For the third time in its history, the Archdiocese of Baltimore will be led by a cardinal. The elevation of Archbishop William H. Keeler is an honor for the man, for the archdiocese and for the city and region in which he plays an influential role.
As the first diocese established in this country, Baltimore has a long and rich tradition in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in America. Unlike colonies where Catholics faced religious persecution, Maryland proclaimed the principle of toleration from its beginnings. The colony was established as a grant to a Catholic -- George Calvert, Lord Baltimore -- and Catholics were leaders among its early settlers.
Cardinal Keeler's elevation comes at a time when Baltimore's leading role in American Catholicism has been overshadowed by larger archdioceses, those with millions of Catholics rather than the half million or so in this area. But his selection comes as no surprise. Archbishop Keeler is widely admired as a tireless and effective leader, both in the archdiocese and nationally as the respected president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He has also carved out a leading role in the important effort to heal relations between Catholics and Jews. In that sense, he is an especially fitting leader for Baltimore, where organizations like the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies have put this area at the forefront of ecumenical enterprises.
Much of the archbishop's considerable imprint on Catholic-Jewish relations has been behind the scenes, which is typical of his modest style of leadership. But his influence is evident in powerful places, currently in Pope John Paul II's writings on the subject in his best-selling new book. The new cardinal said yesterday that after news of his elevation became public one of the first calls he returned was to Rabbi Joel H. Zaiman, president of the Baltimore Jewish Council.
The archbishop's honor comes at an intriguing time in the history of the wider church, whose future direction he will help to guide. Although John Paul II is often characterized as an ultra-conservative, this round of appointments demonstrates once again that he cannot be easily pigeonholed. As on previous occasions, he has used the appointment of cardinals to demonstrate support for areas of the world, like Cuba or Vietnam, where church-state struggles are paramount, as well as places like Sarajevo that are torn by war.
Archbishop Keeler joins distinguished company as the third Baltimore archbishop to become a cardinal. Archbishop James Gibbons, elevated to cardinal in 1886, and Lawrence J. Shehan, named to the College of Cardinals in 1965, were not only leaders of their church, but also examples for the wider community. Like his two distinguished predecessors in Baltimore, Archbishop Keeler sees himself as a bridge between the world of faith and the world of citizenship -- a bridge that both worlds sorely need.