Speaking for the Baltimore diocese's half-million Catholics, Archbishop William E. Lori said "we lost our great shepherd, great visionary and great friend" in the passing Thursday of Cardinal William H. Keeler. Lori described Keeler as a "world-class leader in humanism and interfaith relationships" who "never forgot a face or a relationship."
"Cardinal Keeler knew so well how to find common ground," he said.
Others also spoke warmly about a man who traveled the world and never stopped building relationships where others saw divisions.
Keeler was known for reaching out to members of disparate faiths, and as one friend remembers it, he did so by simply remaining "the personification of empathy and decency."
Marc B. Terrill, executive director of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said most of the plans he and Keeler hatched together arose "organically" from their friendship.
"It wasn't all about business. We'd get together for dinner or a cup of coffee or lunch, and an idea would emanate," Terrill said. He recalled the time about eight years ago when Keeler called him to invite 30 Jewish leaders to his private residence to commemorate Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).
"He led us in remembrance of the people lost; then we had a discussion about individual responsibility and civility," Terrill recalled. "It was very uplifting."
The executive paused.
"I feel like I lost a friend today," he said.
A prominent member of the local Muslim community had a similar reaction.
Imam Earl El-Amin of the Muslim Community Cultural Center in Baltimore said he spent years working with Keeler on projects "to try and improve the human condition," whether it was working to get a local public swimming pool kept open longer in the summer, to curb violence in the city or to deal with the issue of land mines in foreign countries.
In 1996, it was Keeler who organized and led a delegation of Muslim leaders from across the U.S., including El-Amin, to the Vatican to meet Pope John Paul II — a gesture the imam says inspired Catholic groups nationwide to reach out in greater solidarity to Muslims.
"He was always pushing the envelope with his colleagues to engage the Muslim community, the Hindus, the Buddhists, everyone," El-Amin said.
"He was a very balanced individual. He never got over-excited about what he was doing, but he made things happen. He was like an old sage."
The Most Rev. Constantine Moralis, dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore, said Keeler also had a "very strong understanding of the Orthodox church and high respect for the Orthodox church" and expressed it in gestures big and small.
He recalled that when Keeler prevailed on Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians, to come to Baltimore in 1997, he had the patriarch sit in the same chair Pope John Paul II had occupied during his celebrated visit to the city two years earlier.
"The life that Cardinal Keeler shared with us was such a matter of mutual respect, a respect we showed each other on a constant basis," Moralis said. "He was always willing to dialogue and to talk."
Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, now president of the University of Baltimore, gave wistful chuckle as he recalled his long relationship with the Cardinal.
He still keeps a 1980s-era photo of Keeler on his desk, he said — one that also shows then-Mayor Martin O'Malley and former Mayors William Donald Schaefer and Thomas D'Alesandro gathered around a table.
Keeler, Schmoke said, had cashed in on his years of friendship with the pols to call on them when he wanted to kick-start a new program for the homeless in Baltimore.
"He gathered us to assure a strong political support for the project," Schmoke said, noting that while the men in the room were all Democrats, their views sometimes clashed. "It would probably only be Cardinal Keeler who could bring that group together."
Schmoke reminisced about how hard Keeler fought to support Catholic education during his tenure as the 14th Archbishop of Baltimore, an effort he said "retained a strong presence of Catholic education in the city.
"We all benefitted from that," Schmoke said. "We lost a great one today."