By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Father Benjamin Kneib had long heard a call to service, even if it meant laying down his life for others.
But he didn’t know what kind of service.
“Around my first year in high school, I became interested in the possibility of a career in the military,” said Father Kneib, one of six men ordained to the priesthood May 19 in the diocese’s largest single ordination since 1982.
“I thought I might have a vocation to the priesthood, but was willing to consider this other path also,” he said. “I didn’t see the two to be that distinct foundationally.
“As I got to my last year of high school, I had almost made up my mind to enlist, going so far as to meet with a recruiter,” he said. “I was going to enlist in the Marine Corps. None of my family had ever served in the Corps until my brother later. The plan was to start at the bottom and enlist as a routine foot soldier.”
But that thought of a lifetime of service as a priest that he first felt in grade school, growing up in St. Joseph, wouldn’t leave him alone.
“When I was around 7 I had my own little ‘Mass kit’ which I would use to ‘celebrate’ Mass,” he said. “I remember using vanilla wafers as hosts.”
That seed, he said, was nurtured by his family, and especially his mother.
“My mother would take us kids to daily Mass at which I would often serve,” he said. “I would watch all things the priest did and picture myself in his position.
“I was raised to hold the priesthood in high regard and came to know many good priests growing up,” Father Kneib said.
Still the decision between priest or Marine wasn’t easy, as well as his own doubts of whether he was good enough to be either, especially a priest.
“Both pursuits are performed best when done for the sake of others,” Father Kneib said.
“From a spiritual warfare standpoint, priesthood is like serving on the front lines of society,” he said. “I always had many people tell me I would be a good priest, yet I had my doubts. It was difficult at that point in my life to see myself being able to handle the important ministry of a priest in preaching or being the one to whom people look in times of crisis.”
So Father Kneib got some help — from both heaven and earth.
“I decided some saintly intervention wouldn’t hurt so I began daily recitation of a vocation prayer to St. John Bosco that I would know what to do,” he said.
Father Kneib also sought advice from Father Vincent Rogers, his pastor at St. James Parish.
“He echoed what others had said and told me he thought I might have a vocation,” Father Kneib said. “It was more just the attitude and approach he took rather than the words he said. Knowing he approved and encouraged something I was interested in went a long way.”
Father Kneib credits both St. John Bosco and Father Rogers for getting him to a “Come and See” weekend retreat for potential seminarians at Conception Seminary College in the spring of 2004, just as he was completing his high school diploma.
“Part of the weekend included Eucharistic adoration,” he said.
“As I knelt there, I couldn’t help but feel the answer I had been praying for was being revealed to me,” Father Kneib recalled.
“I needed to enter the seminary, but I still had inhibitions, so I sort of boldly made a deal with God. I said, ‘If I do this, you have to help me,’” he said.
“At that moment, I felt a great relief and peace within,” Father Kneib said. “It was as if God had responded, ‘I accept.’”
He arranged to meet then-Bishop Raymond J. Boland for an interview and acceptance into the seminary.
As he was waiting, future Father Ian Murphy, who was also ordained May 19, came out of the bishop’s office following his interview and acceptance. The two seminarians, the last accepted by Bishop Boland before his retirement in 2005, struck up an instant friendship and would remain together every step of the way to ordination.
“We were both fresh out of high school and I think a little unsure of what was next,” Father Kneib said. “Having a brother seminarian and now a brother priest who grew up with me and has experienced and learned alongside me all the same things I did is truly a blessing.”
Father Kneib said that Bishop Boland quickly put him at ease.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “He was very welcoming and even exhibited some of his Irish wit. We run into each other at diocesan events and he always reminds me that he keeps me in prayer still and looks forward to me joining him in the ranks of the priesthood. It’s both humbling and flattering to know that he still keeps me and other seminarians in mind and wishes the best.”
Father Kneib said he only made the personal commitment to try Conception Seminary College for a year. He said he was still haunted by thoughts of whether he was good enough to be a priest, especially as he explored the writings of the saints, including St. Alphonse Liguori.
“It made me take pause and reflect on my own character flaws and perceptions,” he said.
But as he progressed though his seminary studies, Father Kneib said he came to realize even more deeply that his call to priesthood wasn’t about him. It was about service to others.
“As a flawed human being, I am unworthy and it’s not hard to think of all the ways I could fail,” he said.
“What has been helpful is to remember that Christ has called me nonetheless to focus not on what I can do myself, but more on what he will do through me,” Father Kneib said.
“This has been demonstrated to me more than once,” he said. “Even in my brief preaching experience, I’ve decided to add or change something that came to me at the 11th hour out of nowhere. Afterwards, I’d have people come up and comment on that exact point and say how much it helped them. That’s how the Holy Spirit works.”
Father Kneib said his formation involved more than book work. He spent one summer working for the Bishop Sullivan Center, installing room air-conditioners in its Project ElderCool program for the elderly and disabled, and helped prepare and serve hot evening meals at St. James Place.
“That job allowed me to experience firsthand the poverty and plight of many residents that we often only get to read about in the paper,” he said.
“Seeing in person the conditions that people lived in was sobering,” Father Kneib said. “Working there almost every day made a difference in how I perceived the service I was performing because you get to know people, talk to them, hear their stories, and there is a connection formed that might be missed if I had only helped out once a week or less.”
Father Kneib said he got a pleasant and unexpected surprise when Bishop Robert W. Finn told him that his first assignment would be as associate pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Gladstone, now pastored by Father Vincent Rogers.
“Little did Father Rogers know that when he encouraged me to enter the seminary, he was helping his future assistant,” Father Kneib said.
“I look forward to the assignment and serving with him,” he said.