Accepting the resignation of Cardinal William H. Keeler, Pope Benedict XVI turned over leadership of the birthplace of American Catholicism yesterday to Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, a prelate known for ministering to U.S. troops on the battlefield and strictly supervising the education of priests.
O'Brien, a New York native, has presided over the Archdiocese for the Military Services since 1997.
He vowed to continue Keeler's two-decade legacy - including forging trusting relationships with other faiths - while promising to step up the recruitment of new priests in the Baltimore Archdiocese.
Within hours of the Vatican announcement at 6 a.m. Baltimore time, Keeler and O'Brien cordially began the public transition - speaking to the news media at the Basilica of the Assumption, and then celebrating midday Mass before a crowd that filled about half of the elegantly restored cathedral.
"It will be a special challenge for me to live up to the episcopal accomplishments of Cardinal Keeler. ... He has persevered, and in the noble spirit of faith that has marked his ministry throughout his life as priest and bishop," O'Brien, 68, said during a news conference at the basilica within hours of his appointment.
O'Brien takes over an archdiocese of 500,000 Catholics and 151 parishes in an affluent, liberal state where abortion rights are not controversial and legalizing same-sex marriage is under judicial review. Like many archdioceses, a crucial challenge for Baltimore is balancing the needs of aging urban parishes with dwindling church attendance and school enrollment against the demands of fast-growing suburban communities.
Though Keeler had offered his resignation to the pope more than a year ago - a requirement of all bishops when they turn 75 - yesterday's announcement came somewhat unexpectedly, just weeks after Keeler's recent brain surgery to relieve a condition stemming from an auto accident last October. The news conference was one of Keeler's first public appearances since the hospital stay.
Yesterday, Keeler joyfully introduced Baltimore's Roman Catholics to his successor, whom he recalled meeting more than 20 years ago when they marched together at an anti-abortion event.
"I know that he will be able to count on the truly outstanding priests, deacons, religious and laity that have been so supportive of me in my 18 years of service as archbishop of Baltimore," the cardinal said. Keeler, O'Brien, retired Archbishop William D. Borders and the archdiocese's auxiliary bishops shared lunch at the bishop's residence next to the basilica immediately after Mass.
O'Brien will be the archbishop-designate until he is formally installed Oct. 1 as leader of the archdiocese of nine counties and Baltimore City.
Widely seen within church circles as loyal, competent and trustworthy, O'Brien has been rumored "for every significant appointment for the American church in the last 15 years," said John L. Allen Jr., a senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter.
Allen described Baltimore's new archbishop as, "in part, a kind of continuity appointment." Although O'Brien "doesn't have the same package of interests as Keeler, neither does it mark a dramatic move away from Keeler," he said.
When O'Brien begins his tenure, he will not hold the title of cardinal, and there is no guarantee that he will be promoted to that rank by the pope. Only three of Baltimore's past 14 archbishops have received that title.
But running the Baltimore archdiocese is considered a promotion regardless of title because of its history as the seat of American Catholicism.
From his first Mass at lunchtime yesterday, O'Brien quickly focused attention on his priority of recruitment of more priests, dedicating special prayers to the topic.
"I think young people don't have as many doubts as they used to about what the future of the priesthood will be," O'Brien said in an interview. "This generation is different - much more serious and willing to step up."
O'Brien is the only American bishop to have led two seminaries: St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., and the Pontifical North American College in Rome. In Italy, O'Brien set curfews and instituted morning and evening prayers because, he said, seminarians had had too many freedoms after Vatican II, according to an article in Crisis magazine.
"His great love for the priesthood makes him a most effective recruiter of vocations - an invaluable asset for any seminary or diocese," Keeler said at the news conference.
In 2005 and 2006, O'Brien conducted a rigorous review of all American seminaries following a series of priestly abuse scandals, issuing the controversial conclusion that the schools should no longer admit homosexuals, even if celibate.
In his current role, O'Brien has struggled with a shortage of priests, telling Catholic News Service this year that while 25 percent of the military is Catholic, only 7 percent of the chaplains are. Of 800 priests he said he needed, he had only 325.