Bishops' quiet leader shares spotlight with pope Keeler considered cardinal material

August 12, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

When Pope John Paul II lands in Denver today, Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler, a private man more comfortable working behind the scenes, will suddenly become the country's most visible Roman Catholic leader.

On the tarmac, Archbishop Keeler, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, will be the first to greet the pope. And only after Baltimore's archbishop has welcomed Pope John Paul will the president of the United States step forward for an introduction.

For the next four days, Arch bishop Keeler will be flying in the president's helicopter, introducing the pope to throngs of the Catholic faithful gathered in Denver for World Youth Day, meeting with Hillary Rodham Clinton, celebrating Masses with the pope and representing American bishops at each event he attends.

And for the first time, the rest of the nation will see a quiet church leader whose work, on issues such as ecumenism, has won him recognition within the church but hasn't brought him much public attention.

However, this new exposure -- along with his continuing leadership of the bishops' conference -- is bound to increase speculation on how far the archbishop's quiet effectiveness might possibly carry him within the church hierarchy.

His Baltimore staff, aware of how little he cares for news coverage, is amused by the sudden surge of network interest. ABC's "Good Morning America" has taped an interview. Tom Brokaw of NBC News has called, along with the "Today" program. CBS News and CNN will visit today. Tuesday, Archbishop Keeler even did a call-in show on French radio.

The contrast is sharp. In Baltimore, Archbishop Keeler would rather not spend much time with the press. He's said often that church teachings can't be reduced to sound bites. But in Denver, he's at the center of news coverage of World Youth Day, which he chairs.

"He can't avoid the attention this time," says Rob Rehg, spokesman for the Baltimore Archdiocese.

There are those who are inclined to believe that continued national attention could help elevate the archbishop to the next level of hierarchy, the College of Cardinals in Rome. But many church observers caution that cardinals are not created by media blitz. Bishops become cardinals because they lead important archdioceses or they head a Vatican office or they have produced a lifetime of accomplishments that has won Rome's appreciation.

Baltimore is the American church's Primatial See, the first archdiocese in the country. Two of its leaders have been cardinals -- Cardinals Gibbons and Shehan.

Some church observers believe it's possible that Archbishop Keeler will one day be Cardinal Keeler.

"He is very, very highly respected," says the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., a Jesuit scholar and author at Georgetown University who has published books on the career patterns of the American Catholic hierarchy. "So I would not be at all surprised if he became a cardinal because he is so highly respected by the bishops and by the pope."

But the Rev. Thomas Fitzgerald, S.J., rector at Loyola College and retired president of St. Louis University, warns that such guessing games are unproductive.

"Nobody knows" who's to be named a cardinal, "except maybe the pope," Father Fitzgerald says. "And if there was public speculation about it, that doesn't help. They would feel they were being pressured."

The archbishop certainly never discusses it. People who know him also believe he'll be displeased just to read such speculation.

"If you asked him about it, he wouldn't even reference it," Mr. Rehg says. "He'd say, 'How about those Orioles?' "

Like many other church leaders, Archbishop Keeler tends to be conservative on issues of doctrine. He opposes abortion, ordination of women, marriage for priests. But he's more liberal than most lay Americans on issues of social justice. He opposes capital punishment, works for civil rights, supports programs to aid the poor.

Friendly, cautious

Those who know the archbishop describe him as friendly, gentlemanly, low-key, cautious. Fred Ruof, who served with Archbishop Keeler in the 1960s when they were young parish priests in Pennsylvania, says he was always "quite private, bordering on being a loner."

Even as a young man, Archbishop Keeler, he recalls, was "a caring person, but his care was carefully conditioned, cautious. . . . He is a giving man, and yet he projects an uncomfortable guardedness.

"I love and respect the man," Mr. Ruof, who married in 1966, BTC says. He wishes, though, that the archbishop were less a church administrator and more a pastor.

But others have no problems understanding the limits that a position in the church hierarchy imposes.

"Being an archbishop is a very tough job these days," Father Reese says. "Everybody wants you to do everything. There are constantly demands made on you. You have limited resources. There are huge, huge needs."

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