“A Great Vocation” – Fr. Kelley celebrates 25 years of priesthood
ARLINGTON — When Thomas Merton penned his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, little did he know the impact it would have on faith-seeking Christians around the world. Published in 1948, the powerful memoir about a Trappist monk’s quest for holiness had a profound effect on a particular group of people. Inspired by Merton’s words, many men and women embraced religious life and entered the seminary or convent. Father Daniel Kelley is one of them.
“I was very moved by everything in that book,” explained the pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Arlington. “Merton’s conversion story — his love for the Lord and desire to give himself to Christ — made sense to me.”
Ordained in 1995, the Dallas native, who graduated from Bishop Lynch High School, will celebrate his 25th anniversary as a priest December 9. The hustle and bustle of managing both large and small parishes in the Diocese of Fort Worth made the years go by quickly. It’s also a dramatically different life from the quiet, contemplative vocation the 61-year-old cleric explored as a young man.
After enlisting in the Air Force, where he developed reconnaissance images taken by spy planes, Fr. Kelley, then in his mid-20s, sought to follow in Merton’s footsteps. Curious about the simple lifestyle of a monk, the military veteran traveled to a Trappist monastery in Iowa for a retreat.
A week later, the vocation director gently told the visitor he didn’t have the calling for monastery life. What led to that discussion?
“I’ve had years to think about that, and it’s probably because I wasn’t getting up for morning prayer,” Fr. Kelley admitted candidly. “The monks get up at something like 3 a.m. for prayer and I just couldn’t do that.”
Instead, the director advised Kelley to look into becoming a diocesan priest — an option that hadn’t crossed his mind. Still discerning a vocation, the 26-year-old enrolled at the University of Texas at Arlington in 1986 and began attending weekly Mass celebrated by rotating priests at the Catholic student center.
“I let them know I was interested in the priesthood and Sister Donna Ferguson, who was vocation director at the time, came to talk to me,” Fr. Kelley recalled. “She sent me off to see several people, including Monsignor [Joseph] Scantlin, to do a priest perceiver test.”
The following year, he began his sophomore year at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, and, after graduation, continued his studies at the Oblate School of Theology at Assumption Seminary in San Antonio. After a pastoral year spent at St. Peter the Apostle and serving as a transitional deacon, Fr. Kelley was ordained to the priesthood by the late Bishop Joseph Delaney.
On a cold December morning, the ordinand’s six siblings and parents — both converts — gathered inside Holy Family Church for the ceremony. The soon-to-be priest turned 37 the previous day.
“It was almost nine years to the day after I visited the monastery and it was all very moving for me,” Fr. Kelley said, reflecting on his years of discernment. “I knew I was in the right place and this is what God was calling me to do. I was answering that call in the right place at the right time.”
His first assignment — to assist Monsignor Charles King at St. John the Apostle Parish in North Richland Hills — seemed almost providential. Msgr. King was the same priest who baptized him as an infant inside Dallas’ St. Pius X Church. Highly respected for his kindheartedness and intellect, the monsignor mentored his young assistant.
“He was a good person to form me during the two and half years I was there,” Fr. Kelley recounted. “He gave me a lot of good advice I still try to use in my parish.”
As a new priest he often worked with couples preparing for marriage — something he still enjoys.
“Msgr. King helped me along with that and advised me how to do things,” Fr. Kelley added. “He was also very good at visiting the sick and helping people deal with their crises. He was a very compassionate priest, and I was very impressed by that.”
After a brief stay at Immaculate Conception Parish in Denton, the pastor managed rural parishes in Clifton and Morgan for three years then returned to Fort Worth where he was assigned to St. George Parish. For the past 12 years, Fr. Kelley has remained at St. Joseph — a parish with one of the most diverse memberships in the Metroplex. When he arrived, the Arlington faith community had gone without an in-residence priest for seven years.
“We have Mass in English, Spanish, and Twi [a language spoken in Ghana],” explained the pastor who serves families from India, Vietnam, Nigeria, Burma, and Latin America. “We also have a number of French-speaking Africans so, at times, a priest comes to say Mass in French and we have lectionaries and Roman missals in that language.”
He recently worked with a man from Eritrea who is preparing to marry in Khartoum, Sudan.
“I see so much diversity here and everybody seems to get along,” Fr. Kelley continued. “I love the people and I’m always amazed at how generous they are and how much they respect a priest and will listen.”
The energetic leader stays involved with St. Joseph Catholic School and feels the presence of children contributes to a thriving parish life. Getting families active in their faith is an ongoing challenge, he conceded.
“People drop off their kids for catechism but don’t teach the faith at home,” Fr. Kelley pointed out. “We’ve been discussing the need to catechize parents in order to catechize children.”
Some adults don’t know standard prayers, he said, adding, “I’ve written out the Hail Mary many times to hand out in the confessional because people don’t know it.”
When he’s not busy ministering to parishioners, the ardent baseball fan serves as chaplain for the Texas Rangers and frequently celebrates Mass for the Discalced Carmelite nuns who live in a nearby Arlington cloister. He identifies with the contentment he sees in their faces.
“There’s joy in serving others,” Fr. Kelley maintained. “The priesthood is a great life and a great vocation.”
Men considering the vocation will find the work rewarding, he promised.
“If God is calling you to this life, you’ll find a lot of fulfillment. I have,” said the uncle of 19 nieces and nephews. “Being part of a large family is amazing, but I’m glad I chose what I did. I have no regrets.”