Change, challenges for Keeler

Cardinal looks to future as others remember his work for the archdiocese

September 23, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

Cardinal William H. Keeler celebrates his last public Mass as archbishop of Baltimore today -- but no one should expect him to say goodbye for long.

Stepping down after 18 years as head of the Baltimore area's more than 500,000 Catholics and 151 parishes, Keeler already foresees an ambitious schedule pursuing his passions and the religious agenda that has marked his career.

He plans to immerse himself further in the history of the archdiocese and its centerpiece, the restored Basilica of the Assumption. Vatican leaders have asked him to continue building on his successful record of developing relationships with other faith communities -- an influence that extended to drawing leaders of other religions into such issues as abortion.

And, perhaps most importantly to the cardinal, he will have more time for the simple duties of the priesthood.

"Part of what I'm going to do now is get out to the parishes again," Keeler said. "I hope that I shall be able to visit many people and talk to them at a different level rather than as archbishop but as archbishop emeritus."

This morning's Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore marks Keeler's final public religious event as archbishop, though he technically won't step down until Oct. 1, at the installation of his successor, Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien. The transition had been expected ever since his 75th birthday last year, when Keeler submitted his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI as required by canon law.

Now 76, Keeler remains a cardinal for life, and up until age 80 maintains his right to vote for a papal replacement.

Nevertheless, the impending retirement has given Keeler and Baltimore's Catholic community an opportunity in recent months to reflect on and celebrate a career that has spanned many of the pivotal moments of recent Catholic history.

As a peritus, or expert consultant, to the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965, Keeler is one of the few American bishops left who witnessed the discussions that changed worship practice and paved the way for ecumenical work.

As cardinal, Keeler hosted a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1995, and a decade later, he voted in the election of Pope Benedict XVI. The cardinal also directed the $32 million restoration of the basilica, which reopened last year.

Tackling controversy head-on, he published the names of hundreds of priests who had been accused of sexual abuse during the clergy scandal in 2002, and he oversaw the closing of urban parishes and parochial schools amid declining church attendance and school enrollments.

Interfaith efforts

His influence as a cleric extended beyond the boundaries of the archdiocese, becoming a national leader within the Roman Catholic Church and promoting its positions on the sanctity of human life and interreligious dialogue.

Keeler's relationships with Orthodox Christian, Protestant and Jewish leaders have attracted particular attention. Some Vatican watchers suggest that his interfaith efforts -- frequently lauded by leaders of other religions -- even played a role in Pope John Paul II's decision to elevate Keeler to cardinal in 1994.

"He's been honored up and down the Jewish street, as it were," said Rabbi Joel H. Zaiman, the rabbi emeritus of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville. "All the national Jewish leaders know him, and many of them have relationships with him that are more than casual."

As former president of the Synagogue Council of America, Zaiman first met Keeler more than 20 years ago. The two still moderate Catholic-Jewish discussions with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committee.

Keeler was always accessible. "I'd call and hear, `He's in Rome.' Three hours later, I'd get a call from Rome or from the train station in Venice," Zaiman said.

The cardinal said he got his first taste of interfaith work as a priest in the Diocese of Harrisburg. He served as secretary of the ecumenical group of the U.S. bishops' organization for Bishop Martin N. Lohmuller, a retired auxiliary bishop in Philadelphia.

As he became a national figure pushing the church's agenda on such topics as abortion, he found ways to broaden his lobbying effort to include other faiths.

Keeler, a former president of the national bishops' group, led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities from 1998 to 2001 and from 2003 to last fall, said former committee staff member Helen M. Alvare.

Now an associate law professor at Catholic University of America, Alvare credits Keeler for capitalizing on his interfaith connections, rallying evangelical Christians as well as some Jewish groups to join in opposition to abortion.

"He never saw abortion as a religious issue, period, or a Catholic issue," Alvare said.

Keeler's work with the archdiocese's schools has also enabled him to touch faiths beyond Catholicism. Amid declining enrollment, some schools have been forced to close or consolidate, and Keeler has focused on fundraising to subsidize tuition.

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