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Change, challenges for Keeler

The Baltimore Sun

Cardinal William H. Keeler celebrates his last public Mass as archbishop of Baltimore today -- but no one should expect him to say goodbye for long.

Stepping down after 18 years as head of the Baltimore area's more than 500,000 Catholics and 151 parishes, Keeler already foresees an ambitious schedule pursuing his passions and the religious agenda that has marked his career.

He plans to immerse himself further in the history of the archdiocese and its centerpiece, the restored Basilica of the Assumption. Vatican leaders have asked him to continue building on his successful record of developing relationships with other faith communities -- an influence that extended to drawing leaders of other religions into such issues as abortion.

And, perhaps most importantly to the cardinal, he will have more time for the simple duties of the priesthood.

"Part of what I'm going to do now is get out to the parishes again," Keeler said. "I hope that I shall be able to visit many people and talk to them at a different level rather than as archbishop but as archbishop emeritus."

This morning's Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore marks Keeler's final public religious event as archbishop, though he technically won't step down until Oct. 1, at the installation of his successor, Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien. The transition had been expected ever since his 75th birthday last year, when Keeler submitted his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI as required by canon law.

Now 76, Keeler remains a cardinal for life, and up until age 80 maintains his right to vote for a papal replacement.

Nevertheless, the impending retirement has given Keeler and Baltimore's Catholic community an opportunity in recent months to reflect on and celebrate a career that has spanned many of the pivotal moments of recent Catholic history.

As a peritus, or expert consultant, to the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965, Keeler is one of the few American bishops left who witnessed the discussions that changed worship practice and paved the way for ecumenical work.

As cardinal, Keeler hosted a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1995, and a decade later, he voted in the election of Pope Benedict XVI. The cardinal also directed the $32 million restoration of the basilica, which reopened last year.

Tackling controversy head-on, he published the names of hundreds of priests who had been accused of sexual abuse during the clergy scandal in 2002, and he oversaw the closing of urban parishes and parochial schools amid declining church attendance and school enrollments.

Interfaith efforts

His influence as a cleric extended beyond the boundaries of the archdiocese, becoming a national leader within the Roman Catholic Church and promoting its positions on the sanctity of human life and interreligious dialogue.

Keeler's relationships with Orthodox Christian, Protestant and Jewish leaders have attracted particular attention. Some Vatican watchers suggest that his interfaith efforts -- frequently lauded by leaders of other religions -- even played a role in Pope John Paul II's decision to elevate Keeler to cardinal in 1994.

"He's been honored up and down the Jewish street, as it were," said Rabbi Joel H. Zaiman, the rabbi emeritus of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville. "All the national Jewish leaders know him, and many of them have relationships with him that are more than casual."

As former president of the Synagogue Council of America, Zaiman first met Keeler more than 20 years ago. The two still moderate Catholic-Jewish discussions with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committee.

Keeler was always accessible. "I'd call and hear, 'He's in Rome.' Three hours later, I'd get a call from Rome or from the train station in Venice," Zaiman said.

The cardinal said he got his first taste of interfaith work as a priest in the Diocese of Harrisburg. He served as secretary of the ecumenical group of the U.S. bishops' organization for Bishop Martin N. Lohmuller, a retired auxiliary bishop in Philadelphia.

As he became a national figure pushing the church's agenda on such topics as abortion, he found ways to broaden his lobbying effort to include other faiths.

Keeler, a former president of the national bishops' group, led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities from 1998 to 2001 and from 2003 to last fall, said former committee staff member Helen M. Alvare.

Now an associate law professor at Catholic University of America, Alvare credits Keeler for capitalizing on his interfaith connections, rallying evangelical Christians as well as some Jewish groups to join in opposition to abortion.

"He never saw abortion as a religious issue, period, or a Catholic issue," Alvare said.

Keeler's work with the archdiocese's schools has also enabled him to touch faiths beyond Catholicism. Amid declining enrollment, some schools have been forced to close or consolidate, and Keeler has focused on fundraising to subsidize tuition.

About 85 percent of the 195 children at St. Ambrose School in Park Heights receive financial aid, said its principal, Pamela Sanders. And about nine out of 10 students enrolled at St. Ambrose are not Catholic.

"What better way to open your doors and say welcome?" she said. "There's so many young people that really have to thank Cardinal Keeler for the place that they are in life."

Keeler compared the urban Catholic schools to mission work in other countries. "They educate people regardless of their background," he said, acknowledging it's a form of interfaith outreach. "It's also education to try to lift the young people up to a higher position so they are better able to respond to the vagaries of life."

The cardinal was known for working smoothly within the city's political and business community, too. As mayor, Gov. Martin O'Malley worked with Keeler to move the city's largest soup kitchen, Our Daily Bread, from a building next to the basilica to an expanded location with additional services.

"He was always there with us on efforts ... promoting the notion that all of us have a responsibility to make our city a better place," O'Malley said.

Parallel lives

The future cardinal spent much of his life in Pennsylvania, and the current bishop of Harrisburg, Kevin C. Rhoades, followed much the same path, though they were born 27 years apart.

Rhoades grew up in Keeler's hometown of Lebanon, Pa., and attended the same parish -- St. Mary's of Lebanon. Like Keeler, he graduated from Lebanon Catholic High School, St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia and the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

After Keeler was named an auxiliary bishop of Harrisburg, he ordained Rhoades in 1983. Keeler was named bishop of Harrisburg that year. Rhoades later served as his secretary for a year, driving the bishop to his appointments.

"What impressed me was that he was always a good shepherd," Rhoades said. Keeler "was always checking up on priests who were sick."

The bishop also remembers how the cardinal reacted when Rhoades' mother died Oct. 30, 1994 -- the same day that Pope John Paul II elevated Keeler to the College of Cardinals.

Although the news media were swirling around Keeler, the archbishop found time to call.

"On such a busy and important day in his life, he took time to express his condolences," Rhoades said.

Despite declining interest in vocations nationwide, Keeler said he is very proud that more men have committed to ordination for his archdiocese in recent years.

Unlike other bishops, the cardinal often regularly interacted with the seminarians sponsored by the Archdiocese of Baltimore during their years of training, said the Rev. Daniel R. Goulet, who was ordained in June and now is a priest at St. John's in Frederick. Keeler would also recall details about their families -- and academic troubles -- from the letters they would write to him.

"Formation's not always easy," he said. "You go through rough times. Just knowing he was there and he would listen was very comforting."

Many find Keeler's ability to retain details endearing, describing him as a quiet, gentle man.

"He has an excellent memory that just never fails to impress you," said Carol Nevin "Sue" Abromaitis, an English professor at Loyola College who helped plan the papal visit. "When you're the object of that memory, you really are impressed."

Abromaitis, a parishioner at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, also admired the cardinal's commitment to life issues, describing it as "notable and consoling."

"Sometimes powerful people can have other priorities in mind. He spoke rather unambiguously for all," she said.

The past year has been filled with new challenges for Keeler. In October, while vacationing in Italy a month before the rededication of the basilica, the cardinal was in a car accident that killed a close friend and fellow priest and left Keeler with a broken ankle.

In June, he had surgery to relieve symptoms of hydrocephalus, an abnormal buildup of fluid in his brain -- a condition doctors said might have stemmed from the car accident.

These days, "I'm feeling pretty good, except I get tired easily," Keeler said. He still goes to physical therapy twice a week.

Champion of history

Outside his official church responsibilities, one of Keeler's passions has been history. Keeler was in awe of the story of his new archdiocese as soon as he arrived in Baltimore.

The city was the stage for important events in the history of Catholicism in the United States -- it was the center of the first diocese and later the first archdiocese established in the United States. But until Keeler's efforts, most people these days weren't aware of that fact, said Michael J. Ruck Sr., chairman of the Basilica Historic Trust.

"I think since the cardinal has been here in Baltimore, he's tried to educate all of us to the significant importance that the archdiocese has played in the growth of the Catholic Church across our nation," Ruck said.

Unfortunately, the highlight of Baltimore's prominence, the basilica, had fallen into disrepair. By 1999, the cardinal had decided a complete restoration was necessary.

Outside events -- including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the clergy abuse scandal -- postponed fundraising, Ruck said, and Keeler also held off starting a public campaign for the basilica until he had raised $136 million for schools, parishes and institutions.

But in 2004, the basilica closed for a two-year restoration that was unveiled last fall. Last month, the cardinal welcomed the 100,000th visitor to the basilica since it reopened. "There are more and more people now who have an appreciation, visitors from all over the world," Ruck said.

Keeler also revels in entertaining guests at the historic bishop's residence behind the basilica, sharing all the important events that had taken place in that building. The cardinal will continue to live there during his retirement.

Gail Quinn, former executive director of the pro-life committee of the national Catholic bishops' conference, recalled her first meeting with him at the residence. "It was a little like Jackie Kennedy in the White House," she said, describing how he gave her the full tour. "He's got all the details in his head."

Keeler was also unassuming enough to remember to ask if she needed her parking validated and, when she produced her ticket, he stamped it himself.

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