By Jack Smith
Catholic Key Editor
When dozens of seminarians representing just a fraction of those local men studying for the priesthood climbed on stage, emcee Larry Moore marveled at the contrast with the first Support Our Seminarians Dinner 23 years ago when just two men stepped on stage. Today there are 108 enrolled at Conception Seminary and between the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas and the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph, 65 men are preparing for the priesthood.
Moore presided over a hugely successful fundraiser Jan. 29 for the education of seminarians in both dioceses and Conception Seminary College, with 650 in attendance at a new venue for the dinner – Union Station. But lingering over the festivity was a feeling of sadness and admiration for a missing seminarian. Wesley McKellar, seminarian for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph, had died just four days earlier after a heroic two-year battle with brain cancer. Moore announced that the evening would be dedicated to the 22 year-old from St. Andrew the Apostle Parish.
Chairs for the evening were Bill and Peggy Oades and speakers included Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. and Abbot Gregory Polan. Popular speaker, EWTN host and Rhodes Scholar, Monsignor Stuart Swetland, S.T.D. was keynote speaker. Msgr. Swetland is currently President of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas.
Msgr. Swetland read from the Gospel of John on the first disciples’ encounter with Jesus. He remarked that the first disciples were also the first seminarians. He also spoke of their encounter with Jesus as an event which utterly changed their lives. John even recalls the day and the hour when he first encountered Jesus some 40 or even 60 years later when his Gospel was written.
Swetland is himself a convert from Lutheranism. He said that church of his youth was a model Christian community and that without it he may not have later entered full communion with the Catholic Church.
It was during his time in the Naval Academy that he began to think about the division in the U.S. caused by the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He said that the first church leader to speak out against the war was Fulton Sheen. “You couldn’t get any more anti-communist that Fulton Sheen, but he knew by 1967 there was something morally wrong with what we were doing and how we were doing it,” Swetland said.
A unwelcoming experience with a pacifist Lutheran congregation while he was in Naval Academy led Swetland to skip church and for the most part, skip prayer. When he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, “Thanks be to God,” he fell in with four classmates who were devout Catholics. “All they did to give witness to the faith was be authentically Catholic,” he said. “They lived their faith. Day in, day out they lived their faith . . and they knew their faith.” So when Swetland asked them questions about the faith, he knew it was not something memorized from the catechism, “because they lived it out.”
One of them, now Princeton Professor Robert George, challenged Swetland to ask the questions, “Who I was? Why I was? . . . and what was the purpose of my life.” Just before he left Oxford, Swetland was received into the Catholic Church. He said his First Confession “took all day,” but that at his First Communion he felt for the first time that he was exactly where he was supposed to be. “God was giving himself to me to unite himself with me.” He said that journey to this place happened because young people were willing to give witness to the faith at a time when it was not popular to do so.
“We live in such a time,” Swetland said, and this as Pope John Paul II proclaimed, calls for a new evangelization. “Never before have so many Christian abandoned their faith . . . for an ideology that doesn’t even name itself,” but that simply entices our desires. But our nature, he explained, is that we always want more. “We want more, because we were made for union with infinite love.”
But even though we stray, “God is faithful,” he said. “The time has come, Pope Francis said, to proclaim the Gospel in a new way.” Christians need to reveal the mercy of the Father in a time when people are indifferent, he said. In a way, he said, our challenge is greater than that of Communism which hated God. Hate, he said, is closer to love than indifference. “The opposite of love is indifference.”
Msgr. Swetland said that in supporting our seminarians we are supporting those who have to “be on the front line” in confronting that indifference, “of finding a way to restoke and rekindle a fire that has gone out; a fire about the deeper, more important, long-lasting, eternal things.”
Msgr. Swetland said that the Second Vatican Council taught that the primary duty of priests is the proclamation of the Gospel. “That’s what your presence here … your financial and spiritual support is preparing,” he told those attending.
Many of those in attendance, including his fellow seminarians, had been at a Rosary for Wesley McKellar earlier in the day, and many more would attend his standing-room only funeral the next morning at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish.
Bishop Emeritus Robert W. Finn celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial along with dozens of priests. St. Andrew Pastor Father Vince Rogers was homilist and Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr., gave the final commendation. As Mass began Bishop Finn recalled that it was a great “grace to be able to receive Wes as a seminarian for Kansas City – St. Joseph. We’re grateful that God brought him to that step and a great sense of God’s call in his life.” He also expressed his gratitude to Wesley’s parents Scott and Wendy for so selflessly giving of themselves “to the life of this diocese . . . and the life of this parish.
“His presence in our lives and the impact he had on you and this community will not be forgotten,” Fr. Rogers said in his homily. “There’s a hole in our hearts exactly the size of Wesley.”
“We don’t mourn like unbelievers,” Fr. Rogers said. “Death does not have the last word. It’s not the end of the story.”
“Wise and spiritually mature beyond his years, Wes understood his suffering in the context of this greatest act of love the world has ever known,” Fr. Rogers referring to Christ’s crucifixion for our redemption. “He desired to return the great love that Jesus offered him by loving our Lord even more in return . . . He never missed opportunities to offer his suffering in union with Jesus on the cross.”
“His entrance into the seminary was one of the happiest days of his life and when his headaches sent him home after one semester, he was devastated,” Fr. Rogers said. Wes then moved into the rectory at St. Andrews to continue his studies and to be close to the church, Fr. Rogers explained. Fr. Rogers said he would often find him reading the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, “which I later learned was light recreational reading for him.”
“Even though Wes was never to be ordained a priest, the results of his evangelization was almost sacramental,” Fr. Rogers said. “As he suffered, he offered his prayers for the intentions of others,” he said. Fr. Rogers said Wes was an example of what it means to take up your cross daily. “And if you asked him how he was doing, he always had a smile and a positive answer. He never complained.”
“The way he bravely fought this terrible disease has produced a myriad of spiritual benefits. People who previously did not pray are now praying. People who previously had not gone to Confession in years, went to confession. Some who had never known Catholicism were introduced to it through Wesley McKellar,” Father said.
Wesley was born June 3, 1993 in Abbotsford, B.C., Canada. He is survived by his parents Scott and Wendy McKellar, and his siblings Mark, Clare, Brendan and Anna, his grandmothers Irene McKellar and Barbara McLoughlin, his Uncle Stuart, Auntie Ilse, and cousin Alanna McKellar, and his Aunt Lorna and Uncle Mark Paterson. Memorial donations may be made to St. Andrew’s Seminarian Fund