By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 9, 2010
From all appearances, Chris Kellner had it all.
A degree from a prestigious law school. A job with one of Atlanta’s silk-stocking law firms. Good times with friends.
But he carried around an “emptiness” that dulled his sense of success.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Kellner grew up in Tampa, Fla. His parents divorced when he was young. When his mother passed away, he was a teenager and he moved in with his nearby physician father and his family.
He called it a “culturally Catholic upbringing” as he attended parochial schools from youth to high school.
After graduating from Tampa’s Jesuit High School, Kellner slowly dropped practicing his faith when he moved to Atlanta’s Emory University. He found a different environment at Emory. Kellner called it “worldly,” not supportive of faith, but not opposed to it either.
After earning his undergraduate degree in political science, Kellner stayed on campus for law school. He graduated in 1997 and started at Kilpatrick Stockton law firm with a specialty in intellectual property law.
And once work started, Kellner lived his life as a young, successful lawyer.
“There are a number of ways I could have destroyed my life,” he said.
“In some sense I continued to think of myself as a Catholic, (but) the amount of attention I paid to God was just about zero,” he said.
Kellner’s Mass attendance “kind of slipped off and dwindled” during those years. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but his faith withered from lack of use, Kellner said. He called it “practical atheism” where he didn’t see Sunday as any different from Saturday. His weekends were spent either working, hung over, or both, he said.
Even with this professional success, Kellner said he sensed “a lot of internal emptiness.”
“I knew to run to the church. And that’s what I did,” said Kellner, who is 38 and now works at Emory University in its legal department.
His steps back to the church started at Christ the King Cathedral. The return was helped by the sacrament of confession, a no-nonsense priest, and a close-knit group of men and women in an informal book club.
Kellner said receiving the sacraments was instrumental in his return. At the same time, he found challenge and support in a priest, Father John Matejek, who was then newly ordained.
“It’s the right balance of challenging you and comforting you. It was providential,” said Kellner.
Father Matejek said Kellner was looking for guidance when his life was upside down. And what was important was how Kellner did the hard work to improve and return to the church, said Father Matejek, who now is the pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church, Kennesaw.
“There wasn’t a single moment, but there were definitely shifts,” Kellner said about coming back to the church. At 31, he became a regular worshipper again.
Attending Mass led to joining the young adult ministry at the Cathedral, which led to an informal Catholic book club. The reading list was anything but light as they tackled Pope John Paul II’s “Love and Responsibility,” papal encyclicals, St. Francis de Sales, C.S. Lewis and others.
One of the leaders of the club was Beth Daly. Kellner and Beth started dating, and in June 2007 they married at Christ the King. The family lives in unincorporated DeKalb County, not far from Decatur. They have two children under the age of 3 and attend Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta.
The chaos of a young family has kept him from the daily Mass he used to attend. Instead, he attends monthly evenings of recollection, which are run by Opus Dei at St. Andrew Church, Roswell.
Looking back on his time away from the Catholic Church and his return, he learned the church’s longevity gives it wisdom to share.
“There are answers to the tough questions. There really are answers. And to my mind and heart, they are powerful answers,” he said.
To many people, the church gives the perception of just offering a series of ‘noes,’ he said.
“There are a series of noes, but ultimately they are in the service of a greater yes,” he said.