Pilgrimage to Lourdes, Ars helps Bishop Kemme bond with deacons

The seminarians and priests on the pilgrimage last year to Ars, France, stand in front of the body of St. John Vianney entombed above the main altar in the basilica. (Courtesy photo)

Bishop Carl A. Kemme learned a couple of years ago about a bishop who took his seminarians to France for a pilgrimage to Ars, the hometown of the Curé d’Ars, St. John Vianney.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful for the bishop and the vocations director to take the new deacons before they’re ordained priests?” the bishop recalled thinking.

With as many seminarians as the Diocese of Wichita is blessed with, Bishop Kemme knew it would be too expensive to take all of his seminarians to visit the Patron of Parish Priests and Confessors, but taking the newly ordained transitional deacons might be possible.

After discussing the idea with Fr. Chad Arnold, the director of Vocations, a 10-day trip to Ars and Lourdes was planned. The first trip was made last year with the diocese’s four deacons who will be ordained to the priesthood on Saturday, May 25.

Three seminarians this year

This year Bishop Kemme and Fr. Arnold – God- and bishop-willing – will have three newly ordained transitional deacons in tow. Their ordination is scheduled for Thursday, May 23. Both ordination liturgies will be in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Wichita.

Five days are spent in Lourdes and five in Ars, Bishop Kemme said in an interview a couple of weeks ago.

“The first half is designed to kind of just pray about and discern the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of a priest and the ordained. The second half is in the little town of Ars, in a different part of France, where St John Vianney served his – almost – entire priesthood for over 40 years and became so well known for his pastoral ministry, his ability to hear confessions, and his preaching and drawing thousands and thousands of people from all over the country to his confessional and his altar.”

Bishop Kemme said the seminarians are eager to go.

“I love pilgrimages. There’s a great power to pilgrimages and you get to know each other in a deeper way,” he said. “I find that being in those holy places, is, in and of itself, very good. But then we gather each day for Mass, for prayer, for meals, and then for a reflection, so it isn’t just a vacation, it’s a time of pilgrimage.”

Bishop gained insights

The insights he gained into the four men to be ordained to the priesthood were wonderful, the bishop said. “And for them to get to know me a little better – that fraternity and understanding of how to relate well to a bishop and how a bishop can relate well to his future priests

Flying for hours over the ocean and riding in a van together gives rise to many conversations, Bishop Kemme said. “It’s a really a great education, a great formation for me, as their bishop, to see their personalities, to see their interests and how we might use those things in terms of their future ministry. I’m sold on it. It takes me out of the office a lot. It takes me away, but I think it’s time well spent.”
An attraction to St. Vianney

The seminarians aren’t the only ones who benefit, though.

“I’ve spent some significant time there in prayer,” the bishop said. “I’m very drawn to the life and ministry of St. John Vianney. I certainly don’t compare myself to him. He was an extraordinary priest. I’m sure he would have some strong words toward how I live my life compared to how he lived his – something probably true for most priests today. But, nonetheless, I feel very inspired by him now.”

Inspiration has grown

Bishop Kemme said the inspiration has grown even though he hasn’t been a pastor for over 10 years.

“My last pastorate in the Springfield diocese was St. John Vianney in Sherman, Illinois, and that’s really where a lot of it began. I, of course, read about his life before and knew it, but I never really drew into it more personally until I became the pastor of a parish under his intercession.”

After his ordination as the bishop for the Diocese of Wichita, Bishop Kemme in 2017 led a retreat for about 20 diocesan priests to Ars.

“That was really powerful,” he said. “To be in that little town – it’s really small (population 1,498) – there’s really nothing else to do there but pray and reflect – and you’re there in the presence of his incorrupt body.”

St. John Vianney’s ministry applicable to today

“He lived at a different time than ours, but there are many similarities. So many people left the faith during the post-French Revolution and he was a great impetus to bring people back to the sacraments. I think that’s really powerful and relative today when so many people have abandoned the sacramental life of the church.”

It’s vital for the priests of the diocese to help people reclaim their faith via the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance.

“He was a great pastor and had a zeal for the poor, but really where he shone the most was in the confessional, and at the altar in his preaching and his presiding.”

Getting to know them

Fr. Arnold said there were several aspects of the pilgrimage that stood out for him nearly a year later. “I don’t know what was better, being able to pray with the newly ordained at those holy sites, or being able to sit with them around the table and listen to them and Bishop speak very honestly about the spiritual life. Both inspired me to be a better priest.”

The director of Vocations said he prayed a lot during the trip but part of his prayer was watching them pray.

“To see them touch the confessional of St. John Vianney, hold his chalice, and contemplate their own future priesthood was powerful. I too, made a pilgrimage to Ars when I was in seminary and so it is good for me to return to that place and meditate upon all the prayers the Lord graciously answered from that day to this.”

Fr. Arnold said both Lourdes and Ars fill give him a sense of gratitude. “Couple that with the gratitude I have for bishop and the vocation of the newly ordained and they are glorious places to pray.”