Father Tom Kelly to offer Scripture insights this Advent

By: By Jennifer Willems

Even after he was granted senior priest status in 1999 and moved to the house he built in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, Father Tom Kelly continued to celebrate Mass and preside at an occasional wedding or baptism at the local parish.

When he realized he was growing unsteady on his feet about three years ago, however, he called the pastor and said, “Take me out of the starting lineup. I’m going to retire to the bench.”

“But I miss very much the whole process of preparing a homily — the process of study and research and prayer and finding appropriate stories to illustrate the Gospel message,” Father Kelly, 84, told The Catholic Post while sitting in one of the lounges at Independence Village in Peoria. He returned to central Illinois at Easter.

To get back in the game — and add interested lay people to his team — Father Kelly has developed a series to reflect on and write about the Sunday readings, starting with Advent. It will be held on four Thursdays, Nov. 20 and Dec. 4, 11 and 18, at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, 904 E. Lake Ave., in Peoria Heights.

Father Kelly is working with Sister Rachel Bergschneider, OSB, pastoral associate at St. Thomas, on the sessions, which will be held at 7 p.m. The group will use “Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups and Lectors” by Margaret Nutting Ralph as a starting point.

“She takes each of the readings and puts them in their biblical context — what’s in front of it, what’s behind it,” Father Kelly explained. “In this particular Gospel what does Luke have in mind? The gentile, while Matthew is writing for the Jews.”

He also plans to emphasize the importance of fleshing out the Gospel message by means of personal experiences and stories.

“Usually, when I was preaching, I would tell the Gospel story and then pause and say, ‘Now how is this Gospel story our story? What character in the Gospel story do you identify with? Have you had similar experiences? What part of the story challenges you?’ That’s the framework I’m going to use,” Father Kelly said.

After spending time with and praying with the Scripture readings, participants will be invited to write a reflection and share it during a prayer service. Father Kelly said he could see how this would also help people prepare and share reflections at vesper services or wake services.
Because discussion is an important aspect of the writing process, the group is limited to 10-12 people.

“I hope that it enriches their spiritual life by a new familiarity with the Scriptures,” Father Kelly said.

This approach isn’t entirely new to the priest. His younger brother, Father Joe Kelly, often brought together groups of students when he was chaplain at the Newman Center at Illinois State University or parishioners when he was pastor at St. Joseph in Brimfield for discussions about the Sunday readings.

Dialogue like that also helped the Kelly brothers and other priests and women religious in central Illinois navigate the changing liturgical and theological landscape after the Second Vatican Council. Ordained on May 27, 1956, Father Tom Kelly was chaplain at St. Joseph Newman Center at Bradley University during the council and in the years just after it took place.

He also served on the staff of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign from 1959 to 1963. He was co-pastor, pastor or administrator at St. Columba in Ottawa, St. Mary in Tiskilwa, and St. Anthony in Bartonville, where he oversaw construction of a new church.

Now Father Kelly spends time catching up with other retired priests of the Diocese of Peoria, having lunch with old friends and getting together with people to watch Notre Dame football. He often attends Mass at St. Thomas in Peoria Heights.

To get more information about his Scripture reflection group there, call Sister Rachel at (309) 688-3446.

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