THE STORY MAKING THE rounds at Baltimore's Catholic Center is that when former Archbishop William D. Borders invited Pope John Paul II here in 1989 to preside over the bicentennial of the U.S. hierarchy, the pope said, "Two hundred years? Not very many!"
He declined the invitation.
Why did John Paul change his mind about coming to Baltimore? His pastoral visit Sunday to the nation's oldest Roman Catholic diocese will be his third to this city since 1969 - but his first as history's most-traveled pope.
As recently as February of last year, Catholic Church insiders in Rome, Washington and New York were discounting rumors that Pope John Paul might schedule a side visit to Charm City as part of a possible trip to New York to address the United Nations. After all, the 467,000 Catholics of the Baltimore Archdiocese were not even led - then - by a cardinal.
That all changed. Between the Vatican's initial announcement that the pope would visit Baltimore last October and its rescheduling of the canceled trip for this year after his health improved, Pope John Paul elevated Archbishop William H. Keeler to the College of Cardinals.
Cardinal Keeler, who took over from Archbishop Borders in 1989, gives a big share of the credit for the pope's decision to the "helpful influence" of Denver Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, a Baltimore native and former auxiliary bishop here, and Washington Cardinal James A. Hickey.
But few doubt that behind the papal decision to visit - and to elevate Archbishop Keeler to the College of Cardinals - was the Baltimore churchman's steadily growing reputation and influence at Rome.
His rise through the church's ranks has been steady. By the time of his consecration as a little-known auxiliary bishop of Harrisburg, Pa., 16 years ago, this quiet, efficient, Rome-educated administrator already was identified as the kind of doctrinally conservative, socially progressive clergyman the pope saw leading his church into the next century.
In Harrisburg, one of Bishop Keeler's mentors was Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia, now retired, who shared Polish ancestry with Pope John Paul and was a close American adviser during the early years of his pontificate.
The career of the archbishop of Baltimore has been marked during the past six years by his increasingly high-profile role as a Vatican mediator between Catholicism and Judaism.
Cardinal Keeler's interfaith leadership had preceded his appointment as archbishop of Baltimore. Eight years ago, while still bishop of Harrisburg, he was credited with skillfully arranging a conciliatory meeting between Pope John Paul and American rabbis.
Twice since being elected president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops three years ago, Cardinal Keeler has been the official interpreter of papal encyclicals to American Catholics.
Those major theological documents were "The Splendor of Truth," in which Pope John Paul sternly reaffirmed his authority and said moral principles were being undermined by "present-day tendencies," and "Gospel of Life," in which the pope said - as explained by Cardinal Keeler - that "the death penalty is almost never required to defend society."
The Rev. Francis X. Murphy of Annapolis, a veteran pope-watcher who covered the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s for the New Yorker magazine, says Cardinal Keeler's cautious ecumenism and skillful guidance of the U.S. bishops over the past three years are much appreciated in Rome.
Father Murphy has summed up the Baltimore cardinal's approach to his job as seeking "a bridge between the world of faith and the world of citizenship - a bridge that both worlds sorely need."