Keeler maintains quiet dignity amid commotion TIME OF 'BEAUTIFUL CONFUSION'


ROME -- The little usher in the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere waved the old woman with the large purse away from the Americans from Baltimore arriving to celebrate Mass with their soon-to-be-cardinal, but she persisted in begging.

She was middle-aged, her face urban raw, her eyes frozen in a hard glare, and she claimed to have five hungry children. She grabbed a man by his arm and held out a hand for money. The usher, to whom the woman was all too familiar, succeeded in shooing her away.

But later, as Archbishop William H. Keeler, in miter and cream-colored vestment, made his way to change his clothes, the woman reappeared.

She pushed through a cluster of the pilgrims from Baltimore and held out her hand to the archbishop. She spoke in Italian, of course, and Archbishop Keeler answered in Italian. The woman did not ask him for money. She asked for a blessing, and he obliged her with the sign of the cross.

As he did this, there was a fleeting moment of silence, as if everyone else in Archbishop Keeler's company -- the reporters asking questions, diocesan staff holding up wristwatches, advising him of the time and the pressing schedule -- stood back to allow him to perform this simple, priestly act.

Then, the woman with the large purse made the sign of the cross and departed. In the next instant, Archbishop Keeler turned, his handsome vestment flowing, and headed for the sacristy.

"Rome," Archbishop Keeler said, "Yes, Rome. Bishop George L. Leech of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the man who called me to the priesthood, used to say, 'When you go to Rome, it is beate confusio, beautiful confusion.' That's the way it is here, and yet you feel at home.' "

Forty years ago, after he left St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia, Archbishop Keeler went to Rome to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He has made many visits to the ancient city since, and the grand sights, landmarks in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, are all familiar to him.

Yet he is keenly aware of how these places -- the church in which he celebrated Mass yesterday morning, and the one he visited an hour later -- inspire awe among first-timers, such as the many men and women who have made this pilgrimage with him.

"Rome is really three cities," he said, removing his vestments in the sacristy, beneath a portrait of one of his predecessors, James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore. "There is the modern metropolis, bustling and noisy, with all the problems of contemporary urban life.

"Then there is the ancient city, the ancient Roman Empire, which played such an enormous part of the history of Western civilization.

"And then there is Rome, the center of faith of Peter and Paul, that for nearly three centuries was mostly underground and mostly experiencing martyrdom. Then it became the visual center for the Catholic faith, really the Christian faith, and from here were sent those who evangelized Europe and the world."

And each time, a visit for Archbishop Keeler is like a tonic, a refreshing dose of high and historic symbolism and spirituality. This week, even more so.

He soon will become a "prince of the church," adorned in scarlet and granted by Pope John Paul II entrance into one of the world's most exclusive societies, the College of Cardinals. Rome takes Archbishop Keeler back to his early days as a priest, when he was granted the authority to bless people the way he did the beggar at Trastevere, and reminds him of his spiritual roots.

"It gives to me still a sense of wonder," Archbishop Keeler said, as he sat in the pastor's office in Trastevere. "But a combination of wonder and familiarity. It reminds me of that large challenge we have to preach the gospel."

But now he is to take a step that as a student he could not foresee. He acknowledges some amazement at what is about to happen. "Sometimes I say to myself, 'What am I doing here?' But my attitude has always been that the Lord makes the way, and I hear that way through those who speak to me for him."

And by that, of course, he means the pope, who chose Archbishop Keeler to be one of 30 prelates from around the world to be elevated to the rank of cardinal at the consistory tomorrow morning.

Remembering the church's heritage is important for contemporary Catholics, especially Americans, Archbishop Keeler said. "But what I am trying to show those traveling with me is that this is not just a place of memories, but a place very much alive with things happening today."

Archbishop Keeler said farewell to the pastor at Trastevere, Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, then slid into the back seat of a chauffeur-driven car. His next stop was the church that will become his home when in Rome as a cardinal -- the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.

As he emerged from his car in front of his titular church in the noisy Piazza della Repubblica, Archbishop Keeler immediately started lecturing those around him on the history of the place. "As a student, I took daily walks about Rome," he said. "We visited the many churches and the art museums. This was one of the first places I celebrated Mass after I became a priest."

The facade of the church is actually the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian, which date back to the year 298. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Christianity, it was converted into a stunning place of worship.

"This was Michelangelo's last architectural design before he began work on the base of the dome of St. Peter's," Archbishop Keeler said. "There was a great positive feeling in Rome at the time he did this. You can see how he preserved the ancient baths, but how the baths were baptized into a Christian church."

It is a remarkable symbol of the rise of Christianity. By incorporating the ruins of the baths into his design, Michelangelo used the old bones of the Roman Empire to create a sacred building.

Centuries later, that creation still inspires awe among the visitors who wander through it silently with their eyes fixed on the high ceiling and the massive works of art on its walls.

Two Romes are here -- the ancient one, the one of the early Christianity -- and outside, the traffic spins and coughs about Piazza della Repubblica, modern Romans strut to work and young women in long flimsy dresses beg for charity.

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