In a matter of months, weeks or even days, a new bishop could be appointed to take charge of America's oldest Roman Catholic archdiocese.
Cardinal William H. Keeler submitted his resignation letter to the Vatican more than a year ago - a church requirement once he passed his 75th birthday - allowing Pope Benedict XVI to pick a new archbishop for Baltimore.
Speculation among Vatican observers suggests that a decision could come sooner rather than later, as the pope has the opportunity to put his imprint on both the American Catholic Church and the College of Cardinals that will someday pick his replacement.
"I think these [coming U.S.] appointments will tell us more about how Benedict views the American church than anything he says," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
For Keeler's part, he has repeatedly declined to be specific about when he might be replaced or who might replace him, deflecting questions and saying it's a decision in the hands of Pope Benedict and other higher powers.
But that hasn't stopped speculation among academics and other observers over who might be Keeler's replacement in what is widely seen as an attractive post. Names mentioned include Bishop John H. Ricard of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, a former auxiliary bishop in Baltimore, and Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee.
It's not clear what changes, if any, a new archbishop would bring to Baltimore in terms of either diocesan management or public agenda. Observers say Keeler's successor as leader of the nation's oldest diocese would have to direct its two seminaries at a time when interest in vocations is declining - a problem that Benedict has made a priority.
"It's the best-run, best-managed diocese in the United States," said Rocco Palmo of the Vatican-oriented blog Whispers in the Loggia. "The challenges, I would say, are the same as practically every other diocese."
In addition to Keeler, four other U.S. cardinals have surpassed the age of 75 or will reach that milestone this year. There is no guarantee that the future head of Baltimore's archdiocese would become a cardinal. In fact, only three of the 14 archbishops of Baltimore have received the red hats denoting membership in the College of Cardinals.
Resignation at 75
Under canon law, bishops must submit their resignations to the pope when they turn 75, but he can permit them to stay on until they reach 80. Only cardinals who are under the age of 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave that elects new popes.
Benedict's delay in replacing Keeler enabled the cardinal to complete one of the major accomplishments of his nearly two decades as archbishop - the $32 million restoration of the Basilica of the Assumption in downtown Baltimore. The first cathedral constructed in the United States reopened in November, with Keeler immediately able to put the building on display for a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
But the urgency of finding a successor to Keeler was magnified last summer - before the Basilica reopening - when the cardinal was injured in a car accident while vacationing in Italy with two friends. He suffered a broken ankle and used a walker throughout the November events.
Although Baltimore is a midsize Catholic community, with only about a half-million Catholics, its status as the first diocese created in the United States gives it symbolic significance. Keeler raised awareness of that history through his work on the basilica, and his successors must continue that effort, said George Weigel, a Baltimore native and author of God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church.
"The future of the Archdiocese of Baltimore in some sense requires a more active reclaiming of its past," Weigel said. Keeler's successor will have to continue to help the archdiocese "become a place where Catholics from all over the United States come to discover some of the important aspects of this history and the sanctity of the church in America."
The archdiocese is an important post within the American church for more than just history. Like other communities, it has struggled with declining Mass attendance and other common problems. However, Baltimore has remained relatively unscathed by the clergy abuse scandals that have diminished church finances and tarnished credibility elsewhere, as in Boston and Spokane, Wash.
"The archdiocese braved a lot of things that have really wreaked havoc in a lot of other places," Palmo said. "To leave a place in such excellent condition to your successors is a real gift."
Baltimore is also unique because the archdiocese has two seminaries: St. Mary's in Roland Park and Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg. The archbishop serves as chancellor of both institutions, so experience in guiding vocations could be an important skill the pope might look for in picking Keeler's successor.
The Rev. Joseph S. Rossi, a professor of church history at Loyola College, said that although other communities have since surpassed Baltimore in population, a candidate who has shown leadership in major American issues and has a good reputation internationally would be appropriate for the oldest American diocese.
"You would want to have a bishop here who would be one who could speak to both national and international issues," he said.
That was the case with Keeler. The cardinal, a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has built a legacy through his work in interfaith dialogue, particularly among Jewish groups.
"Keeler's retirement is going to be a major loss for ecumenism and for Catholic-Jewish relations," Reese said. "He's just someone that ... all the Jewish leaders are very comfortable dealing with."
For Vatican observers, what happens in Baltimore is being watched for any hints on changes to come in New York and Detroit, whose cardinals have also reached their 75th years.
Baltimore's new archbishop won't necessarily be a cardinal - Keeler waited five years before receiving the honor, and other cities have a stronger tradition of leaders with red hats. And with five of the 11 American cardinals now based in Northeastern dioceses, speculation suggests the pope will soon create a cardinal in the South or West, where Catholic populations are booming because of Latino immigration and Catholics relocating. "I don't think it's necessarily the case that 25 years from now, most of the American cardinals will be strung out along I-95," Weigel said.
Pope Benedict has appointed 26 bishops in the United States. His first was Bishop Dennis J. Madden, Baltimore's urban vicar.
The selection process is secretive, and the pope makes the ultimate decision. According to the American bishops' conference, the process of selecting a successor for a retiring bishop begins with a report on the state of the diocese, prepared by the incumbent.
The apostolic nuncio, who serves as the pope's envoy to both the national government and to the Catholics of the country, receives the report and investigates possible candidates by consulting with bishops and archbishops, particularly those who know the area. He develops a terna, or list of three names, as well as a report with his recommendations.
That information is sent to the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican, which discusses the appointment and votes on the candidates. Then the prefect of the congregation brings all the information to the pope, who can pick from that list or ask for new candidates.
It's very difficult to identify trends among Pope Benedict's appointments, said Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly of Louisville, Ky., noting all the variables that go into the decisions - the needs of the community, the wishes of the apostolic nuncio and of the pope.
Reese said, "This is a situation where the people who know don't talk and the people who don't know, speculate," he said.
His research revealed that popes rarely move archbishops to another archdiocese - except in Chicago - and that usually appointments come from outside the diocese. Likely candidates would be about 65 years old - with sufficient time before their 75th birthday to lead the new see.
There's too little data to generalize about Pope Benedict's choices, but Reese said he has picked highly educated candidates. "He's looking for bishops who will be teachers to their flock," he said. "They seem to be less confrontational than people appointed under [Pope] John Paul II."
Palmo agreed, describing Pope Benedict's appointments as "people who come from the classroom but are still pastorally comfortable."
"Benedict appointees are not scared of dialogue," Palmo said.
For Baltimore, some candidates being mentioned in Catholic circles include two African-Americans: Ricard, 67, a former urban vicar of Baltimore who left a decade ago to lead the Pensacola-Tallahassee diocese; and Bishop J. Terry Steib, 66, of the Diocese of Memphis, who has had notable success with vocations.
Ricard is a member of the Josephites, a Baltimore-based religious order that ministers to African-Americans. Steib, of the Society of the Divine Word, was praised in 2005 newspaper accounts for tripling the number of seminarians, to 15.
Two former rectors of the Pontifical North American College, the American seminary at the Vatican, could also be considered - Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, 68, who leads Catholics in military services, and Dolan, 57, of Milwaukee, who preached at the Mass for the 50th anniversary of Keeler's ordination.
One possible replacement who could continue Keeler's interfaith work is Bishop William F. Murphy, 66, of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which represents about 1.5 million Long Island Catholics. He has served on the federal Commission on International Religious Freedom and is a former chairman of the U.S. bishops' committee on ecumenical and interreligious affairs.
According to news reports, he banned Catholic lay group Voice of the Faithful from meeting on church property. The Massachusetts attorney general also investigated but did not pursue further action against Murphy, a former auxiliary bishop in Boston, in connection with that archdiocese's handling of clergy abuse there.