Bishops' quiet leader shares spotlight with pope Keeler considered cardinal material


When Pope John Paul II lands in Denver today, Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler, a private man more comfortable working behind the scenes, will suddenly become the country's most visible Roman Catholic leader.

On the tarmac, Archbishop Keeler, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, will be the first to greet the pope. And only after Baltimore's archbishop has welcomed Pope John Paul will the president of the United States step forward for an introduction.

For the next four days, Arch bishop Keeler will be flying in the president's helicopter, introducing the pope to throngs of the Catholic faithful gathered in Denver for World Youth Day, meeting with Hillary Rodham Clinton, celebrating Masses with the pope and representing American bishops at each event he attends.

And for the first time, the rest of the nation will see a quiet church leader whose work, on issues such as ecumenism, has won him recognition within the church but hasn't brought him much public attention.

However, this new exposure -- along with his continuing leadership of the bishops' conference -- is bound to increase speculation on how far the archbishop's quiet effectiveness might possibly carry him within the church hierarchy.

His Baltimore staff, aware of how little he cares for news coverage, is amused by the sudden surge of network interest. ABC's "Good Morning America" has taped an interview. Tom Brokaw of NBC News has called, along with the "Today" program. CBS News and CNN will visit today. Tuesday, Archbishop Keeler even did a call-in show on French radio.

The contrast is sharp. In Baltimore, Archbishop Keeler would rather not spend much time with the press. He's said often that church teachings can't be reduced to sound bites. But in Denver, he's at the center of news coverage of World Youth Day, which he chairs.

"He can't avoid the attention this time," says Rob Rehg, spokesman for the Baltimore Archdiocese.

There are those who are inclined to believe that continued national attention could help elevate the archbishop to the next level of hierarchy, the College of Cardinals in Rome. But many church observers caution that cardinals are not created by media blitz. Bishops become cardinals because they lead important archdioceses or they head a Vatican office or they have produced a lifetime of accomplishments that has won Rome's appreciation.

Baltimore is the American church's Primatial See, the first archdiocese in the country. Two of its leaders have been cardinals -- Cardinals Gibbons and Shehan.

Some church observers believe it's possible that Archbishop Keeler will one day be Cardinal Keeler.

"He is very, very highly respected," says the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., a Jesuit scholar and author at Georgetown University who has published books on the career patterns of the American Catholic hierarchy. "So I would not be at all surprised if he became a cardinal because he is so highly respected by the bishops and by the pope."

But the Rev. Thomas Fitzgerald, S.J., rector at Loyola College and retired president of St. Louis University, warns that such guessing games are unproductive.

"Nobody knows" who's to be named a cardinal, "except maybe the pope," Father Fitzgerald says. "And if there was public speculation about it, that doesn't help. They would feel they were being pressured."

The archbishop certainly never discusses it. People who know him also believe he'll be displeased just to read such speculation.

"If you asked him about it, he wouldn't even reference it," Mr. Rehg says. "He'd say, 'How about those Orioles?' "

Like many other church leaders, Archbishop Keeler tends to be conservative on issues of doctrine. He opposes abortion, ordination of women, marriage for priests. But he's more liberal than most lay Americans on issues of social justice. He opposes capital punishment, works for civil rights, supports programs to aid the poor.

Friendly, cautious

Those who know the archbishop describe him as friendly, gentlemanly, low-key, cautious. Fred Ruof, who served with Archbishop Keeler in the 1960s when they were young parish priests in Pennsylvania, says he was always "quite private, bordering on being a loner."

Even as a young man, Archbishop Keeler, he recalls, was "a caring person, but his care was carefully conditioned, cautious. . . . He is a giving man, and yet he projects an uncomfortable guardedness.

"I love and respect the man," Mr. Ruof, who married in 1966, BTC says. He wishes, though, that the archbishop were less a church administrator and more a pastor.

But others have no problems understanding the limits that a position in the church hierarchy imposes.

"Being an archbishop is a very tough job these days," Father Reese says. "Everybody wants you to do everything. There are constantly demands made on you. You have limited resources. There are huge, huge needs."

Father Fitzgerald, at Loyola, notes the archbishop's graciousness in bad times: After Loyola's president, the Rev. Joseph Sellinger, died last spring, the archbishop celebrated the funeral Mass, then took the time to return to the college to give his condolences to Father Sellinger's family.

Called a careerist

And Monsignor Edward F. Staub, of St. John the Evangelist parish in Severna Park, says that the archbishop frequently stands at the door after large meetings of clergy to say hello to each one. "He knows almost everyone's name," Monsignor Staub says. "He makes you feel acknowledged and welcome."

But some people who know Archbishop Keeler add, not admiringly, that he's a careerist, and that his caution verges on calculation: No one who challenges the Vatican can expect to make his way to the top of the church hierarchy.

"So far, he's never made a mistake and he's very cautious," a priest who asked not to be named says.

At 62, 38 years a priest, Archbishop Keeler's history includes many accomplishments -- a student in Rome, an aide to the Second Vatican Council, bishop of Harrisburg, leader of the Baltimore archdiocese and now president of the bishops' conference.

But what's won him the most notice within the church hierarchy is his work with leaders of other faiths. "He has great skill as an ecumenical leader," Father Reese says.

In 1987, after Pope John Paul enraged Jewish communities by meeting with Austria's President Kurt Waldheim, it was Archbishop Keeler who eased tensions and arranged a meeting in Miami between the pope and American rabbis.

Some Jewish leaders, offended by the pope's attention to a man accused of complicity in Jewish war crimes, had threatened to disrupt the papal visit. Instead, thanks to then-Bishop Keeler, the meeting was candid and productive.

Later, during the same papal trip, Archbishop Keeler arranged a session between Protestant leaders and the pope in Columbia, S.C. "He chaired the meeting," Father Reese says. "He knew everyone's name. He did an extraordinary job in pulling it off."

The pope, church leaders say, noted the archbishop's efforts.

In Baltimore, Archbishop Keeler also has worked cooperatively with leaders of other religions. Last spring, for instance, he helped negotiate a compromise with the Jewish community on a bill meant to protect religious groups from government interference.

"Real leadership'

Baltimore Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg in Annapolis had introduced the bill, which was similar to a measure making its way through Congress.

The state bill, a priority of the Maryland Jewish community, got a skeptical response from Catholic groups, who feared it could harm church tax exemptions or have an impact on abortion laws.

Archbishop Keeler negotiated a compromise: Delegate Rosenberg agreed to withdraw the state bill, and a coalition of religious groups -- including Catholics -- agreed to support passage of the federal bill.

"His role was crucial," Delegate Rosenberg says. "He showed real leadership. He didn't just take a position and dig in his heels. My sense is he was moved by the profound importance that other faiths placed in this bill."

Mr. Rehg says that ecumenism has always fascinated the archbishop. "Even as a young boy, he was intrigued with what people have in common."

For more than a year, while managing the Baltimore archdiocese, Archbishop Keeler has also been helping organize World Youth Day.

This week, the archbishop has been working on the statement he'll deliver in Mile High Stadium tonight, when he introduces the pope to 70,000 young people, plus tens of thousands more watching on video screens outside the stadium, plus millions more on television.

"He said, 'I'm working hard on this because it's going to be public,' " Mr. Rehg recalls.

The scope of the international attention still seemed to elude the archbishop, although his aides were acutely aware of how big the audience will be. Mr. Rehg remembers that all his aides smiled.

"We had to say, 'That's the understatement of the century,' " he said.

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