'A man of compassion, a good listener'


For William H. Keeler this is not a day like any other.

The quiet boy from Texas, raised in Lebanon, Pa., who decided early in his life to be a priest and went a good deal further, becomes a prince of the Roman Catholic Church today in Rome.

At 63, he is the third cardinal to sit in the Baltimore See in its 205-year history. It is almost certain he will help elect the next pope.

Not too many people are surprised by this. Archbishop Keeler might not have been an inevitable cardinal, but he displays many of the necessary qualifications. He has proven diplomatic skills; he is in tune with Vatican thinking on the issues of the day; he is a highly productive administrator. And, in the words of a number of people contacted for this article, "he is a good listener."

"I think he had the qualities that are looked for, especially in his broader view of things," said Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which Archbishop Keeler heads.

"He also has a great sense of history," he said. "He was so aware that Baltimore was the first American see that he almost made John Carroll a palpable presence by his own sense that he was working in the same vineyard as the first bishop of the United States."

People tend to remember Archbishop Keeler.

Long before he met him, Monsignor Maniscalco heard of him -- from the monsignor's own mother.

"She told me about this bishop she had met on a pilgrimage and how she was very impressed by him. Ever since, she always asked me, how is Bishop Keeler?"

Valerie Nichols, who taught Latin to the young William Keeler as a freshman and sophomore at Lebanon Catholic High School, recalls he was quiet in class and outgoing and friendly outside of it. If he had a talent, it wasn't obviously Latin. Rather it was for communicating, a skill he worked hard to develop.

"He was on my debating team," Miss Nichols said. "He could write and speak well, and he never minded being corrected."

"In fact," she said, "he would want to be perfect, so he'd come over to the house here and ask me to go over his speeches when he was going to deliver them at school."

He was not secretive but evidently didn't broadcast his desire to be a priest. Miss Nichols first learned of it, she said, when he went off to the seminary after his sophomore year.

William Henry Keeler was born March 4, 1931, in San Antonio. He moved to Pennsylvania when he was very young, and attended St. Mary School and Lebanon Catholic High School. The future cardinal graduated from the St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia in 1952. He was ordained a priest in 1955 in Rome.

Early assignments included assistant pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, Marysville parish in Pennsylvania, and later pastor of the parish. He moved to the Harrisburg Diocese in 1965 as vice chancellor. He was named bishop of Harrisburg by Pope John Paul II in 1983.

A fellow priest who knew him during his early years in Harrisburg remembers him as the confidant to whom he took the problem he was wrestling with at the time -- to remain in the church or to marry.

Frederick C. Ruof found Father Keeler "a man of compassion, a good listener, one in whom I could safely confide."

Mr. Ruof chose to leave the church, but even afterward found his colleague still sympathetic and respectful of his point of view.

The artful diplomat

Madeliene Becker also remembers the archbishop, but for another quality of his -- being on top of his job. It was 1989; she had come to the Catholic Center on Cathedral Street with a delegation to call on the new archbishop to express concern over the closing of Catholic schools in the archdiocese.

"He was new here, but he knew who we were, what we were there for. I think that was the most important thing. There was a feeling he was tuned into what our organization was trying to do," she said. "Considering that other groups within the archdiocese had agendas, for him to have known what we were about, I think that was impressive."

The results of the meeting were even more so.

"We're not active anymore," Mrs. Becker said. "Haven't needed to be -- the support is there for the Catholic schools."

The single quality that more than others seems to have recommended Archbishop Keeler to the high office he attains today is his talent for reconciling people in conflict.

Maria Luisa Gaston, director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, said, "From what I've seen, he is what you call a convener, a person able to bring people together."

Others call it artful diplomacy.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, recalls two crises in Catholic-Jewish relations.

The first occurred in 1987, when the pope received Kurt Waldheim, the former United Nations secretary-general and president of Austria. Mr. Waldheim, as an officer in the German army, was attached to a unit that committed atrocities in the Balkans during World War II. The pope made him a papal count.

"This set off enormous problems with the Jewish community because Waldheim was so well-received in the Vatican," Rabbi Rudin said. "It is only because Bill Keeler was able to mediate that Catholic and Jewish relationships were not interrupted."

That mediation also assured that a planned meeting between the pope and Jewish leaders came off later the same year in


The second crisis, two years later, involved the presence of Catholic nuns on the grounds of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. They refused to leave, and it was through Archbishop Keeler's efforts that an agreement for the nuns to depart was finally fulfilled.

"He understands the Jewish community very well," Rabbi Rudin said. "He understands Jewish concerns based on history."

Strong commitments

It is possible that Archbishop Keeler's strong commitment to ecumenism, a salient principal of Vatican policy, also recommended him to the College of Cardinals. It is a commitment he absorbed virtually at the moment the policy was born, as special adviser to the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, appointed by Pope John XXIII.

Miss Nichols thinks it goes back even further.

"The Boy Scouts taught him to be ecumenical," she insisted. "He got along with boys of other faiths. That's one thing he is known for."

Among his duties during Vatican II was to manage a daily communications service on the council's activities. He came out of that experience with the conviction that many issues that emerged during the council's deliberations were either exaggerated in their importance or misunderstood by the news media.

"Since then," he said in a recent interview, "I have given lectures and found more misunderstanding and confusion about Vatican II," much of it as a consequence of this reporting.

The future cardinal has always demonstrated the flexibility to keep himself synchronized with changing Vatican policy. He has also been able to bridge the distance between the more liberal inclinations of Pope John XXIII and those of the conservative Pope John Paul II.

From Pope John XXIII he brings a genuine concern for the poor, a spirit born in Vatican II and the period that followed. Since coming to Baltimore in 1989, he has raised tuition assistance for families, and for teen-age mothers and their children in the Villa Louise program. He has strengthened the archdiocesan housing program for low-income people in Western Maryland.

In his president's address Nov. 14 at the annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, he said, "We oppose punitive welfare provisions which harm poor children and break up families."

It was widely interpreted as a repudiation of welfare reforms about to be advanced by the new Republican leadership in the Congress.

Firm beliefs

When it comes to doctrine, the archbishop is the mirror of the pope he serves. He is fierce against abortion, uncomfortable about homosexuality and opposes the ordination of women. These are issues that agitate the Catholic Church in America.

"I think it is appalling that this person was appointed cardinal when he is so opposed to half the people of the church," said Roxanna Anthony, a Baltimore Catholic feminist, "and that he doesn't allow women to participate fully in the church, as if women have less to offer than men."

On the issue of gay Catholics, Archbishop Keeler, according to some, has been less than giving of his time or attention.

"He has been kind of neutral toward gays and lesbians," said Sister Jeannine Gramick, who was assigned in 1977 by the School Sisters of Notre Dame to work among gay men and lesbians.

"Instead of using this opportunity to turn his face toward Rome, I would hope he would use this to turn his face toward the people of his diocese," Sister Jeannine said. "I hope that he would use his role in the church as a cardinal to be more pastoral and compassionate toward people who do not feel the tenderness and love of the church."

These people, she said, deserve a special outreach, a "special degree of pastoral understanding and care," as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops called for in 1976.

"There's been no special degree of care," she said. "There is a ministry on paper, but it is not funded. It has no power because it has no budget."

Richard Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, who knows the archbishop well, holds a more supportive view.

"So many religious leaders kind of challenge the church and its teachings," he said. "It seems to me he sees himself as an intermediary to the people of the church, what it stands for and what its teaching has been through the ages."

VTC Whether Archbishop Keeler will be in any way changed by his elevation to cardinal is uncertain. He has already said the new demands of the office would not draw him away from the archdiocese as many people feared they would.

He has been in Baltimore for five years. It has been a busy half-decade.

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