Fr. James G. Keller (June 27, 1900 – February 7, 1977) was a Catholic priest in the Maryknoll Order, best known for his founding of The Christophers in 1945.
Keller’s father was James Kelleher, an immigrant to California from Ireland. James Sr. changed the family name to avoid the prevelant anti-Irish sentiment of the day. His mother was Margaret Selby, half-Irish on her mother’s side and Portugese on her father’s.
James Jr. was born the fourth of six children in a devoutly Roman Catholic household. After serving two years in the U.S. Army, Keller initially attended seminary in Menlo Park, California. While there in 1918, a group of the first American priests bound for China stopped at the seminary, and James became interested in their newly formed missionary society, Maryknoll.
Subsequently James enrolled at the Maryknoll Seminary in Ossining, New York.
In 1922 James spent the summer doing orderly work at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York, in preparation for what he expected would be missionary work in areas with little or no medical care.
After being ordained as a subdeacon in 1923, he continued his education at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., earning his Baccalaureate and subsequently his Masters degree in medieval history. It was from a professor there that he learned the importance of historical trends as opposed to individual occurences.
At the age of 25, fresh out of seminary and newly ordained on August 15, 1925, James was unexpectedly assigned to take over the small Maryknoll chapter in San Francisco.
A young Fr. James Keller
Through the subsequent course of events, James never received an overseas mission assignment, and spent much of the next 20 years on assignment in the United States recruiting students and raising funds for Maryknoll missions.
In the years that followed, Keller became a public figure, a radio and then TV personality, a writer and editor, and a religious leader and spiritual counselor to many celebrity figures of his day.
In spite of his high profile, Fr. Keller believed that every individual, however shy or obscure, had something important to give to the world.
To those who crossed his path, he had but one message: “You, individually, have a mission in life to fulfill – a special job to do. You can do something no other person can do to shape the world in which you live.”
During the 1930’s, the talks Fr. Keller gave to groups around the country took on a new dimension. “Gradually,” he would recall, “As I told the story of Maryknoll to so many different audiences, I began almost subconsciously to emphasize not only what my listeners could do to assist missioners by prayers and finances, but also how they could play a missionary role themselves.”
Fr. James Keller (center, bottom) with the cast on the set of the short film “You Can Change The World” (1950). Comedian Jack Benny invites several of his celebrity friends over to the house, where he invites them to Fr. Keller, who speaks to them about doing a film for a new group called The Christophers, with the goal of inspiring young people to change the world in a positive way by pursuing careers in public service. Fr. Keller gives the celebrities a history lesson about the grounding of the United States and God’s role in it, and asks for their help. Top row, left to right: Jack Benny, William Holden, Paul Douglas. Bottom row, left to right: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Loretta Young, Fr. James Keller, Irene Dunne, Ann Blyth. Also starting Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke. Directed by Leo McCarey. Produced by William Perlberg.
To describe that role he coined the term “Christopher,” from the Greek words for “Christ-bearer,” Christós (‘Christ’ or ‘Anointed’) and phérein (‘to bear’) – meaning an individual who sought to apply the principles of the Gospel in the marketplace of everyday life.
After the end of the second world war in 1945, Fr. Keller began the formation of a movement called The Christophers. It would seek to motivate men and women in all walks of life to bring Judeo-Christian principles into the lives of those around them.
As he envisioned it, The Christophers would have no formal organization, no membership, no dues.
“The reason for this somewhat unusual formula,” he explained, “is to focus attention on personal responsibility.”
For a motto, he chose an ancient Chinese proverb: “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
In January 1946, Fr. Keller wrote an article entitled “You Can Be a Christopher,” which appeared in The Catholic World magazine. Response was overwhelming.
“Launching the Christopher movement,” said Keller later, “was like dropping a pebble into a pool. The circles just went on widening outward by themselves.”
Fr. Keller began publishing a regular newsletter, Christopher News Notes, producing radio and television programs, and writing books and newspaper columns. Throughout, Keller preached his fundamental message of hope.
Retiring in 1969 because of declining health, Fr James Keller passed away on February 7, 1977.
The mission of The Christophers is to encourage and inspire individuals from all walks of life with the understanding that they each have a God-given purpose – and that constructive, individual action and an active faith can work miracles.
Each individual is created in the moral image of God, and individual acts of care and concern for others will have a ripple effect touching many lives.
To be a Christopher literally means to be a bearer of Christ, and thus to be a light that pushes back the darkness.
The Christopher approach is to put our faith into action, every day, using the means we have to address those circumstances as they are presented to us.
You have a God-given mission to bring His light into a troubled world. Therefore, you must come to know what it is and then to fulfill your individual mission in life.
You can make a difference. One good deed may seem insignificant, but it may be all that is needed to overcome an evil.
Believe in miracles. Make miracles happen. Learn to see and to focus on what can be done, rather than waste time and energy complaining about what cannot.
Things improve when more people build up, and fewer tear down.
“Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)
- Each of us has, by the grace of God, the power and the ability to change the world for the better.
- Every act of care and concern for others has a ripple effect, touching many lives.
- The love to which we are called by the Gospel extends not only to our family and neighbors, but to all who live on God’s Earth – today and in the time to come.
- Go into the marketplace, into a job of your own choosing, without fanfare or flag-waving.
- Where there is hate, bring in love; where there is darkness, carry light. In other words, be a Christ-bearer, or Christopher.
- The mere fact that you are alive, reading these words, no matter your age, the state of your health or physical condition, means that God has chosen for you some work that no other person can do.
- If you want to leave the world better than you found it, you must first know that you have been put here for a purpose, and are delegated by God to play a part.
- Each of us is an instrument of supernatural grace. We do not have to depend on our own limited abilities, as we have the whole of heaven behind us, even when we seem to fail.
- To each of us, Christ is continually saying, “As the Father has send Me, so I send you.” (John 20:21)
- As a Christopher, you can do much to influence good. You can stimulate not only yourself but others around you to show a personal responsibility and initiative in raising the standards of all phases of human endeavor, which vitally shape the destiny of humankind for good or evil, for time and eternity.
- The presence of even one Christopher in any environment is a blessing, a channel of grace, and a step in the right direction – like a tiny pinpoint of light that is greater than the encircling darkness.
“It is better to light one cancel, than to curse the darkness.“