Keeler's age opens issue of succession

Choice to head archdiocese will likely signal pope's plans for U.S.

May 06, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

In a matter of months, weeks or even days, a new bishop could be appointed to take charge of America's oldest Roman Catholic archdiocese.

Cardinal William H. Keeler submitted his resignation letter to the Vatican more than a year ago - a church requirement once he passed his 75th birthday - allowing Pope Benedict XVI to pick a new archbishop for Baltimore.

Speculation among Vatican observers suggests that a decision could come sooner rather than later, as the pope has the opportunity to put his imprint on both the American Catholic Church and the College of Cardinals that will someday pick his replacement.

"I think these [coming U.S.] appointments will tell us more about how Benedict views the American church than anything he says," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

For Keeler's part, he has repeatedly declined to be specific about when he might be replaced or who might replace him, deflecting questions and saying it's a decision in the hands of Pope Benedict and other higher powers.

But that hasn't stopped speculation among academics and other observers over who might be Keeler's replacement in what is widely seen as an attractive post. Names mentioned include Bishop John H. Ricard of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, a former auxiliary bishop in Baltimore, and Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee.

It's not clear what changes, if any, a new archbishop would bring to Baltimore in terms of either diocesan management or public agenda. Observers say Keeler's successor as leader of the nation's oldest diocese would have to direct its two seminaries at a time when interest in vocations is declining - a problem that Benedict has made a priority.

"It's the best-run, best-managed diocese in the United States," said Rocco Palmo of the Vatican-oriented blog Whispers in the Loggia. "The challenges, I would say, are the same as practically every other diocese."

In addition to Keeler, four other U.S. cardinals have surpassed the age of 75 or will reach that milestone this year. There is no guarantee that the future head of Baltimore's archdiocese would become a cardinal. In fact, only three of the 14 archbishops of Baltimore have received the red hats denoting membership in the College of Cardinals.

Resignation at 75

Under canon law, bishops must submit their resignations to the pope when they turn 75, but he can permit them to stay on until they reach 80. Only cardinals who are under the age of 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave that elects new popes.

Benedict's delay in replacing Keeler enabled the cardinal to complete one of the major accomplishments of his nearly two decades as archbishop - the $32 million restoration of the Basilica of the Assumption in downtown Baltimore. The first cathedral constructed in the United States reopened in November, with Keeler immediately able to put the building on display for a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But the urgency of finding a successor to Keeler was magnified last summer - before the Basilica reopening - when the cardinal was injured in a car accident while vacationing in Italy with two friends. He suffered a broken ankle and used a walker throughout the November events.

Although Baltimore is a midsize Catholic community, with only about a half-million Catholics, its status as the first diocese created in the United States gives it symbolic significance. Keeler raised awareness of that history through his work on the basilica, and his successors must continue that effort, said George Weigel, a Baltimore native and author of God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church.

"The future of the Archdiocese of Baltimore in some sense requires a more active reclaiming of its past," Weigel said. Keeler's successor will have to continue to help the archdiocese "become a place where Catholics from all over the United States come to discover some of the important aspects of this history and the sanctity of the church in America."

The archdiocese is an important post within the American church for more than just history. Like other communities, it has struggled with declining Mass attendance and other common problems. However, Baltimore has remained relatively unscathed by the clergy abuse scandals that have diminished church finances and tarnished credibility elsewhere, as in Boston and Spokane, Wash.

"The archdiocese braved a lot of things that have really wreaked havoc in a lot of other places," Palmo said. "To leave a place in such excellent condition to your successors is a real gift."

Baltimore is also unique because the archdiocese has two seminaries: St. Mary's in Roland Park and Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg. The archbishop serves as chancellor of both institutions, so experience in guiding vocations could be an important skill the pope might look for in picking Keeler's successor.

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