God's faithful servant for 50 years

Anniversary Mass today honors Cardinal Keeler's time as priest

October 05, 2005|By MATTHEW HAY BROWN | MATTHEW HAY BROWN,SUN REPORTER

As a seminarian, when William H. Keeler envisioned his priestly future - to the extent that he pictured it at all - he imagined perhaps serving as a pastor at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in quiet Cornwall, Pa., where he attended Mass with his family as a child.

"And I thought that would be the perfect place to end up," he remembers now. "But you're dependent on the will of God, and what your superiors tell you to do."

As it turned out, Keeler's career would follow a very different path. In the decades since his 1955 ordination, he has brought what admirers describe as a broad intellect, a deep prayerfulness and an unfailing gentlemanliness to a succession of positions of increasing responsibility and influence within the church nationally and worldwide.

Today, as he celebrates the 50th anniversary of his priesthood - the actual date was in July - the cardinal is a leading spokesman for the church in the vital areas of relations with other faiths, discussion with other Christian denominations, and support for what his friend Pope John Paul II called "the culture of life."

Still, when asked about his greatest joys as a priest, he describes the Mass: celebrating the Eucharist, particularly with fellow clergy, and preaching the Gospel. More than 200 priests and about 40 bishops are expected at his anniversary Mass today, which is set for 2 p.m. at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and open to the public.

"It's very important that I who am so affirmed by my brother priests will try on this occasion to affirm them," he says. "I want as many as can concelebrate with me to come."

Keeler sits in a conference room adorned by artifacts from a long and varied career as a priest, bishop and cardinal. Photographs show him at the 1995 Mass at Oriole Park at Camden Yards with Pope John Paul II; a meeting at Baltimore's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I; and the papal enclave at which the College of Cardinals elected his friend Pope Benedict XVI earlier this year.

A sideboard holds a replica of an angel from St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs, the basilica in Rome of which he is cardinal priest. Elsewhere, he says, he still has the notes he wrote in Latin from talks given by Karol Wojtyla when the future Pope John Paul II was a bishop at the Second Vatican Council and Keeler was a special adviser.

It was as a bishop under Pope John Paul that Keeler pursued much of the interfaith work that might prove to be his most enduring legacy. The episcopal moderator for Jewish affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he has long collaborated with Jewish leaders in discussions, meetings and statements intended to improve the historically troubled relations between the two belief communities.

"His interreligious work has been exceptional," says Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University and author of Roman Catholicism in America. "He's been a terrific ally of the Jewish community, in part emulating what John Paul II has done."

Keeler traces his interest in interfaith affairs to a visit while a seminarian to the Ardeatine Caves in Rome, where Nazis in 1944 executed 335 Italian civilians, including 75 Jews, and a later visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

Among his efforts, he helped to arrange meetings between Pope John Paul and Jewish leaders in the United States. He joined in drafting a joint Catholic-Jewish reflection on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The statement he wrote with Jewish leaders in 2002 that recognized a continuing validity to the Jewish covenant with God and said Jews should not be targeted for conversion to Christianity is seen as a landmark document in interfaith relations.

Orthodox Rabbi Elan Adler, president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, describes Keeler as "very knowledgeable" about Judaism and says he is "very open, very available, very interested, and very committed to discussion."

"He understands that Roman Catholics see things one way and Jewish people see another, but he has always made sure that everybody understands, at least from his perspective - and I think from the church's perspective - that the integrity of Judaism as a religion that's beloved by God and chosen by God is maintained throughout any kind of discussion," Adler says. "That's a very important thing."

Keeler also has been a vocal critic of abortion. The chairman of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he attracted national attention earlier this year when he wrote to the interim president of Loyola College that he would not send a representative to commencement exercises at which the pro-choice former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was to be honored.

And when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said his support for expanded federal funding for stem cell research was a pro-life position, Keeler issued a statement rejecting the claim.

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