Msgr. Ralph Kuehner
Msgr. Ralph Kuehner
Two days before his 90th birthday on April 7, Msgr. Ralph Kuehner celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Derwood, and during the Mass, the priest noted for his service to the area's poor was compared to the current pope named for the parish's patron saint.

In his homily at the Mass, Father Michael Bryant likened the ministry of his friend and mentor to that of Pope Francis, saying they both demonstrate "powerful examples of being servants of God... He's like the pope in so many ways. He's humble and kind."

Father Bryant noted that Pope Francis has called for "a Church that is of and for the poor. That's where Father Ralph is with his life... (and) that's what we are all called to do with our lives."

Msgr. Kuehner is the founding father of Victory Housing, the Archdiocese of Washington's corporation that provides affordable housing and related social services for low- and moderate-income senior citizens and families. In 1970, the priest worked with church and community leaders to found the SOME (So Others Might Eat) soup kitchen, which no provides comprehensive services to the area's poor and homeless.

The homilist noted the priest's life and work has reflected Matthew 25:35-46, the passage where Jesus says that those who give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, care for the ill and visit the imprisoned, "whatever you did for one of these lease brothers of mine, you did to me."

"We've got to share our blessings with other people," Father Bryant said.

Father Bryant, the longtime Catholic chaplain for the D.C. Department of Corrections, noted that Msgr. Kuehner helped him get that job, and he joked, "I don't know how to express my thanks to Ralph" for helping him spend the last 35 years in jail.

The two priests worked together to start the archdiocese's Welcome Home Reentry Program, which enlists the help of area parishioners to serve as volunteer mentors to men and women returning to their communities after incarceration. Father Bryant expressed thanks to the St. Francis of Assisi parishioners, noting that recently he had spoken at the parish, seeking volunteers for the Welcome Home program, and 35-40 people offered to help.

After Communion, Msgr. Kuehner stood at the altar and offered simple words of thanks, "first to God, for my life and especially my priesthood," and he thanked his family and friends for their support.

This past year, Msgr. Kuehner wrote his autobiography, "Why a Servant Church?" in which he told how he was raised in a big Catholic family in Scranton, Pa., during the Depression. He holds graduate degrees in theology and Sacred Scripture, and he has devoted his priesthood to teaching Scripture and to putting God's word into action by working with others to develop outreach programs for the poor and vulnerable.

"I always liked the idea of a servant Church. Christ came to serve, not be served, and to give his life as a ransom for all. It sets a tone for how we (should) operate," he said in an earlier interview.

Msgr. Kuehner, who also co-founded the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, continues to celebrate daily and weekend Masses at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, where he has been in residence for the past 24 years, and he writes a Scripture column for the parish bulletin. His latest book, "Words of Jesus from the Cross," was published this year.

In an interview after his special Mass, Msgr. Kuehner reflected on his love for Scripture. "It is God's word. You can't get closer than that!" he said, smiling.

After his ordination in 1950, he first taught Scripture at a seminary, then for most of his priesthood, he got to put those lessons into practice. "Scripture taught me that you should be out there helping people," he said.

Reflecting on his longevity, the priest said he has been thinking about his grandmother, Genevieve Merkel, who lived to be 102. A native of Germany, she immigrated to the United States as a young girl in 1862, when Abraham Lincoln was president. A devout Catholic, she raised 10 children, including four daughters who became nuns, and she attended the first Mass of her grandson, Msgr. Kuehner, in 1950. "She really was a great lady," he said.

Asked about being compared to Pope Francis, the veteran priest said, "I like that. I feel really good about him. We're on the same page!"

Hundreds of people attended a reception in Msgr. Kuehner's honor after the Mass, including James Brown Jr., the president of Victory Housing, who said of the priest, "He's been our founder and inspiration from the beginning... He is really a man of grace and persistence."

Victory Housing now operates 30 communities with 2,170 units, including six assisted living facilities for the frail elderly, along with independent living facilities for seniors, and workforce housing for individuals and families.

Jean Brady, formerly the executive director of Victory Housing who was among parishioners at St. Mary's in Rockville who helped start a parish-based home for the frail elderly there in the mid-1980s, praised Msgr. Kuehner, saying, "He's a true follower of Christ."

Father John Dillon, the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish for the past year, said Msgr. Kuehner offers an inspiring witness to the parishioners there, and to him. "I see in him, a man who is utterly faithful to the Lord," said Father Dillon, noting the priest's dedication to prayer, teaching and administering the sacraments. "He's an inspiration to me every day."