Archbishop William D. Borders' first six months in Baltimore almost finished him off.He was asked for help in the city's controversy over court-ordered school busing, and with strikes by sanitation workers and police. He faced a fund-raising scandal involving a religious order and a $1 million deficit in his budget.
Then, on retreat at a Trappist monastery in Virginia a few days before that Christmas in 1974, he suffered a serious heart attack.
As the 84-year-old Borders celebrates his 30th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop tomorrow, he looks back on a tenure marked by social upheavals and radical changes in the Roman Catholic Church brought by the Second Vatican Council as it attempted to respond to the modern world.
Borders was known as a relatively liberal bishop, a label he doesn't dispute. "I'm not an extremist, but I definitely tend to look for change and I've supported change all the way through," he said.
He favored equality for women and wrote in a pastoral letter that he believed women should be ordained as deacons. He was outspoken in social justice matters, opposing the policy of nuclear deterrence and U.S. military aid to Central America. The Baltimore Archdiocese was the first in the nation to divest its holdings in companies that did business with the apartheid regime of South Africa.
It has been said that his liberal stance cost him a chance to be a cardinal. He doesn't agree. "Other people think so, but I don't," he said. "I think the reason I wasn't a cardinal is because of the fact that I really don't have the Roman background, I don't have the language, No. 1.
"And No. 2, I'm not inclined that way."
If there is one hallmark of Borders' tenure as archbishop, it is his ability to involve lay people in ministry and to delegate authority.
Borders was a participant in the groundbreaking Vatican II, the church council held in Rome from 1962 to 1965 that reformed the liturgy and encouraged lay participation in church affairs. In 1968, he was named the first bishop of the newly organized Diocese of Orlando, Fla.
"I had worked in the council and so I was able to bring the understanding of the church from the council to the new diocese," he said.
Borders started forming committees to give the laity more of a voice in church affairs. A diocesan pastoral council advised him, and individual parishes formed their own councils.
Asked to move
After six years, the pope asked him to move to Baltimore and replace retiring Cardinal Lawrence Shehan.
"I really did hesitate because I thought, 'Well, I'm not quite finished here,' " Borders said. "But I thought, 'Well, they know more about it than I do,' so I accepted."
In Baltimore, he was thrown right into the fray. "My first year here was both interesting and traumatic," he said. Tensions were high because of court-ordered racial integration, and Borders was asked to go on television to appeal for cooperation and restraint.
"We came up with a recommendation that parents, for the first few months, would ride the buses," Borders said. "And that created quite a bit of calm at that time."
He was also confronted with the Pallottine Fathers fund-raising scandal involving illicit real estate investments. "I called the provincial of the Pallottines and said there had to be a public accounting. I said it had to be thorough," Borders said, "and the outside auditors found that by far the majority of the funds were used for the purpose for which they were collected."
After the heart attack in December 1974, Borders had to slow down for a few months. But then he went to work reorganizing the archdiocese.
"I recognized that there was no way I could have the same personal contact with priests, religious [orders] and the laity that I had in Orlando because of the size," he said. So he divided the archdiocese -- which covers Maryland with the exception of the Washington suburbs and the Eastern Shore -- into three sections, called vicariates, and placed an auxiliary bishop in charge of each. That structure is still in place.
Since his retirement in 1989, Borders has been teaching spirituality in a secular world in parishes here and in five other dioceses. He helps out celebrating Mass at parishes, still performs confirmations and gives periodic talks at retreats. He comes to his office at the Catholic Center every day and does occasional counseling.
He was asked if he wanted a public celebration for his anniversary, and opted instead for a quiet dinner with friends and colleagues at the cardinal's residence.
"I've already celebrated two big events," he said, citing his retirement and his 50th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood. "And I indicated that I really thought I was finished with big celebrations."