When William Henry Keeler succeeded William Donald Borders as archbishop of Baltimore in 1989, much more was involved than a younger man taking over from an older one.
Archbishop Keeler's appointment then -- along with Pope John Paul II's choices of other bishops, archbishops and cardinals since 1978 -- is part of a dramatic shift in the direction of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a conservative shift carried out by a Vatican exercising a tighter rein on far-flung dioceses.
Church traditionalists regard the new leaders the way political conservatives once viewed Ronald Reagan's appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, liberal Catholic theologian Monica Hellwig has said. "They hope for as many as possible."
With Sunday's announcement of the 30 new cardinals -- including Archbishop Keeler -- John Paul II, 74, a hands-on pope and assertive doctrinal conservative, has virtually guaranteed that his legacy will continue after he dies. The pope has now chosen 100 of the 120 eligible to vote for his successor. The other 20 were named by Pope Paul VI, who died in 1978. Between the two was Pope John Paul I, who reigned for 33 days.
In a brief interview yesterday, Archbishop Keeler touched on the conservative shift in the church since the reforming Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. He said there had been much "misunderstanding and confusion" about the reforms.
"One area in which there was confusion related to the liturgy. In one way, we were enormously successful in encouraging participation by the laity in the Mass. But in the swiftness of change, some of the sense of the sacredness of it was lost." The Mass became too worldly, too informal, he said.
Another reform that needed to be clarified, he said, pertained to the character of the priesthood. Too many priests, under the influence of interpretations of Vatican II, lost the traditional sense of remove between priests and their flocks, he said.
"The priest's role is one of service," the cardinal-designate said. "But it is also sacramental."
The sacramental part, the more important part, he said, was de-emphasized. Now, the sacredness of the Mass is coming back, he added.
The personal style of a church conservative is not set by his doctrinal stands, and Archbishop Keeler was praised yesterday as a good example of a "pastoral" leader.
Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy has publicly disagreed with the archbishop on such emotional issues as women's ordination, which, in line with John Paul's stern edict, Archbishop Keeler opposes firmly.
Yet Bishop Murphy said of the archbishop, "He has been totally committed to his vocation and has brought enormous energy and enthusiasm to his love for the church and his pastoral ministry."
He also praised the new cardinal's administrative skills. Noting that Archbishop Keeler's leadership had resulted in more than $8 million being raised in three years through Lenten appeals, Bishop Murphy said, "He is building a sound fiscal base to enable the church of Baltimore to do more for Catholic education, the poor and reaching out to the marginalized."
Similar praise was flooding Archbishop Keeler's office yesterday -- from other American cardinals and bishops, from his priests, from Jewish leaders and from other Christian leaders.
Some of the strongest statements of support came from fellow church conservatives. In a "Dear Bill" note signed by Cardinals William Baum and John O'Connor, they said, "What a joy this is to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, to your brother bishops, to the church universal and to us very personally."
Archbishop J. Francis Stafford of Denver, a Baltimore native and former auxiliary bishop here, said, "The universal church will be enriched by his intelligence, skill and counsel."
Archbishop Keeler, who is scheduled to be installed as cardinal Nov. 26 in Rome, reacted with appreciation.
"There have been so many flowers, telephone messages, telegrams and faxed letters with expressions of prayer and support," he said.
"Together they are a sign of the appreciation of our people of the honor being paid to the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the greater Baltimore community. I am very thankful for all these kind words and for this outpouring of support."