Cardinal William H. Keeler, who is expected to be the first Baltimore archbishop in more than 100 years to participate in the ritualized process of selecting a pope, prayed for the ailing pontiff yesterday even as he prepared to clear his schedule for an extended trip to Rome.

Keeler, who was appointed cardinal by the pope in 1994 and considers him a friend, celebrated Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen yesterday using a chalice that John Paul II gave him as a gift during his visit to Baltimore in 1995. Keeler was scheduled to be in Rome Monday on church business, but his aides said they do not expect normal activities to continue while the pope lingers near death.

Within about two weeks of the pontiff's death, Keeler and other members of the church's College of Cardinals will enter the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican to begin the often lengthy process of electing a new bishop of Rome, the pope's formal title. While eligible to be pope - any baptized male is technically eligible, though cardinals are typically the only candidates - the election of any American is regarded as unlikely.

Keeler declined to discuss the secretive selection process yesterday, but seemed resigned to its imminent commencement. He said he has watched closely as the pope's condition has deteriorated, relying on news reports rather than his own sources in Vatican City.

"I was surprised and troubled, because he's pulled through so many times in the past," the cardinal said.

"But I know he is at peace."

The last Baltimore archbishop to participate in the selection process known as the papal conclave was Cardinal James Gibbons, who helped to elect Pope Pius X in 1903. Cardinal Lawrence Shehan was ineligible to vote in the conclaves that elected Popes John Paul I and John Paul II in 1978 because he was 80 years old, the age at which cardinals are disqualified from voting. Keeler is 73.

During Mass, Keeler referred to John Paul II as "the Peter of our time," comparing the pope to the Apostle in the Christian Scriptures who is regarded as the first pope.

"The Holy Father has had a marvelous way of touching people of different categories. The youth in particular," Keeler said during his homily at the cathedral yesterday. "What he has done in reaching out to people of other Christian churches, and of the Jewish faith, and the Muslim faith has been extraordinary."

"We pray that the Lord may now welcome him home with much mercy, much compassion and much love."