By George P. Matysek Jr.
In a sign of deep affection for the man who has served as the fatherly face of the Archdiocese of Baltimore for 18 years, nearly 2,000 people gathered in the Baltimore Convention Center Sept. 6 to honor the long ministry of Cardinal William H. Keeler.
Coming from all over the archdiocese – including the westernmost reaches of Garrett County, Central Maryland, the Baltimore metropolitan area, Harford County and the southern tip of Anne Arundel County – priests, sisters, deacons, brothers and lay people extolled their spiritual shepherd’s leadership and commitment to his faith.
More than 20 bishops from across the country joined Baltimore’s Archbishop William D. Borders, Bishop W. Francis Malooly, Bishop Denis Madden, Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski and Bishop William C. Newman in honoring Cardinal Keeler. Numerous political and interfaith leaders, including Gov. Martin J. O’Malley, also attended the nearly five-hour testimonial dinner celebration – as did the cardinal’s sister, Julia, and other family members.
Pope Benedict XVI accepted Cardinal Keeler’s resignation as Baltimore’s 14th archbishop on July 12, appointing Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien of the Archdiocese for U.S. Military Services as his successor. The new archbishop of Baltimore also participated in the event.
In a video message played at the beginning of the celebration, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican’s apostolic nuncio to the United States, conveyed Pope Benedict XVI’s appreciation for Cardinal Keeler’s tireless service.
“I express gratitude for what you have done and what you have been and what you continue to be for the Catholic Church in Baltimore, in the United States and the universal church,” said Archbishop Sambi.
Archbishop O’Brien, who will be installed on Oct. 1 at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland as Baltimore’s 15th archbishop, also heaped praise on Cardinal Keeler – extolling the cardinal’s commitment to Catholic education, his commitment to the poor, his defense of the sanctity of life, his interfaith work and his restoration of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore.
Two of the great names often cited in Baltimore and American Catholic history are Archbishop John Carroll and Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop O’Brien said.
“The name ‘William Keeler’ should be included in that litany of luminaries,” said Archbishop O’Brien, describing Cardinal Keeler as “kindly in manner” and “unfailingly resolute.”
Archbishop O’Brien said Cardinal Keeler has always been a priest willing to sacrifice everything “except the truth,” in an effort “to shine the light of Christ into the darker crevices of our culture.”
WBAL-TV anchorman Rod Daniels, who served as master of ceremonies, noted that Cardinal Keeler was the third Baltimore archbishop to be named to the College of Cardinals and the second Baltimore cardinal to participate in a papal conclave. He was also the first Baltimore archbishop to host a visit from the pope, the first to serve as president of the national bishops’ conference and the only archbishop of Baltimore to serve as a peritus, or advisor, at the Second Vatican Council.
Choking up as he reflected on Cardinal Keeler’s storied accomplishments, Mr. Daniels recalled the sense of honor and pride he felt reporting from Rome and receiving an audience with Pope John Paul II as a result of a request from Cardinal Keeler.
In a video tribute played on two large screens, numerous leaders thanked the cardinal for his ministry to the archdiocese’s nearly 500,000 Catholics and many highlighted his commitment to ecumenism and interfaith outreach, as well as his promotion of religious vocations.
Rabbi Steven M. Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore recalled how his congregation mobbed Cardinal Keeler “as if he were a rock star” after the cardinal gave a talk on Catholic-Jewish relations. The rabbi said Cardinal Keeler was one of the most important leaders in advancing better understanding between the two faiths.
Dr. Frank Reid III, senior pastor of Bethel AME Church in Baltimore, called Cardinal Keeler a “pioneer” in helping Baltimore’s religious communities come together in times of tragedy like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, said Cardinal Keeler’s prolife homilies were “always on target” when Cardinal Keeler served twice as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ prolife committee.
“He spoke from his heart,” said Cardinal McCarrick.
In recognition of the cardinal’s contributions to the archdiocese, Bishop Madden presented the cardinal with a card representing contributions to the newly established Cardinal Keeler Fund benefiting Catholic education, Catholic Charities and the Baltimore Basilica.
After receiving several rounds of warm applause throughout the evening, Cardinal Keeler was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation when he rose to speak at the conclusion of the celebration.
“To each of you, a thousand thanks,” said Cardinal Keeler. “Whether priest or deacon or religious sister, whether lay parish council member, corporator or volunteer, you have helped in so many ways to get our work as church done.”
The cardinal said all those who supported the Heritage of Hope capital campaign, the Cardinal’s Lenten Appeal, Our Daily Bread Employment Center and the restoration of the basilica had “earned a special place in my heart.”
“The veterans of our pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land: stay tuned,” the cardinal said with a smile. “If there is a canonization worth our attention, we shall try together to make it.”
Cardinal Keeler announced that Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Commission for Relations with the Jews, has written to him and asked him to give more time to ecumenical and interfaith endeavors in his retirement.
In October, the cardinal said he plans to go to Ravenna, Italy, as part of the International Catholic-Orthodox Commission. He will also continue serving as moderator for Jewish-Catholic affairs for the U.S. bishops, he said.
Before leading the closing prayer, retired eastern vicar Bishop Newman turned to the cardinal and joked that on a night when the lowly Baltimore Orioles lost in the ninth inning to the Boston Red Sox, “I think you drew more people here tonight than the Orioles have.”
Cardinal Keeler will celebrate a Mass of thanksgiving at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland on Sept. 23 at 11 a.m. It will be his final public Mass before the installation of Archbishop O’Brien.