The College of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church is often described as a kind of senate or board of directors that provides counsel to the pope. By his elevation to this exclusive group yesterday in Rome, 63-year-old Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore finally attained official status as an adviser to the pontiff. But long before he was presented his red biretta, William Keeler had the respect and the ear of John Paul II.
Seven years ago, for example, then-Bishop Keeler of Harrisburg, Pa., brought the pope together with Jewish and Protestant leaders in the United States. Through this important series of meetings, the soft-spoken but steely bishop became known in church circles as both a champion of ecumenicalism and an efficient administrator who worked well behind the scenes. And in 1989, he was the only bishop in a contingent of U.S. cardinals and archbishops invited to Rome for a major discussion of American Catholicism with the pope and other church leaders.
Two years later, just after his arrival in Baltimore, then-Archbishop Keeler was chosen by his peers to preside over the National Conference of Bishops. Thus he took on the role of chief spokesman for the church in the United States, adding another impressive credential to his resume.
These accomplishments did not go unnoticed in Rome. Equally significant in the Vatican's view have been such attributes as the new cardinal's theological conservatism and unwavering loyalty to John Paul II and the papacy.
With approximately a half-million Catholics, the Baltimore region has long been overshadowed by American archdioceses with greater numbers of worshipers. Yet no archdiocese in the nation can match Baltimore for its history as the foundation on which the American church was built. In 1789, Baltimore became the first diocese in the new country, and John Carroll its first bishop. Because the diocese embraced the entire U.S. at the time, many of the practices established by John Carroll evolved into the customs of American Catholicism.
As the third Baltimore bishop to wear a red hat, Cardinal Keeler follows James Gibbons, named to the College of Cardinals in 1886, and Lawrence Shehan, elevated to the position in 1965. Both men were revered leaders not only within the archdiocese but also in the broader community that extended well beyond Maryland's borders. Cardinal Keeler is already that kind of leader. Unlike his predecessors, though, he faces difficulties unique to his day. Among them is the problem of maintaining the archdiocese's urban presence as membership at city churches declines.
The challenges, as well as the joys, of leading a major American archdiocese will not change with William Keeler's elevation to cardinal. But neither will his ability to meet the challenges and promulgate the joys.