Pope Selects American Priest for Rare St. Peter's Job

Msgr. Francis Kelly becomes one of the basilica’s canons, responsible for liturgical celebrations and for maintaining a prayerful presence there.

Msgr. Francis Kelly is installed Jan. 20 as a canon of St. Peter's Basilica.
Msgr. Francis Kelly is installed Jan. 20 as a canon of St. Peter's Basilica. (photo: NAC/Christopher Brashears)

VATICAN CITY — For the first time in the 21st century, Pope Benedict XVI has made an American priest a canon of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

"You're the first of this century and the first of this millennium," said Cardinal Angelo Comastri during the Jan. 20 celebration for Msgr. Francis Kelly.

"This is a celebration of fidelity, and fidelity is maintaining during the whole life the commitment pronounced in your youth," he added in St. Peter's Basilica, referring to Msgr. Kelly's priesthood of 50 years.

Pope Benedict XVI announced Msgr. Kelly's new role in an Oct. 20 decree, giving the 76-year-old the primary tasks of prayer and worship. A canon is a senior priest who is responsible for the celebration of the sacred liturgy at the Vatican basilica and for maintaining a prayerful presence in the place where St. Peter is buried. Canons lead the recitation of evening prayers and concelebrate Mass on Sundays at 10:30am as well as on major feast days.

There are 24 canons in St. Peter's Basilica, and, with the addition of Msgr. Kelly, they represent 10 countries.

Cardinal Comastri said that his representation of the United States is "a beautiful sign of the catholicity of the Church."

Before Msgr. Kelly, there were two U.S.-born priests who were made canons in the 20th century — Msgr. William Anthony Hemmick and Archbishop Martin O'Connor.

As he prepared to take on his new role and before his installation, Msgr. Kelly celebrated a Mass at Casa Santa Maria, a residence for American priests who studying in Rome, where he has served as the superior for the last eight years.

"It was a beautiful Mass and very meaningful for me," he said.

"I had the privilege to be the principal celebrant and share with them my great gratitude to God for his extraordinary goodness to me in carrying me through these 50 years of priesthood."

"The priesthood is the most extraordinary adventure, privilege and satisfying lifestyle that anyone could be called to," Msgr. Kelly told Catholic News Agency.

"As I look back, I'm just so grateful to God, and I'm very conscious that it was God who chose me, because I didn't choose this," he reflected.

"From the time I was an adolescent, I knew that was what I wanted to do," he added.

His installation at the Canons Chapel in the basilica included about 300 people.

During the ceremony, Msgr. Kelly was taken to the seat where he will be praying and worshipping from now on.

"I was highly honored to have five American cardinals present for the ceremony," he said, "my own priest from Casa Santa Maria and many other friends I've made here in Rome."