Papal adviser, people's priest

Keeler: Baltimore's Roman Catholic leader keeps in touch with the daily life of the archdiocese as well the church's world affairs.

November 08, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, one of seven U.S. cardinals, trusted adviser to Pope John Paul II and an internationally respected leader in interfaith dialogue, begins each weekday much like any parish priest.

As most of the city awakes, Keeler stands behind the altar of the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Assumption in downtown Baltimore, celebrating the daily Mass for anyone who enters: workers stopping before going to the office, members of his staff and the occasional homeless person wandering in from the weather.

It's no big deal, he said. His friend Cardinal John O'Connor does the same thing at the same time each day at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.

"I think my greatest joy comes when I'm able to celebrate the Eucharist with the people," he said.

Yesterday, Keeler celebrated the fifth anniversary of his elevation to the College of Cardinals with a Mass at the basilica. He is also marking 10 years as archbishop of Baltimore and 20 years since his ordination as bishop.

Since coming to Baltimore from Harrisburg, Pa., in 1989, Keeler has had to make painful decisions about closing and consolidating some city parishes with dwindling congregations, while trying to bolster enrollment at urban Catholic schools that increasingly serve poor and non-Catholic students. At the same time, he has addressed booming suburban growth by building parishes and schools, and has begun an unprecedented fund-rais ing campaign.

But the day-to-day might seem a bit more mundane. Keeler moves from meeting to meeting, from event to event, rarely stopping, even for meals -- he tends to work through those as well. It's all part and parcel of his stewardship of the 155 parishes, 76 schools, two seminaries and half-million Catholics that make up the Archdiocese of Baltimore Inc.

After Mass, Keeler puts on a black overcoat and beret to walk across Cathedral Street to the Catholic Center, a seven-story office building housing the archdiocese staff. The first order of business is an 8 a.m. meeting over breakfast -- coffee, juice and muffins -- with the directors of the Department of Management Services, which is responsible for developing and maintaining archdiocese property.

Shifting population

Development is constantly on the cardinal's mind. Last week, Keeler had been in Odenton to dedicate land for a desperately needed school, which will be called School of the Incarnation when it is completed in 2002. In the suburban counties surrounding Baltimore, thousands are on waiting lists for school places. To fund building projects, Keeler recently guided the Heritage of Hope capital campaign, which raised $133 million in pledges.

But many urban congregations are shrinking. That led to one of the most painful decisions of Keeler's tenure, the closure in 1995 of one city parish and the scaling back of 13 others. The schools, however, were left unscathed.

"Early on, we made a decision not to close schools," Keeler said, because they were providing education for low-income families.

To enable those families to afford a parochial education, Keeler, with the help of business leaders, has raised $10 million for his Partners in Excellence program for inner-city tuition assistance.

Midmorning is taken up with going through the day's correspondence. Keeler sits at a round table in his corner office on the seventh floor of the Catholic Center and summons Monsignor W. Francis Malooly, the archdiocesan chancellor who acts as a chief of staff, and the Rev. Lawrence A. Waudby, the cardinal's priest secretary. Patricia Nadolny, one of the cardinal's administrative secretaries, sits to his right, handing him color-coded folders and filing each piece of mail after Keeler has dealt with it.

Keeler's office is spacious, but far from ostentatious. The bookshelves are filled with leather-bound tomes, many of them with Latin titles containing official Vatican documents. A portrait of the nation's first bishop in its first diocese, John Carroll of Baltimore, hangs behind Keeler's desk and green leather chair.

In the day's correspondence are invitations to accept or decline. There's a letter from a woman now living in Laguna, Ca., who had cared for a priest Keeler was traveling with who had fallen ill in Spain. An education consultant wishes to volunteer his services.

There is a green folder of memos from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which will meet this month in Washington. Keeler served as its president from 1992 to 1995, a key leadership post for the U.S. hierarchy.

High profile

Keeler is perhaps Baltimore's most visible religious leader, but he has an equally high national and international profile. He has made his mark in the ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and other Christian denominations as well as with other religions.

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