christian ethics. I am fortunate to be able to draw on their expertise, crafted in the school of experience over many generations. Moreover, what bearing, if any, a topic discussed in Christian ethics has on their own lives provides me with a touchstone for testing out how important such a topic might be for real life. Someone writing about life in the city of Liverpool recently spoke of it as a ‘universe-city’. I honestly believe that this book owes at least as much to my belonging to the universe-city of Liverpool as it does to my involvement in the University of London.’
When I left Skelmersdale to work in Latin America Kevin wrote to me regularly – on those flimsy blue airmail forms (remember them in the days before email?). His letters, written in his distinctive handwriting, were filled with details of the joys and sorrows of the people I had left behind. When I was home on leave he fed and watered me and for nine years he subscribed to the ‘Guardian Weekly’ for me. Printed on featherweight paper, back numbers of the Guardian were gratefully passed around among my fellow priests in the mountains of Peru, hungry for news from home. This is just one example of the discreet but practical generosity that Kevin showed to his many friends.
Kevin anticipated the current debate in the church on the status of the divorced and re-married by several decades. He rejected any assumption that marriage breakdown was a symptom of a moral decline or that young people today are any less committed than their parents and grandparents. Rather, he re-framed the issue to reflect a deeper understanding of the paschal mystery at the heart of our faith. He wrote:
One could paraphrase one of the well-known sayings of Jesus as: ‘I have not come to call the successful, but failures’. In fact they flocked to hear him because he brought them the “good news” that in the eyes of God they were not failures at all.
The “good news” challenges our normal criteria for success and failure. The story of Jesus is not that of a successful man who dedicated his life to empowering the world’s “failures” to become “successes” like him. Jesus deliberately chose a path which he knew was doomed to “failure”. The passion and death of Jesus was not an accident. Jesus purposefully set his face for Jerusalem.
Failure for all its pain is no longer seen as the end of the road. Death is no longer the final full-stop, the last chapter of life…the losing of self which is involved in accepting these experiences is the route – the only route – to finding ourselves in a fuller and richer way. This is the Gospel meaning of success. What does it profit one to gain the whole world and yet fail to find one’s own self?... The common denominator linking many people whom I would consider men and women of deep personal faith is not the style or frequency of their religious practice. Rather it is that they have been through some kind of ‘rock-bottom’ experience which has left them feeling week and powerless, their helplessness totally exposed to themselves and others. When this rock-bottom experience has been the failure of their marriage, it has shattered whatever semblance of self-esteem they may have had… In a very real sense, such a person is alone before God. Their instinctive cry is ‘I am worthless, Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.’ Such a cry into the darkness seems to make their antennae especially sensitive to the still voice of the Lord ‘Do not be afraid, have faith. Believe in me – and believe in yourself, too’. (Divorce and Second Marriage’ 1996)
On my return from Peru, Kevin was already parish priest at St Basil and All Saints, Widnes, an ecumenical partnership. Once again Kevin demonstrated his ability to live with the pain of apparently irreconcilable difficulties – this time between two Christian denominations. Central to his approach was the warmth of the relationships he established, not least with Guy Elsmore, the Anglican Vicar. For Kevin, Ecumenism was a no brainer. Indeed, I would say that the principal sorrow of his final years was the dismantling of the creative liturgical initiatives between Catholics and Anglicans at Hough Green after he retired.
My earliest memory of Kevin was at the age of ten. It was 1958, the year of his ordination. A party of altar servers were accompanied by members of the Serra Society on a visit to the seminary at Upholland. Divided into small groups, we were assigned to one of the recently ordained priests for him to show us around. Three of us were given Kevin as our guide. His room was full of the ordination gifts and greetings cards he had received just weeks before. The enduring memory I have is of him showing us his chalice, a gift from his family. He carefully removed it from its velvet-lined box. I was mightily impressed. I remember thinking I would like to be a priest. Kevin explained to me in retirement how important daily celebration of the Mass was for him and how much he appreciated offering Mass daily with the Sisters of Notre Dame, Woolton.
Kevin’s chalice today rests on his coffin. I’m sure it’s the same one. It represents a life dedicated to the Eucharist – the broken body and precious blood of Christ – and his years of service to the people of God in the Church. I will use it to celebrate his funeral Mass today.
Kevin was a priest, a prophet, a pastor and a theologian. He was also a brother, a cousin, an uncle and a friend. He never lost the capacity for making friends right to the end, establishing a special bond with his carer Jimmy at Ince Blundell. In his final days in Aintree Hospital, he was surrounded by his family. He was never alone, day or night. Anne, Chris, Beth, Elin and Ed took it in turns to sit with their beloved Uncle along with his friends Chris, Mim and Julie. His life was an embodiment of the Gospel. May he rest in peace.
There is a short poem – a piece of doggerel really – which speaks to me of the way Kevin brought the gospel alive for so many people: