Could Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler be heading for the Big Apple?
A rumor that has been circulating in church circles for about a month, that Keeler would take over as archbishop of New York from the ailing Cardinal John O'Connor, picked up steam yesterday when it appeared in a gossip column in a New York tabloid.
It's news to him, Keeler said yesterday through his spokesman.
"In the past few weeks, speculation concerning the possible retirement of Cardinal O'Connor in New York has mentioned Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, as a possible successor," said Raymond Kempisty, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "These reports are rumor, without substance.
"We see these comments, however, as recognition of Cardinal Keeler's leadership in the church locally, in the nation and around the world in the various responsibilities he has as a cardinal."
Neal Travis, gossip columnist for the New York Post, wrote in yesterday's editions that O'Connor will retire next month when he turns 80 and that Keeler has been designated New York's cardinal-in-waiting.
"My church sources say O'Connor's successor as the most powerful and influential Catholic in America has already been selected," he wrote. "They say the nod has gone to William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore, a man who has been prominent in building Catholic-Jewish-Protestant dialogues."
If Keeler declines the appointment, Travis wrote, the "front-runner" would be Buffalo Bishop Henry J. Mansell.
O'Connor submitted his resignation when he turned 75, which is the mandatory retirement age for bishops, but Pope John Paul II has not accepted it. The church does not allow cardinals to vote in papal elections after their 80th birthday. O'Connor, who turns 80 on Jan. 15, is expected to retire and be replaced.
O'Connor has been receiving radiation treatments for cancer that have left him weak, his face puffy, and he underwent brain surgery in September to remove a tumor.
He missed several weeks of celebrating Sunday Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral before summoning the strength to preside at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Keeler, 68, who last month celebrated his fifth anniversary as cardinal, 10 years as archbishop of Baltimore and 20 years as a bishop, would be a strong candidate for the post in New York. He is widely respected in the U.S. Jewish community, which is centered in New York, and he is a trusted adviser to Pope John Paul II. With 2.4 million Catholics, the New York archdiocese dwarfs the 424,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and with its intense media coverage, Keeler would become even more of a national church leader.
But such a move would be unprecedented, scholars say.
"We've never had a cardinal move from one diocese to another in the United States," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of the Catholic weekly America and an expert on the American hierarchy. "It's even rare for an archbishop to be moved. Anything is always possible, but this is extremely unlikely to happen."
O'Connor's office referred calls to Keeler or to the Vatican. "Nobody has said anything to anyone here about who the next archbishop will be or when the next archbishop is going to be named," said Joseph Zwilling, O'Connor's spokesman.
Reese noted that in the early church, a bishop never moved from his diocese. "He was considered to be married to the diocese, and it was considered a sin equal to adultery to leave your diocese for a more beautiful one," he said.
"Needless to say, the church's feelings about this have changed," he said. "But still, it's unusual to move people around like that from one archdiocese to another."