Ethics & Public Policy Center

Remembering Father Leonard Klein (1945-2019)

Published in The Catholic World Report on December 12, 2019


In January 2009, the vigil service and funeral Mass for Father Richard John Neuhaus were held at the parish he had served, the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the Gramercy Flatiron neighborhood of Manhattan. Some may have imagined that Neuhaus, a prominent New York figure for decades, would be buried from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as his great friend, Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, had been, a month earlier. But the archdiocese of New York was not enthusiastic about that idea, and in any event Father Neuhaus had made it quite clear before his death that he wanted his wake and funeral Mass to be celebrated among the working class people to whom he had preached in his singular way – never talking down, but always lifting up.

The unsettled question was, who would preside at the vigil service? Father Neuhaus’s old friend, Dr. Robert Louis Wilken, and I believed that the vigil should reflect Neuhaus’s Lutheran heritage. So with the concurrence of Neuhaus’s devoutly Lutheran sisters we invited Father Leonard Klein to celebrate the vigil service. Father Klein did a masterful job of leading a packed church in prayer. His homily, however, caused more than a few parishioners’ jaws to drop when he casually mentioned that he and his wife, Christa, had first met in the basement of then-Pastor Neuhaus’s Lutheran church in the then-tough Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The largely Filipino locals were puzzled: Isn’t this guy a priest? What’s this business about his wife?

Like his old friend Neuhaus, Leonard Klein was a longtime Lutheran pastor who, unable to preach and minister any longer within the doctrinal and moral confusions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA], entered into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2003. The former Pastor Klein then sought permission of the Holy See to be ordained to the priesthood as a married man. Permission was granted, and Leonard was duly ordained by Bishop Michael Saltarelli of Wilmington in 2006, with Christa and their children in attendance.

My small role in the ecumenical drama of this exceptionally good man’s life was a partial repayment on a large debt (to which I’ll avert in a moment). Leonard had called me in 2002 from his church in York, Pennsylvania, saying that we needed to talk. I had a hunch what was coming and, sure enough, over a conversation at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore (where Dr. Christa Klein was then running the institute for continuing clergy education), Leonard told me that it was impossible in conscience for him to remain in ELCA any longer. After thanking him for his honesty and courage, I asked whether he hoped to continue in the active ministry as a Catholic. He did. Then I asked whether he’d discussed the matter with Cardinal William Keeler, then the archbishop of Baltimore. He had. But Keeler had just accepted two married Episcopalian clergy into full communion; both men were candidates for the priesthood under the “Pastoral Provision;” and the cardinal, ever cautious, and thought that that was about all the traffic could bear. I then suggested the possibility of Leonard’s being ordained for the Diocese of Wilmington, near the Klein’s Pennsylvania home, and said I’d make an inquiry. A few hours later, I called Msgr. John Barres (now Bishop of Rockville Centre), who was serving as chancellor of the diocese for Wilmington’s Bishop Saltarelli, and opened the conversation by saying, “Have I got an early Christmas present for you!”

Leonard Klein, who died on December 4, was indeed an extraordinary gift to the Catholic Church in Wilmington; but he was the giver of the gift (which he would insist was a matter of God’s grace working through him). In Wilmington, he first served as a member of the diocesan Family Life Bureau and as a hospital chaplain before becoming pastor of two parishes and ultimately rector of the Cathedral of St. Peter (while concurrently serving as pastor of yet two other parishes). To all of those assignments, as to his pro-life work and his chaplaincy to the diocesan St. Thomas More Society, he brought a gentlemanly mien, a profound faith, a deep biblical sensibility, a crisp theological intelligence – and that gift for expository preaching that many Catholics wish their priests would learn from their Lutheran colleagues in Christian ministry. Born in 1945, and thus a half-generation behind Richard Neuhaus and Robert Wilken in his theological formation, Leonard was nonetheless, and like them, influenced by Arthur Carl Piepkorn, longtime professor of systematic theology at Concordia Seminary-St. Louis, who taught men like Neuhaus, Wilken, and Klein that Lutheranism should understand itself as a reforming movement within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, not as one among many Protestant “denominations.”

That was, and is, a minority view in Lutheran circles. But Piepkorn’s perspective was an exceptionally fruitful one. For it inspired many Lutheran pastors who, whether they eventually entered into full communion with the Catholic Church or not, helped bridge a centuries-old ecumenical chasm while keeping alive a tradition of confessional Lutheranism that was absolutely serious about the authority of the Scriptures and the ancient creeds of the Church. Catholics could only benefit from contact with these pastors, as I certainly did. And one expression of my gratitude for what I had learned from men like Neuhaus and Wilken was to do my small bit to help Leonard Klein find a ministerial home in the Catholic Church.

Leonard and Christa Klein lived a great Christian marriage, and Christa’s exquisite care for Leonard during his last illness – a heroic battle against leukemia that lasted a long time and involved no little physical suffering from the after-effects of a bone-marrow transplant – helped everyone who loved this extraordinary Christian couple deepen their understanding of a one-flesh union in Christ and how it can be, as St. Paul taught his Ephesians, an icon of the love of Christ for his bride, the Church.

Like others in their distinctive situation whom I’ve been privileged to know, Leonard and Christa Klein understood and cherished celibacy as the normative tradition in the Latin-rite Church’s priesthood, and were skeptical of progressive Catholicism’s enthusiasm for abandoning that venerable practice. It was Christa Klein, for example, who described for me the pressures a wife feels when married to a Catholic priest (who is, in a very real sense, “married’ to his local Church and bishop) – and it was Christa who then wondered aloud why so few Catholic campaigners for optional celibacy ever considered how this would affect marriages from the wife’s point of view. Her own extensive work with clergy-formation in both Protestant and Catholic seminary contexts gave, and will continue to give, Christa Klein a special wisdom and authority in these discussions.

During the pontificates and John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it was not all that uncommon for confessionally serious and theologically astute Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican clergy to seek full communion with the Catholic Church, which they saw as a bulwark against the acid effects on ecclesial life of the theological liberalism deplored by the greatest of modern converts, St. John Henry Newman. That stream of “crossover” clergy seems to have run somewhat dry in recent years. And while there are doubtless many reasons for that, including generational differences, the sense in some quarters that the Catholic Church is in danger of losing its grip on its doctrinal and moral identity, and thus on its doctrinal and moral boundaries, is surely part of the picture.

There will be time enough to consider that later. For the moment, it is enough to give thanks for the life and ministry of Father Leonard Klein, who as both Lutheran pastor and Catholic priest was a shining witness to what it means to be a good shepherd of the flock. He nourished his people with the Word of God and the grace of the sacraments; he could do so because he was himself a radically converted Christian whose ministry grew out of a life of prayer and study. Leonard Klein’s distinctive life-experience is not easily replicable. But his example, as a Christian and a minister of the Gospel, could well be emulated by many.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies

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