Keeler legacy Will continue

The Baltimore Sun

Accepting the resignation of Cardinal William H. Keeler, Pope Benedict XVI turned over leadership of the birthplace of American Catholicism yesterday to Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, a prelate known for ministering to U.S. troops on the battlefield and strictly supervising the education of priests.

O'Brien, a New York native, has presided over the Archdiocese for the Military Services since 1997.

He vowed to continue Keeler's two-decade legacy - including forging trusting relationships with other faiths - while promising to step up the recruitment of new priests in the Baltimore Archdiocese.

Within hours of the Vatican announcement at 6 a.m. Baltimore time, Keeler and O'Brien cordially began the public transition - speaking to the news media at the Basilica of the Assumption, and then celebrating midday Mass before a crowd that filled about half of the elegantly restored cathedral.

"It will be a special challenge for me to live up to the episcopal accomplishments of Cardinal Keeler. ... He has persevered, and in the noble spirit of faith that has marked his ministry throughout his life as priest and bishop," O'Brien, 68, said during a news conference at the basilica within hours of his appointment.

O'Brien takes over an archdiocese of 500,000 Catholics and 151 parishes in an affluent, liberal state where abortion rights are not controversial and legalizing same-sex marriage is under judicial review. Like many archdioceses, a crucial challenge for Baltimore is balancing the needs of aging urban parishes with dwindling church attendance and school enrollment against the demands of fast-growing suburban communities.

Though Keeler had offered his resignation to the pope more than a year ago - a requirement of all bishops when they turn 75 - yesterday's announcement came somewhat unexpectedly, just weeks after Keeler's recent brain surgery to relieve a condition stemming from an auto accident last October. The news conference was one of Keeler's first public appearances since the hospital stay.

Yesterday, Keeler joyfully introduced Baltimore's Roman Catholics to his successor, whom he recalled meeting more than 20 years ago when they marched together at an anti-abortion event.

"I know that he will be able to count on the truly outstanding priests, deacons, religious and laity that have been so supportive of me in my 18 years of service as archbishop of Baltimore," the cardinal said. Keeler, O'Brien, retired Archbishop William D. Borders and the archdiocese's auxiliary bishops shared lunch at the bishop's residence next to the basilica immediately after Mass.

O'Brien will be the archbishop-designate until he is formally installed Oct. 1 as leader of the archdiocese of nine counties and Baltimore City.

Widely seen within church circles as loyal, competent and trustworthy, O'Brien has been rumored "for every significant appointment for the American church in the last 15 years," said John L. Allen Jr., a senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter.

Allen described Baltimore's new archbishop as, "in part, a kind of continuity appointment." Although O'Brien "doesn't have the same package of interests as Keeler, neither does it mark a dramatic move away from Keeler," he said.

When O'Brien begins his tenure, he will not hold the title of cardinal, and there is no guarantee that he will be promoted to that rank by the pope. Only three of Baltimore's past 14 archbishops have received that title.

But running the Baltimore archdiocese is considered a promotion regardless of title because of its history as the seat of American Catholicism.

From his first Mass at lunchtime yesterday, O'Brien quickly focused attention on his priority of recruitment of more priests, dedicating special prayers to the topic.

"I think young people don't have as many doubts as they used to about what the future of the priesthood will be," O'Brien said in an interview. "This generation is different - much more serious and willing to step up."

O'Brien is the only American bishop to have led two seminaries: St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., and the Pontifical North American College in Rome. In Italy, O'Brien set curfews and instituted morning and evening prayers because, he said, seminarians had had too many freedoms after Vatican II, according to an article in Crisis magazine.

"His great love for the priesthood makes him a most effective recruiter of vocations - an invaluable asset for any seminary or diocese," Keeler said at the news conference.

In 2005 and 2006, O'Brien conducted a rigorous review of all American seminaries following a series of priestly abuse scandals, issuing the controversial conclusion that the schools should no longer admit homosexuals, even if celibate.

In his current role, O'Brien has struggled with a shortage of priests, telling Catholic News Service this year that while 25 percent of the military is Catholic, only 7 percent of the chaplains are. Of 800 priests he said he needed, he had only 325.

George Weigel, a Baltimore native who has written biographies of both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II, said he is not surprised that priest recruitment was at the top of the new archbishop's agenda. "I think he has an enormous challenge in revitalizing and frankly expanding the numbers," Weigel said.

"The reason the North American College is as strong shape as it is today ... goes back to Archbishop O'Brien's four years there," Weigel said. "He really created a model John Paul II seminary there."

A Bronx native, O'Brien was ordained in New York in 1965 and served as a civilian chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., for five years. He was commissioned a military chaplain in 1970, serving as a captain with the 82nd Airborne Division, according to a biography released yesterday by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

In 1971 and 1972, he served in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and 1st Cavalry. He also has spent considerable time in the Archdiocese of New York, serving as vice-chancellor and associate pastor at St. Patrick's Cathedral. He founded the archdiocesean paper Catholic New York and in 1979 also helped establish Courage, an organization devoted to helping gay and lesbian Catholics lead chaste lives.

As the archbishop of the armed forces for the past decade, O'Brien spends about two-thirds of his time on the road, overseeing a far-flung community of about 1.5 million Catholics in all branches of the military, their families, veterans in hospitals as well as government contractors. He will continue such trips until his installation in Baltimore.

Steward of the military's Catholics during a difficult and stressful war, O'Brien has raised questions about the U.S. involvement in Iraq before the 2003 invasion.

The archbishop noted his "profound respect" for President Bush and his advisors, but wrote, "Americans, our allies and the world community expect more [answers] if military action must ultimately be taken as a last resort."

O'Brien "certainly raised the right questions before the invasion of Iraq, and I think he did it in the appropriate way - he asked the questions, he didn't give the answers," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

More recently, the archbishop has called for "an honorable and morally responsible end to our military involvement in Iraq."

During yesterday's press conference, O'Brien expressed regret at leaving the armed services - noting the "sense of self-sacrifice and dedication" of the military - but said he is eager to continue the work of Keeler in Baltimore.

Appointed by Pope John Paul II in March 1989, Keeler has served 18 years through some tumultuous times for Catholics within the archdiocese and throughout the United States.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Keeler spent more than half his career in the Diocese of Harrisburg - first as a parish priest, then becoming auxiliary bishop in 1979 and bishop in 1983.

Keeler is widely respected by Jewish leaders worldwide. Some observers have said the prelate's relationships with Jewish leaders impressed John Paul II during the pontiff's 1987 visit to the United States, ultimately leading to Keeler elevation to cardinal in 1994.

Though Keeler will no longer be the archbishop, he retains his membership in the College of Cardinals. But the cleric, who was part of the conclave that chose Benedict two years ago, will not be allowed to vote after he turns 80.

At 68, O'Brien is unlikely to serve in Baltimore anywhere as long as Keeler, as he is just seven years away from the time when he'll be required to submit his own resignation letter to the Vatican.

Keeler, who was elected president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference in the 1990s, also served as chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities until last year.

Like both Keeler and O'Brien's mentor, former Archbishop of New York Cardinal John O'Connor, O'Brien has a strong history of anti-abortion advocacy, Weigel said.

In interviews earlier this year, Keeler described as his proudest achievement the financial donations and other support he had raised from businesses and foundations for struggling Catholic schools within Baltimore.

As the 14th archbishop in Baltimore, the cardinal will also be remembered for leading the more than $32 million restoration of the Basilica of the Assumption, the first cathedral constructed within the just-born United States - consequently restoring recognition of the Archdiocese of Baltimore as the "premier see," the first American diocese. Keeler has said he plans to remain in Baltimore and continue his work with the Basilica Historic Trust.

O'Brien said during the press conference he recognizes the prominence of his new archdiocese.

"I am humbled in being named shepherd of this historic premier see whose Catholic roots reach deep into our nation."

Sun staff writer David Wood contributed to this article.


Born in the Bronx, N.Y. he was ordained as a priest in 1965 in the Archdiocese of New York. Prior to his appointment in Baltimore, he served as archbishop of military services. He has also served in other capacities relating to the military, including a stint in Vietnam in the early 1970s.

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