Father James Keller, M.M.
Man of Hope
"When through one man a little more love and goodness, a little more light and truth come into the world, then that man's life has meaning."
Father James Keller, M.M., who founded The Christophers in 1945, was many things to many people.
He was a public figure, a radio and television personality, a writer and editor, a religious leader, a spiritual counselor — and a friend.
To all who knew him, personally or through his writings and broadcasts, he was a man of hope. He believed that every person, however shy or obscure, had something to give to the world.
Few who met Father Keller were left with doubts about their importance as individuals. To all who crossed his path, he had but one message: “You, individually, have a mission in life to fulfill—a special job to do. You can do something no other person can do to shape the world in which you live.”
Doing Some Good
James Keller was born in Oakland, California, to James and Margaret Selby Keller on June 27, 1900, the fourth of five children.
At the age of 6, he heard a parish priest tell his catechism class: “One of you may be a priest some day and do some good for the world.” In his autobiography, To Light a Candle, Father Keller recalled: “I certainly didn't understand all the implications of his remarks, but I distinctly remember ducking beneath my desk, hoping that the young priest who stood before us didn't mean me!”
The idea of “doing some good” made a deep impression. In his teens, he began preparations for the priesthood at St. Patrick's Seminary, Menlo Park, California. When the first group of American priests bound for China stopped at the seminary in 1918, the young seminarian became interested in their newly formed society, Maryknoll.
He entered Maryknoll and was ordained August 15, 1925. But, instead of going to China, he spent the next 20 years on assignment in the United States recruiting students and raising funds for Maryknoll missions.
During the 1930s, the talks he gave to groups around the country took on a new dimension. “Gradually, as I told the story of Maryknoll to so many different audiences,” he recalled, “I began almost subconsciously to
Father Keller and Bing Crosby plan a TV special with director Jack Denove (1966)
emphasize not only what my listeners could do to assist missioners by prayers and finances, but also how they could play a missionary role themselves.”
To describe that role he coined the term “Christopher,” from the Greek words for Christbearer - an individual who sought to apply the principles of the Gospel in the marketplace of everyday life.
At the end of the Second World War, Father Keller began the formation of a movement called The Christophers. It would seek to motivate men and women in all walks of life to bring Judeo-Christian principles to bear on the world around them. The Christophers, as he saw it, would have no formal organization, no memberships, no dues. “The reason for this somewhat unusual formula,” he explained, “was to focus attention on personal responsibility.” For a motto, he chose an ancient Chinese proverb: “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
In January, 1946, an article entitled “You Can Be a Christopher” appeared in The Catholic World magazine. Response was overwhelming.
“Launching the Christopher Movement,” according to Father Keller, “was like dropping a pebble into a pool. The circles just went on widening outward by themselves.”
He immediately began publishing a regular newsletter, Christopher News Notes. For the next 20 years, he traveled the country welcomed everywhere by enthusiastic audiences. Through Christopher News Notes, radio and television programs, books and newspaper columns, James Keller preached his message of hope.
By 1969, when he retired because of declining health, Father Keller had established, on a solid basis, an organization that could carry forward the work he had begun. On his death, February 7, 1977, letters poured into the Christopher office. One of them summed up well the influence this man of hope had on those he touched:
“His was a unique message and brought hope and courage to thousands of people deeply distressed in these troubled times.”
A Final Testament
In 1972, Father Keller, aware that he was failing in health, wrote: “Since tomorrow, August 15, is the 47th anniversary of my ordination, it seems fitting to ponder more seriously than ever the fact that a relatively short time is left to me to prepare for my final summons.
“Throughout my life I have looked forward with joyful anticipation to the ‘homecoming’ day when I will meet my Savior face to face.
“But the nearer I get to that glorious occasion, the more unworthy I feel. I find myself counting more than ever before on the mercy of the Lord to make up for my defects and shortcomings.
Father Keller breaks for prayer during an interlude in TV filming
“Through prayer and good works during the time left, I can do penance for my imperfections and prove that I am truly sorry for any and all of my offenses against a loving God:
by increasing my prayers for the work of The Christophers, for numerous intentions involving the eternal salvation and human well-being of many friends and acquaintances, as well as the poor people of the earth;
by accepting cheerfully the handicap of my physical ailments;
by welcoming rather than evading any suffering that the Lord allows to come my way;
by trying to be of greater service to mankind through working for The Christophers;
by striving to bring joy, not gloom, into the lives of others; by avoiding all forms of self-pity;
by fulfilling more devotedly all daily spiritual exercises;
by endeavoring to be so conscientious that I may be under all circumstances a humble witness of the holiness, devotion, generosity, detachment and purity that most people associate with a good priest;
by continually thanking God for the countless blessings I have received from Him throughout my life;
by recalling frequently St. Paul's reminder: 'By God's favor you were saved. This is not your own doing, it is God's gift.'
by faithfully living up to the spiritual goals set by the prophet Micah: 'This is what the Lord asks of you, only this — to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God.”