By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 1, 2016
ATLANTA—Beneath a large wooden crucifix and with his well-studied Bible resting on his draped casket, Father Richard A. Kieran received his final blessings and prayers.
In a funeral Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta, the native of Ireland was eulogized by his fellow priest and brother, Father John Kieran, who spoke about the “long and mystifying” illness suffered by his brother after a stroke in 1999. The illness took Father Richard away from public ministry in his late 50s after spearheading initiatives in the Archdiocese of Atlanta that shaped the spiritual life of thousands of the faithful.
He died Nov. 21 at the age of 76. The funeral was celebrated Monday, Nov. 28, by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and was followed by burial at Arlington Memorial Park, Sandy Springs.
“Today, as we are doing, rejoice and be glad for knowing him and the wonderful response that he made to the priestly calling throughout life,” his brother said.
Ordained in 1965, Father Richard celebrated 51 years in the priesthood in 2016. He served as the spiritual leader at six churches, which was one of the many ways he touched the Catholic community. He was also archdiocesan secretary of education, a high school principal, longtime spiritual director of the Atlanta Cursillo movement and a pioneer of Hispanic ministry.
In 1999, his active priesthood changed. He suffered a brain hemorrhage and after surgery and rehabilitation the debilitating stroke forced him to rely on a wheelchair and impaired his vision and speech. But due to his brother’s efforts, he rarely missed an occasion that brought together the priests of the archdiocese.
Father John told the crowded church, with more than 50 priests and some two-dozen deacons in attendance, how it took time for him to see God’s handiwork in Father Richard’s frailty.
“The last 17 years have been long and mystifying. I reflected and prayed a lot. Still I never doubted God’s hand in this conundrum,” he said.
As time has gone on, Father John said people have spoken to him of a quiet ministry of his brother.
A priest recently told him, “Thank you for taking Richard out. He is an inspiration to see.”
“He is an inspiration to see. Richard’s presence said it all,” Father John reflected.
At his nursing home, Father Richard’s kindness and peaceful way touched the staff, he said. “They too were affected by hidden graces received from Richard’s silent ministry. Richard’s silent presence was a healer for others,” he said. “I’m convinced there was much more going on in that priestly mind than we were privy to.”
From Irish farm, he volunteered as missionary to Georgia
Father Richard was born March 7, 1940 in Dublin, Ireland, to Laurence and Joan Kieran, both deceased. One of eight children, he grew up on a farm. He was educated at the De La Salle Brothers School in Ardee and Glenstal Abbey School in Murroe before entering St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, County Kildare, for seminary and university. He received a bachelor of science from the National University of Ireland and a bachelor of divinity from the Pontifical University of St. Patrick.
Father Richard was a high school student in 1958 when a vocations director from Atlanta asked for volunteers to serve as missionaries in north Georgia. He raised his hand.
His brother said that was his way in life.
“He understood very clearly our role in life is to listen to God’s calling and make an appropriate response,” said Father John. “This was his way, just give me a task and I will do it.”
Father Richard was ordained on June 20, 1965, by Dublin Archbishop John C. McQuaid at St. Patrick’s College. His first assignment was at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church.
His ministry varied, from serving as a teacher and then principal at St. Pius X High School and St. Joseph High School, Atlanta, to directing the Cursillo spiritual renewal program, and leading people to sites in the Holy Land to deepen their understanding of Scripture.
He was secretary of the Department of Education of the Atlanta Archdiocese for eight years and earned a master’s in education. He was chaplain to Our Lady’s Association for Exceptional Children, a ministry to families to bring the sacraments to children with disabilities.
He learned Spanish to serve the then modest number of Hispanic Catholics, initiating the Spanish Cursillo weekend. Among the first to celebrate Mass in Spanish in the archdiocese, he was asked to lead a committee for the Hispanic apostolate in 1977 and coordinated it until 1982, drawing women religious to serve the community. He also ministered to Cubans detained in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.
He was honored for exceptional personal ministry by the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta, an ecumenical body he led as president in the 1990s. At the time of his illness, he was heading a three-year evangelization effort in the archdiocese preparing for the new millennium.
Commanded to preach the Gospel
Sister Margaret McAnoy, vicar for religious, knew the priest for some 30 years, first when she taught at St. Pius X and then through the Cursillo movement that has touched thousands of lay people.
“Richard had a knack for helping us to see that we were blessed, that we could have a prayer life and that God loved us as we were,” she said.
In addition, Father Richard traveled on more than a half-dozen trips to Colombia and Mexico to interview seminarians, including the future bishop, Luis R. Zarama, a native of Colombia.
Bishop Zarama recalled the priest as a warm man with an impressive grasp of Spanish. He worked with him later when Father Kieran oversaw what was then Centro Católico, a Spanish-language mission of IHM in Chamblee. This became Our Lady of the Americas Mission.
Bishop Zarama was impressed with Father Richard’s work ethic, but also how he treated people with dignity to work without interference. Bishop Zarama said Father Richard’s affection for immigrants touched the Hispanic community. It grew out of the late priest’s devotion to the Bible, he said.
“If you love Scripture, you find the immigrant. He was applying what he learned in the Bible. He found the immigrants,” the bishop said.
After serving in education, his ministry became leading parishes as a pastor, beginning with Holy Family, Marietta, in 1982; followed by St. Joseph, Athens, from 1983-1987; the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta, from 1987-1990; Immaculate Heart of Mary from 1990-1997; St. Anna, Monroe, from 1997-1999; and St. Michael, Gainesville, in 1999.
Father John said Father Richard’s mission was to be an evangelizer for Jesus. He said a sign on his brother’s desk proudly quoted St. Paul: “I am a failure, if I do not preach the Gospel.”
The theme of his life was, “God calls, we respond,” said Father John.
In brief remarks, Archbishop Gregory’s words received strong applause when he thanked Father John for his devotion to his younger brother. The 17 years of attention by Father John allowed Father Richard to perform his ministry of presence to the people and priests, said the archbishop. “Just as you watched over Richard, he’ll continue to watch over you.”
People shared anecdotes of Father Richard, an impressive man, who always responded with either a word or action, or both.
Keith West hadn’t seen him since 1998 but still wanted to pay his respects to the priest, who married West and his wife at the cathedral in 1988. His words shaped their marriage, West said.
“The sermon he preached and the words he said to us we live everyday. And that’s why we are still married,” he said.
Father Richard’s biblical knowledge made him a good counselor, West said.
“It was simply 100 percent based on the Gospel. It pulled me out of whatever mess I was in,” he said.
From his work at the cathedral, Nick O’Connor knew Father Richard to be a voice opposing abortion. The priest was faithful to join parishioners outside an abortion clinic to pray, O’Connor said.
“He was right there. He was very smart, very bright, no doubt. He had a strong voice. When he spoke, you listened.”
In addition to his brother, Father John, he is survived by two brothers, Brian and Peter, a sister, Poona, all living in Ireland; and a sister, Eileen, living in Kenya.
Memorial donations may be made to Visitation Hospital Foundation, 237 Old Hickory Blvd., Suite 100, Nashville, TN 37221.