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Homily Reflection by Archbishop Dolan

Below is the text of Archbishop Dolan's homily at the Mass for Cardinal Keeler's Jubilee celebration.


Jubilee of Cardinal Keeler

October 5, 2005

The acclaimed historian of American Catholicism, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, whose Magnum Opus is his magisterial life of Cardinal James Gibbons, archbishop of this premier see of Baltimore from 1877 to 1921, was fond of telling a story about a very prominent citizen of this city whom he interviewed while doing research for the biography. This man recounted how, as a young boy, his parents would take him for a walk in the city every Sunday afternoon. Sure enough, every Sunday they would pass a small but distinguished looking cleric, also on a stroll, who would unfailingly tip his hat to the boy’s mother, smile to the family, and greet them with a sincere “good afternoon.” Every Sunday, the man recalled, he would be eager to return the greeting to this gracious gentleman whose identity he never learned and even stop and chat with him, but his parents, who never returned the kind man’s smile or greeting, would pull him quickly along. Seems they were rather stuffy bluebloods who would then explain to their son that this stranger was a Catholic priest with whom they did not associate.

Well, so engaging was this priest’s smile, so heartfelt his greeting and impeccable his courtesy, Sunday after Sunday, even when weekly rebuffed by the parents, that, so the man related to Monsignor Ellis, he became more and more curious about Catholics, to such an extent that, at twenty-three, to the horror of his parents, he became one, and wondered what might ever have happened to the gentle, friendly priest of years ago. How moved he was, he told the biographer, when, at the Cathedral of the Assumption to be confirmed, who does he see process up the main aisle but the gracious gentleman who had been so unfailingly kind to him on those Sunday strolls, only now in regal vestments, blessing the crowd who whispered in awe to one another, “It’s Cardinal Gibbons!”

I begin this homily with this simple story because it shows the supreme importance of plain, basic courtesy and kindness. The unflappable graciousness of a priest on a Sunday stroll won a soul for Jesus and the Church. As Belloc wrote:

Of courtesy it is much less than courage of heart or holiness.

Yet in my walks it seems to me that the grace of God is in courtesy.

Eminent cardinals, brother bishops, priests, and deacons, consecrated religious, distinguished ecumenical leaders, civic officials, family and friends of our jubiliarian, beloved people of God: we happily assemble this afternoon to celebrate a half-century of priesthood, and twenty-five years as a bishop, of the fifth successor of Cardinal Gibbons, who, like that legendary predecessor, has moved us all by his kindness, courtesy, virtue, and radiant goodness. Today, Cardinal William Keeler carries, not only the pastoral staff of Cardinal Gibbons, but his noble virtues.

Peter Guilday, the biographer of the proto-bishop of this most venerable American see, relates how the twenty-four priests of this new republic, as they assembled at Whitemarsh in 1789 to petition the Holy See for the nomination of our first bishop, requested a man of unimpeachable virtue, exceptional learning, unshakeable faith, a man loyal to Catholic tradition and doctrine, while unquestionably patriotic, and aware of the unique pastoral challenges this new country presented the ageless Church, a man highly respected by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who would bring pride, cohesion, and direction to the growing Catholic community of America. They got their man in John Carroll, and, since then, we Americans, both Catholic and non-Catholic, have looked for the same sterling qualities in the occupants of this venerable cathedra - - in William Keeler we have not been disappointed.

Your Eminence, with you and for you we praise God for your priesthood and episcopacy; we thank you for your half century of graciously, lovingly, and effectively giving the word flesh in your sacerdotal and apostolic ministry; we love you, we salute you on this happy jubilee day! Congratulations!

When we think about it, it is rather simple: as Jesus brought us God in His person, in His humanity, so are we called upon to bring Jesus to others in our person, our humanity. By our kindness, our goodness, our virtue, our talent, our graciousness, our love, our courtesy, we are to attract others to God.

St. Paul describes that in this afternoon’s reading when he encourages charity, selflessness, gentleness, and patience, all at the service of the Body of Christ;

St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of it when he gives us the principle that “grace builds on nature,” reminding us how God’s power, mercy, and invitation works through one’s character and personality;

St. Francis de Sales extols it when he tells us in his folksy way that “honey attracts more flies than vinegar;”

And Pope John Paul II drives it home again when he reminds us that the person of a priest is to be a bridge that leads people to good, never an obstacle that keeps people from him.

Yet, it’s not simple at all, but rather profound, and rare is the person whose very humanity, very person, by his goodness, decency, charity, and just plain courtesy, can, like Jesus, bring people to the Father; who, like Paul extolled, does it with selflessness and gentleness; who, following the dictum of Aquinas, puts his human talents totally at the disposition of God’s Grace; who, listening to de Sales, attracts souls by the honey of his temperament; who, thank you John Paul, serves as a bridge to the divine.

We honor such a man today in the person of Cardinal William Keeler.

Can I just mention three traits of the cardinal’s attractive character that do this?

First would be his profound love of the Eucharist, a trait which is particularly worthwhile to note as the Synod of Bishops meets these very days on that sacred topic, and as we prepare to conclude the Year of the Eucharist.

When rector of the North American College in Rome, I once greeted Cardinal Keeler at the entrance as he arrived one morning. He had just come from an exhausting series of meetings with his beloved Orthodox brethren in Turkey; he told me his stomach was off, and he had less than an hour before he was due at the Vatican for a high-level meeting. As I showed him to his room, I asked him if he needed anything, thinking he might want some Pepto-Bismol, or a cappuccino. But he simply replied, “Yes, I need to say Mass.” If you ask what makes this man tick, look no further. The Mass is the heart of his day, the prayer, the mystery that gives purpose, meaning, energy, and focus to his life. As is so clear from the recent book he sparked, Cardinal Keeler loves the Eucharist.

Two, he is a loyal servant of the Holy See. He loves Rome; He loves Rome’s bishop. Annabelle Melville, another biographer of John Carroll, noted how our first bishop, while unapologetically patriotic and keenly savvy about the unique pastoral challenges of the Church in America, was firmly convinced that the unity of our faith, morals, and worship as preserved by the Apostolic See was at the heart of Catholicism. That’s true as well of John Carroll’s successor in front of us now. Your Eminence, as a seminarian thirty years ago, I saw you as Father Keeler with Pope Paul VI, and all of us have often seen you with John Paul II. Do you realize that you positively beam, you are visibly radiant, when you are with the Successor of St. Peter? You were born to be a cardinal, and we rejoice that Roman grace has built on a down-home American nature to give us a prince of the Church who makes each of us feel like a king.

Thirdly is his legacy of work for Christian and religious unity. In our gospel today, Jesus teaches us to call God Our Father, and William Keeler has labored strenuously to see that God’s children might be united under His universal fatherhood. Perhaps it was the years he has described as normative when he was in Rome as a peritus during the Ecumenical Council, but he has been an indefatigable apostle of the unity longed for and dreamed of at Vatican II.

Just two weeks ago, at the cardinal’s encouragement, I went on a very moving Jewish-Catholic study tour to Poland and Rome. I asked Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkrantz, the leader of our group, what had sparked his interest in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue. I expected him to reply with a reference to a theological, scriptural, cultural, or liturgical reason, and was surprised when he answered simply, “Cardinal Keeler. He is such a friend whom I love, admire, and respect that I just wanted to work with him.”

There it is again, folks: the power, the persuasion, of a loving, friendly, kind, courteous nature.

Seventy-four years of life and baptized discipleship; fifty years of priesthood; twenty-five as a bishop. Thanks be to God! To Jesus be the honor and glory!

. . . and all I’ve got to say is “Stay with us.” Those disciples on the road to Emmaus that first Easter were fascinated by the warm, engaging man walking with them who brought hope, meaning, and light to them. When he made as if to go on, they begged him, “Stay with us.”

Mane nobiscum - - Cardinal Keeler you got a new knee and you can walk with us just fine. We’ve grown to love your companionship on the journey. You’ve been ahead of us to lead us, behind us at times to push us and boost us, always along side us to accompany us. Yes, today is about the past, as we celebrate jubilees of grace, but it’s also about the future, as we say to you “Stay with us!”