Area Catholics join in pilgrimage to Rome for Keeler's elevation


The idea was planted at Mass, but the decision came at a bull roast.

Bill and Betty Zeller were going to Rome.

"You don't go to Rome every day," said Mr. Zeller, 68.

About 500 local people like the Zellers are following Baltimore Roman Catholic Archbishop William Henry Keeler to the Vatican to see him become a cardinal Saturday.

Church members from metropolitan Baltimore and the Archdiocese of Harrisburg -- where the 63-year-old archbishop served before his appointment here in 1989 -- will be on the plane tomorrow evening.

Among them will be about a dozen relatives of Archbishop Keeler, a half-dozen bishops, 30 priests -- mostly Baltimore area pastors -- about 10 archdiocesan staff, including Catholic Review reporters, 20 members of the secular media and a dozen or so nuns.

They will be witnesses to all the pomp and pageantry attendant to the elevation of a cardinal.

The archbishop will be fitted with the fabled red hat symbolic of his new status, granted a coat of arms with his own Latin motto and fitted for ceremonial robes in an 18th-century tailor shop.

After the ceremony Saturday, Archbishop Keeler will be given a ring as a personal gift of Pope John Paul II.

The Zellers' commitment to take part in this pilgrimage was swift and contagious: Within moments of them saying "Why not?" at Rosedale's Church of the Annunciation, two of Mr. Zeller's sisters also decided to go.

"I went and got my first passport last week," said Elizabeth "Doris" Stein, 72.

"And I'll be celebrating Thanksgiving and my 70th birthday in Rome," said Anna "Millie" Williams.

Born, reared and educated in Highlandtown's Sacred Heart of Jesus Church parish, the Zeller siblings were spending a long Sunday at Annunciation early this month when plans for TC church-sponsored trip to Rome were announced.

"Father Foley talked about it at 9 a.m. Mass, and I turned to Bill and said, 'Gee, wouldn't that be nice,' " said Mrs. Zeller, 65. Her husband replied: "We can't afford it."

Later that afternoon, Annunciation's pastor, the Rev. William Foley, was making his way from table to table at the parish bull roast, encouraging people to take advantage of the great opportunity at a reasonable price.

After Bill and Betty Zeller gave their regrets, their son Charles took them aside and opened his checkbook.

While the early Christmas gift didn't equal the full $1,173 cost per person for airfare and six nights' lodging, it went a long way toward it. Excited, Mr. Zeller asked his sister Doris to join them. She said: "I'll go if Millie goes."

Millie didn't hesitate. "I always wanted to go," she said.

The Zellers are old-school Catholics who learned their faith during the Great Depression when the Mass was in Latin and questioning authority was considered a sin.

The family does not know a lot about Archbishop Keeler or his conservative doctrine politics.

"They say he's a good shepherd," Mr. Zeller said. "I understand that he's a very nice man."

And that, said Father Foley, is enough to translate into more than 500 tickets sold for the trip.

The first planeload is scheduled to land in Rome at 9:55 a.m. Wednesday.

"I think he's engendered a spirit of lifting up Baltimore as a place of prominence in the American church," said Father Foley. "And he's really shown that he's with the people, that comes across with him. He's shown that he's there for us; I guess that's why there's so much enthusiasm for him."

The Church of the Annunciation alone is sending 37 people, more than any other parish, apparently, because Father Foley got the word out early.

Most of the faithful will be sitting in the same section of the chartered Air Italia 747 as the soon-to-be cardinal, who declined first-class treatment. Once all 420 seats on the charter were sold, other seats were booked on a regular flight.

Archbishop Keeler -- only the third cardinal chosen from the Archdiocese of Baltimore -- was one of 30 prelates worldwide named to the honor by Pope John Paul II Oct. 31.

"The miracle was to find a nonstop flight from Baltimore to Rome and rooms for 400 people on two weeks notice," said Ezio de Filippes, president of Renaissance Travel Ltd. of Washington which booked the trip. "I was expecting to fill up the plane, but I didn't think it would be so fast."

Mr. de Fillipes said 372 people booked the $1,173 economy deal, which includes six nights lodging, a few meals, two receptions for the new cardinal and a tour of Rome. A single room, he said, is $300 more. Thirty-six people will pay $2,693 to fly business class and 12 are paying $3,823 for first class.

Most of the travelers are lay people, and nearly all of them are paying their own way. A church spokesman said that an anonymous donor is covering all archdiocesan staff expenses, and some members of religious orders have private sponsors.

"Not a penny is coming from the collection basket," said archdiocesan spokesman Bill Blaul, who said he didn't have time to figure all costs before the trip. "We are very sensitive to the perception that [the church] took a lot of money and used it to make a cardinal.

"This is a pilgrimage," he said, "not a party."

Joanna Baird, a niece of Baltimore's late Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, was expecting the third of her eight children when her uncle was made a cardinal in 1965 and couldn't go. When the chance came to see Archbishop Keeler honored, she and her husband William grabbed it.

That means missing Thanksgiving at home and the annual Loyola-Calvert Hall football game, but it's worth it, she said.

"I don't think that we'll get this opportunity again," said Mrs. Baird, 52, who attends the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. "And we wanted to support Archbishop Keeler. He always makes you feel that he has time for you as an individual. No matter how many people are around him, you never feel rushed."

As for the Zeller family, Bill is praying that his wife Betty packs lightly. Doris Stein is saving all her packing for the last minute. And Millie Williams is looking forward to starting her eighth decade as a Catholic in the city where the pope lives.

"I'm a strong believer in the Catholic church and God," she said. "For me this is a special privilege."

Are they expecting a spiritual awakening?

"I would like to experience being touched by the Holy Ghost, but I've never had that feeling," Mr. Zeller said. "I wonder if it will come."

His wife has faith that it will.

"I was told that once you get there, it comes," she said.

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