Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore for 17 years and an influential leader in the church worldwide, has submitted his letter of resignation to the Vatican and is waiting to learn whether Pope Benedict XVI will extend his term as spiritual leader of the area's more than 500,000 Catholics.
Canon law requires that bishops submit a letter offering their retirement when they reach their 75th birthday, but the Vatican in recent years generally has allowed those who have been willing and able to continue working. When Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington turned 75 last year, the pope declined his resignation, and McCarrick was told informally that he would be kept on for another two years.
Bishops must retire at age 80.
Keeler, who turned 75 last month, said this week that he did not express a preference in his letter to the pope. He said he has no health problems that would prevent him from working.
"I haven't got any thoughts, really," about retirement, Keeler said. "I put it in the Holy Father's hands."
Local Catholics were hopeful that Keeler would be left in place.
"I think his presence is necessary for years to come for our church," said Marie-Alberte Boursiquot, a parishioner at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore and a board member of its historic trust.
"It's a combination of his spirituality, his leadership and his unwavering commitment to issues of human life," said Boursiquot, a physician with a private practice in internal medicine. "He's a very kind man, a very strong leader."
Keeler, who came to Baltimore in 1989, has shepherded the archdiocese throughout the national sex abuse crisis that has rocked the church in the United States. A vocal opponent of abortion, he gained national prominence as a leading spokesman for what his friend Pope John Paul II called "the culture of life."
Keeler hosted Pope John Paul's 1995 visit to Baltimore and voted in the 2005 papal conclave that elected Benedict as his successor. He also has overseen the restoration of 200-year-old basilica, the first Catholic cathedral in the United States, and worked to improve ecumenical and interfaith relations.
He helped to arrange meetings between Pope John Paul and Jewish leaders, and he joined in drafting a Catholic-Jewish reflection on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that recognized the continuing validity of a Jewish covenant with God and said Jews should not be targeted for conversion to Christianity.
Rabbi Mark Loeb, the longtime spiritual leader of Baltimore's Beth El Congregation, called Keeler "a remarkable man."
"Clearly, he is very concerned about the needs of the Jewish community," said Loeb, who has invited Keeler to speak at his Conservative Jewish synagogue in Park Heights. "He has more than shown friendship for our people and other peoples in his respect and willingness to dialogue honestly, as opposed to people who smile at you and say we're all together.
"Honesty, courtesy, truthfulness mean a lot in inter-religious dialogue. One can say he's a very worthy representative of his faith community."
Sister John Francis Schilling, president of St. Frances Academy, called Keeler a friend of Baltimore's inner-city schools, noting his work to establish the Partners in Excellence program to raise private donations for scholarships and tuition assistance. Keeler also has backed the campaign to canonize Mother Mary Lange, the Baltimore-based founder of both St. Frances and the Oblate Sisters of Providence, which now runs the school.
"He's done a wonderful job," Schilling said.
Keeler's retirement will be considered by the Congregation for Bishops, the arm of the Roman Curia that will make a recommendation to the pope. McCarrick received his answer within two months, but the process can take much longer. Keeler will remain in place until further notice.
"Now we're getting into the territory of the unknown," Keeler said. "I don't know how long it's going to take."
Keeler is planning to attend a meeting of the international Catholic-Orthodox dialogue in September in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and Montenegro. The basilica is scheduled to reopen in November.
Sue Abromaitis, a parishioner at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, said Keeler has been "excellent for the archdiocese."
"He's attempted to make the parishes responsive to the people," said Abromaitis, a professor of English at Loyola College in Maryland. "We've now had several new Catholic schools open. The closing of schools is an unfortunate fact for our cities, but he's certainly been supportive of the high schools and the three colleges."
On a personal level, she said, Keeler is "very warm, very interesting and interested. He very much loves the archdiocese and his people."
Francis Feeley, a former state deputy of the Knights of Columbus, was confident that Keeler would remain archbishop for at least a few more years.
"He's a great priest and a good leader," said Feeley, a parishioner of the Church of the Nativity in Lutherville. "He's kind of special."