College awards doctorate to cardinal Keeler celebrates Mass for 400 people at Western Maryland

September 09, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

For the first time in its 128-year history, Western Maryland College in Westminster welcomed a cardinal to its campus.

Cardinal William H. Keeler, leader of about 500,000 Maryland Roman Catholics in the Baltimore archdiocese, celebrated Mass yesterday in Baker Memorial Chapel and received an honorary doctorate in divinity from the college, now a secular school but a pillar of Methodism until 20 years ago.

Wearing the miter and carrying the crosier that mark his status as a Roman Catholic bishop, Keeler walked up the aisle to a portable altar, accompanied by priests, altar servers and college officials in academic dress.

His presence was proof of both his devotion to higher learning and his advocacy for building bridges between faiths, said Robert H. Chambers, president of the private college, which has an enrollment of 1,300.

At the invitation of the Catholic Campus Ministry, Keeler came to bless the opening of the academic year for students of all faiths.

"Pray with me for a year of genuine growth in relationships with others and especially with God," he said to nearly 400 people, including students, faculty and members of nearby parishes.

Sophomore Crystal Muia, a campus ministry member who invited Keeler nine months ago, said, "I am deeply honored that the cardinal said Mass on my campus. How could we start out the year any stronger?"

From the altar, Keeler made the sign of the cross, blessing the congregation and proclaiming the holiness of the place where "we will open up our hearts." He cited Scripture as he assured the gathering that "we have God's word that he is in our midst."

He thanked the college for creating "an instant cathedral" out of a building that is usually bare of Catholic emblems and is often used as a stage.

"I didn't know I had done that," said Mary Ann Friday, sponsor of the campus ministry. "We brought in a crucifix and flowers and placed the altar appropriately so the cardinal could face the congregation."

The cardinal used the visit to make a case for restoring moral values in the nation's schools -- he and other religious leaders have helped place a "character-building" curriculum in Baltimore elementary and middle schools.

"It is of little help if a child learns the best computer techniques but not how to act responsibly," he said.

The cardinal wore green and gold vestments, the traditional Western Maryland College colors. Yesterday was only the third time -- but the most appropriate, he said -- that he had worn the robes, a gift from Pope John Paul II during his visit to Baltimore last year.

"The pope knows the immense capacity of young people to respond to the Gospel," Keeler said. "God believes in youth."

Students had chosen "relationships" as the theme of the service and selected the music and Scripture passages.

Keeler "wants youth involved in the church, not sitting passively and watching," said senior Cathy Pech, president of the Catholic Campus Ministry. "He allowed us to arrange this Mass as we wanted."

Most often Keeler addressed his remarks to the many students attending the 11 a.m. service. He asked several their names and hometowns.

To encourage vocations to the religious life, the cardinal used the example of St. Francis of Assisi who, as a young man, gave up his fortune for a life devoted to God.

"Consider a special call to serve as priests and religious [nuns]," he said. "What Francis practiced so long ago is not out of date. It leads to true freedom.

"Real freedom is not in doing what we like, but in being able to do what we ought."

At the sign of peace, the cardinal stepped from the altar area to clasp hands with several of those sitting in the first few pews.

"At heart, the cardinal is still very much a parish priest," said Chambers who presented Keeler with a red, green and gold stole to signify the honorary degree. "He is a rare combination of authority and humility."

Despite the stifling heat at an outdoor reception, the cardinal chatted with the crowd, posed for pictures and took a glass of fruit punch from an 8-year-old worried the cardinal was getting too hot.

Keeler blessed several babies, gently signing a cross on their foreheads. Sean Patrick Bentz, 3 months, may be doubly blessed, his parents said. After blessing the baby, the cardinal placed his red skull cap briefly on the child's head.

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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