By DIANE SCHLINDWEIN
WICHITA, Kan. — While growing up and then ministering as a priest in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, Bishop Carl A. Kemme didn’t know much about the Diocese of Wichita, where he has been serving as bishop since 2014. In fact, he said, “I tell people here, the only things I knew about Kansas was what I learned from The Wizard of Oz.”
That all began to change on Valentine’s Day in 2014, when he received a call from the papal nuncio, telling him that Pope Francis appointed him the 11th bishop of the Diocese of Wichita. “I think that was the most monumental phone call I’ve ever received or ever will receive,” Bishop Kemme said.
Because then-Msgr. Kemme was traveling, he missed the nuncio’s initial phone call, so when he called back the nuncio was in a meeting. “He told me what he wanted and that he would call me back in 30 minutes for my answer,” Bishop Kemme said.
In that quick time frame, the future bishop of course took time to pray but he also quickly began to research the Diocese of Wichita. “I found it was amazing how much you can learn in 30 minutes time about a diocese,” he said, adding that the nuncio was prompt in calling him back. He accepted the pope’s invitation with the knowledge that God would lead him in the right direction. God has never let him down as he ministers to move forward in his diocese, he said.
Bishop Kemme had 28 years’ experience as a priest in all corners of our diocese before he was ordained a bishop on May 1, 2014 — and that experience was varied. In those 28 years he served at parishes in Decatur, Collinsville, Springfield, Brussels, Meppen, Batchtown, Mt. Zion, Petersburg, and Sherman. In 2002, he was appointed vicar general and moderator of the Curia by then-bishop George J. Lucas. That same year he was named a monsignor (Prelate of Honor) by Pope John Paul II. Additionally, he served as diocesan chancellor from January to June 2005. When Bishop Lucas was named head of the Archdiocese of Omaha, in June 2009, he served as diocesan administrator until 2010. He continued to serve as vicar general and moderator of the Curia when Bishop Thomas John Paprocki was installed.
It was his leadership in the Curia that helped Bishop Kemme feel more secure in being named Bishop of Wichita. “There’s always a lot of anxiety (when making a decision), but I had 12 years of administrative experience and one year as a diocesan administrator … so I knew most of what the governance of a diocese entailed,” he said. “So even though I felt like there were many more qualified candidates, I felt a certain peace and tranquility about it.”
Leaving his home diocese was rather difficult, he admits. At the time his parents were still living on the small family farm. “I was sad to leave home, family, so many friends and brother priests,” he said. “My plan and desire was to live there (in the Springfield diocese) and serve my local church. But God had other plans.”
Bishop Kemme remembers all the ceremonies and getting accustomed to being a bishop were daunting. “In the first two years or so I wondered, ‘Why am I here?’ but I am in my eighth year now. It has been a real blessing. This has become home. The people here are wonderful, and the priests are very cooperative. I am excited for this ministry here.”
Speaking out on tough subjects can be a challenge for a bishop, Bishop Kemme admits. “Everybody wants to know what the bishop thinks,” he said. “Whether they like it or not, they want to know. But I know that God gives me the words he wants me to say, and I’m open to it.” A bishop’s schedule is grueling, but God has helped him out in that aspect, too, he said.
Bishop Kemme says discipleship, evangelization, and stewardship are the touchpoints for his diocese’s pastoral plan — a plan that he and his strong leadership team are continually pursuing. “We work very closely together,” he said. “We aren’t there yet and we have a long way to go, but we’ve got a road map.”
He also desires to make Sundays special again — a day for worship, family, and renewal. “We are really trying to reclaim Sunday as the Day of the Lord,” he said. “That’s a big challenge. By and large we’ve lost that through our culture.”
Bishop Kemme and the other bishops in Kansas meet with one another about four or five times a year, and those visits are valuable, he said. He also attends the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) meetings. “You know, the life of a bishop can be kind of isolating, so I value very much my time with my brother bishops,” he said.
He also returns home several times a year to visit his parents, Donald and Marita Kemme, who now live in a small home in Effingham. From time to time, his priest friends and former parishioners stop by to visit him in Wichita. He says he remains grateful to all the people he served as a priest and all the friends he made in the Springfield diocese. “All of you helped make me who I am. … I have nothing but gratitude.”
Bishop Kemme said no matter where he has been in life, he has never once stopped relying on and believing in God’s grace. “It has always been my experience that God helps us all and He gives us the grace to do what we are called to do. God promised the Holy Spirit and when we are open to that, God is ever-faithful, and he walks with us in our lives,” he said. “God is right here, and He never fails us.”
Want to hear more from Bishop Kemme, including more thoughts on serving his people, God’s grace and his devotion to a particular young person on the road to sainthood? Listen to Dive Deep, the official podcast of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. Go to dio.org/podcast on DATE.