'A man of compassion, a good listener'

November 26, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

For William H. Keeler this is not a day like any other.

The quiet boy from Texas, raised in Lebanon, Pa., who decided early in his life to be a priest and went a good deal further, becomes a prince of the Roman Catholic Church today in Rome.

At 63, he is the third cardinal to sit in the Baltimore See in its 205-year history. It is almost certain he will help elect the next pope.

Not too many people are surprised by this. Archbishop Keeler might not have been an inevitable cardinal, but he displays many of the necessary qualifications. He has proven diplomatic skills; he is in tune with Vatican thinking on the issues of the day; he is a highly productive administrator. And, in the words of a number of people contacted for this article, "he is a good listener."

"I think he had the qualities that are looked for, especially in his broader view of things," said Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which Archbishop Keeler heads.

"He also has a great sense of history," he said. "He was so aware that Baltimore was the first American see that he almost made John Carroll a palpable presence by his own sense that he was working in the same vineyard as the first bishop of the United States."

People tend to remember Archbishop Keeler.

Long before he met him, Monsignor Maniscalco heard of him -- from the monsignor's own mother.

"She told me about this bishop she had met on a pilgrimage and how she was very impressed by him. Ever since, she always asked me, how is Bishop Keeler?"

Valerie Nichols, who taught Latin to the young William Keeler as a freshman and sophomore at Lebanon Catholic High School, recalls he was quiet in class and outgoing and friendly outside of it. If he had a talent, it wasn't obviously Latin. Rather it was for communicating, a skill he worked hard to develop.

"He was on my debating team," Miss Nichols said. "He could write and speak well, and he never minded being corrected."

"In fact," she said, "he would want to be perfect, so he'd come over to the house here and ask me to go over his speeches when he was going to deliver them at school."

He was not secretive but evidently didn't broadcast his desire to be a priest. Miss Nichols first learned of it, she said, when he went off to the seminary after his sophomore year.

William Henry Keeler was born March 4, 1931, in San Antonio. He moved to Pennsylvania when he was very young, and attended St. Mary School and Lebanon Catholic High School. The future cardinal graduated from the St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia in 1952. He was ordained a priest in 1955 in Rome.

Early assignments included assistant pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, Marysville parish in Pennsylvania, and later pastor of the parish. He moved to the Harrisburg Diocese in 1965 as vice chancellor. He was named bishop of Harrisburg by Pope John Paul II in 1983.

A fellow priest who knew him during his early years in Harrisburg remembers him as the confidant to whom he took the problem he was wrestling with at the time -- to remain in the church or to marry.

Frederick C. Ruof found Father Keeler "a man of compassion, a good listener, one in whom I could safely confide."

Mr. Ruof chose to leave the church, but even afterward found his colleague still sympathetic and respectful of his point of view.

The artful diplomat

Madeliene Becker also remembers the archbishop, but for another quality of his -- being on top of his job. It was 1989; she had come to the Catholic Center on Cathedral Street with a delegation to call on the new archbishop to express concern over the closing of Catholic schools in the archdiocese.

"He was new here, but he knew who we were, what we were there for. I think that was the most important thing. There was a feeling he was tuned into what our organization was trying to do," she said. "Considering that other groups within the archdiocese had agendas, for him to have known what we were about, I think that was impressive."

The results of the meeting were even more so.

"We're not active anymore," Mrs. Becker said. "Haven't needed to be -- the support is there for the Catholic schools."

The single quality that more than others seems to have recommended Archbishop Keeler to the high office he attains today is his talent for reconciling people in conflict.

Maria Luisa Gaston, director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, said, "From what I've seen, he is what you call a convener, a person able to bring people together."

Others call it artful diplomacy.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, recalls two crises in Catholic-Jewish relations.

The first occurred in 1987, when the pope received Kurt Waldheim, the former United Nations secretary-general and president of Austria. Mr. Waldheim, as an officer in the German army, was attached to a unit that committed atrocities in the Balkans during World War II. The pope made him a papal count.

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