When word of Pope Leo XIII's grave illness reached the United States in 1903, Cardinal James Gibbons booked passage on every steamship leaving for Rome, according to his biographers, lest he miss the opportunity to vote for the pope's successor.
The Baltimore archbishop had learned the lesson of John McCloskey, a New Yorker and the first American cardinal, who was halfway across the ocean in 1878 when he missed his only chance to take part in the event known as the papal conclave.
As he awaits his own ritualized sequestration inside the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pope, Cardinal William H. Keeler - the first Baltimore archbishop since Cardinal Gibbons eligible to vote in the conclave - faces no such obstacles of timing or geography.
What he does face, the 73-year-old cardinal said this weekend, is the same responsibility that has burdened the church's appointed leaders for centuries.
"I have given a lot of thought and prayer to it," Keeler said over the weekend, betraying more private thinking than normal for the reserved, soft-spoken archbishop. "But I see it as something in which we really depend on God's Holy Spirit to guide us as we take the next step."
Keeler and his aides said yesterday that he had not completed plans to travel to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the subsequent election of his successor. He expects to celebrate Mass this morning at the Holy Rosary Parish, a Polish church in East Baltimore, and then attend an interfaith service late in the afternoon at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.
But even as he Keeler maintained his quiet public demeanor, colleagues and acquaintances said he is keenly focused on the task that many consider among the most honored and anticipated of any church leader's undertakings.
Cardinals all pledge secrecy where the conclave is concerned, and overt politicking is taboo, but networking among papal electors is common, and Keeler's work may well have built him a friendship with the man who will be the next bishop of Rome. Cardinals from throughout the world have called in Baltimore during the 10 years since his elevation to cardinal, and many more have met Baltimore's archbishop during his travels to the Vatican.
"We've had 263 changes of popes so far, and I'm confident it will work out now according to the needs and the challenges of the time," Keeler said. "Someone else will come along who will be able to lift up the Gospel message and touch hearts."
Keeler enjoyed close relations with Pope John Paul, who made him bishop of Harrisburg in 1984 and 10 years later elevated him to the College of Cardinals, making him the third cardinal in Baltimore's history.
That friendship undoubtedly helped make possible the pope's visit to Baltimore in 1995. Keeler was serving as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a position requiring him to meet repeatedly with the pope while the trip was being planned. That presidency also established Keeler as a significant voice in Catholic issues nationally, and he still chairs the group's Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
"He heads the oldest diocese in the country, and by virtue of that he carries a certain status," Chester Gillis, chairman of Georgetown University's Department of Theology, said of Keeler. "He obviously has the confidence of Rome."
Keeler was born in San Antonio, raised in Pennsylvania and educated at seminaries in Philadelphia and Rome. Pope John XXIII appointed him special adviser to the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965.
During meetings of the council in Rome, where Keeler was assigned to take notes, he met a Polish bishop named Karol Wojtyla, who was himself destined for higher office. "We all looked forward to him," Keeler said of the man who would become Pope John Paul II.
Wojtyla spoke Latin with clarity - and, more importantly for a note-taker, with brevity, Keeler said during a recent interview - and left such an impression that Keeler remembered telling fellow priests he thought Wojtyla would one day be pope.
"I wish I had a tape of it," Keeler said, smiling.
Keeler returned to the United States and quickly rose through the hierarchy - from priest to bishop to archbishop - and he established a reputation for ecumenical and interfaith work.
In 1987 he helped ease relations between the pope and Jewish leaders after the pope upset Jewish groups by meeting with then-Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who had served in the German army during World War II. That same year, Keeler coordinated the pope's meeting with Jewish and Protestant leaders during a U.S. papal visit.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, joined Keeler and other religious leaders in Washington this year to call on President Bush to seek peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
"He's mended many wounds that have gone back centuries," Saperstein said of Baltimore's cardinal. "He has wall-to-wall respect in the Jewish community."
Whereas Keeler has a low-key style publicly and a centrist reputation, there are other American cardinals with more clearly defined ideologies who are expected to take more of a lead in the conclave.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles is an outspoken advocate for decentralizing church polices, and Cardinal Francis George of Chicago is known internationally for his firm alignment with traditionalists. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., is often regarded as the best known internationally among the 11 American cardinals, and the cleric who most tries to bridge the gap between American Catholics and the Vatican.
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