When William H. Keeler was named the 14th archbishop of Baltimore in 1989, he was the little-known head of the much smaller, neighboring diocese of Harrisburg, Pa. In just five years, he has become one of the most visible churchmen in the United States.
His personality and way of doing things have not changed. He was then -- and still is -- a soft-spoken, private man who likes to work behind the scenes.
He has been described as an efficient, effective "CEO." He doesn't like to waste time, rarely engages in small talk. Always courteous, he is not a boat-rocker. He keeps a tight ship, theologically and otherwise.
And he is a consistent, unequivocal defender of a sometimes controversial pope, both the man and the office.
The cardinal-designate's rise to prominence is said to be largely the result of those personal qualities, admired at the Vatican.
But it also is the result of the changing winds in the Roman Catholic Church that brought him to Baltimore in the first place.
Archbishop of Baltimore was a big promotion in 1989.
Among church insiders and the people with influence in Rome, Archbishop Keeler already had been identified as the kind of leader Pope John Paul II wants to entrust with the chief duty of the College of Cardinals: the choosing of the next pope.
Although the Baltimore region's 460,000 Catholics do not place it among the giants of U.S. archdioceses such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia, it is more than twice as big as Harrisburg.
History and prestige
More important, it has history and prestige. Baltimore is the nation's first Catholic diocese, its first archdiocese, the site of the nation's first cathedral. Maryland, the colony, was settled by English Catholics in 1634 as a haven of religious toleration.
Baltimore's first bishop, John Carroll, and the city's two previous cardinals, James Gibbons and Lawrence Shehan, were all known for their contributions to interfaith relations and their dedication to the American principle of freedom.
Before and since moving here, Archbishop Keeler repeatedly has identified himself with the cautious ecumenism and diplomacy in inter-church efforts that he saw personified by those three most illustrious of his predecessors.
In the same year that Archbishop Keeler was installed in Baltimore, he was host at the Basilica of the Assumption to the nation's Catholic hierarchy. They were celebrating the 200th anniversary of both the Baltimore archdiocese and the U.S. church as a whole.
In accord with the tradition of Maryland Catholicism, Archbishop Keeler extended a ceremonial, but friendly, welcome to representatives of other faiths seated in the front pews at a festive, two-hour Mass.
After first recognizing the pope's emissaries, the archbishop turned to the ecumenical group. "And we bishops, all of us, greet with joy representatives of other Christian churches and of the Jewish faith," he said. "Your presence bespeaks a Maryland tradition going back to the days of John Carroll."
As the current elected president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Keeler fits the mold of the majority of its 300 members -- conservative on doctrine, liberal on social issues.
He is a firm opponent of abortion, opposes capital punishment, supports programs to assist the poor and agrees with most civil rights legislation.
A measure of the man is the fact that two national Catholic weeklies -- one outspokenly conservative, the other outspokenly liberal -- praised Archbishop Keeler when he was named the archbishop of Baltimore.
The two papers are often sharply at odds over church issues and assessments of the bishops.
The conservative National Catholic Register saw the Keeler choice for archbishop as "a fresh breeze for Baltimore."
The liberal National Catholic Reporter also was pleased with the choice, viewing the bishop of Harrisburg as an acceptable "centrist." It headlined its account of the papal appointment in 1989: "Baltimore gains bishop who 'leads by example.' "
Last year, when Archbishop Keeler's public appearances with Pope John Paul in Denver were the occasion for renewed speculation that he might be named a cardinal, a Jesuit historian of the U.S. hierarchy and its career patterns pointed to the Baltimore archbishop's growing reputation as an ecumenist.
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese noted that Baltimore is not one of the U.S. archdioceses regularly headed by a cardinal, because of its size.
But he recalled Archbishop Keeler's role in arranging meetings in 1987 between Jewish leaders and the pope in Miami and between Protestant leaders and the pope in Columbia, S.C.
"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," Father Reese said.
He pointed to Archbishop Keeler's low-key style of leadership. Speaking of the ecumenical meeting in Columbia, the priest said, "He chaired the meeting. He knew everyone's name. He did an extraordinary job in pulling it off."
Born in Texas, Archbishop Keeler grew up in the blue-collar steel town of Lebanon, Pa., where as a high school student he made his decision to be a priest.
He was considered a "hometown boy" when he was bishop of Harrisburg.
But even then, Father Reese saw his series of assignments in the church as typical of future U.S. cardinals.
He did graduate work in Rome, where he was ordained and later obtained a doctorate in canon law. He was an assistant pastor and then the pastor -- very briefly in the mid-1960s -- of a small parish in Marysville, Pa.
His career soon became one of mastering ever more responsible administrative tasks: secretary to a previous bishop of Harrisburg, vice chancellor, chancellor, vicar general, auxiliary bishop and finally head of the diocese.
Frequent trips to Rome
People who work with him invariably describe Archbishop Keeler as a man who rarely relaxes, who is always on the go. Photography is a hobby, but the frequent world travels on which he carries his camera are almost always on church business.
Even before he moved to Baltimore, his many trips to the Vatican were being noticed. In March of 1989, he was the only bishop among the U.S. cardinals and archbishops invited to an important meeting with the pope and other high church officials to discuss the state of Catholicism in the United States.
The next month, he was back in Rome again, reporting on a fact-finding trip to the Middle East.
As the cardinal-archbishop of Baltimore, he is not likely to increase such travels. But he is not likely to cut back on them, either.