The ecumenical and interreligious community and the wider church in the United States lost a faithful and talented son with the death last week of His Eminence William Cardinal Keeler.
Born 86 years ago in San Antonio, Texas, and raised in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, he attended Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and the Pontifical University in Rome; he was ordained for the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. After further studies in Rome he served his bishop as a peritus (expert) at the Second Vatican Council. He also helped to keep people in the United States aware of what was happening at the Council, writing for the Council Digest at that time. In 1979 he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Harrisburg. He was named bishop of Harrisburg in 1984 until he was named archbishop of Baltimore in 1989. He was elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1992. He was created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1994.
Cardinal Keeler was instrumental in implementing the teachings of the Second Vatican Council in many ways. He was an avid church historian and was responsible for the beautiful restoration of Baltimore’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first cathedral in the United States. He was an ardent defender of human life and was a leader in the pro-life movement. He was a promoter of Catholic schools, establishing the Partners in Excellence which funded thousands of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to receive the blessings of a Catholic education. He was one of the first bishops to respond to the emerging clergy child abuse crisis by establishing policies related to child and youth protection, establishing a program called “STAND,” that called for the fingerprinting and background checks of clergy and lay church workers, both paid and volunteers.
I would like to focus on one of the outreaches that Cardinal Keeler was involved in throughout his priestly service, which I had the privilege to see close up on various occasions: his contributions to ecumenical and interreligious ministry. He was one of the more important pioneers in this field.
He was named a member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 1994. He also served as Episcopal moderator of the USCCB’s Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs from 1984-87. It was during this time that he arranged the meeting that took place between Jewish and Protestant leaders in South Carolina with Pope John Paul II, as well as the interfaith ceremony in Los Angeles during the pope’s 1987 visit to the United States.
In 1999 after the historic signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, Cardinal Keeler and the local Lutheran bishop nailed a copy of the document to the doors of the Baltimore Basilica and also Christ Lutheran Church.
In 1998, I had the privilege to be invited to the visit of His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore. A beautiful prayer service took place with many cardinals, bishops and civic dignitaries in attendance. After the service we all walked down to the reception at the Walters Art Museum where Cardinal Keeler personally introduced the Patriarch individually to all in attendance. He worked tirelessly to foster and promote close and warm ties between Catholics, Jews and other Christians. He was truly beloved in the Jewish community nationally and was often called upon during times of celebration or crisis.
The last time I saw Cardinal Keeler was in May of 2009. Our Catholic – Jewish Commission and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey honored him and Rabbi Eugene Korn (another leader in interfaith work) with the Nostra Aetate Award. We began with a pleasant dinner in Cherry Hill and then off to the first public ceremony in the brand new Congregation Beth El Synagogue in Voorhees. Cardinal Keeler gave a sweeping overview of interreligious progress since the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council document, Nostra Aetate, reminiscing over the many interfaith encounters he had with the Jewish community over his many years of service to the church. I left with the sure impression that the predominantly Jewish audience that evening in their outpouring of love and respect for Cardinal Keeler expressed the sentiment of Jews throughout the world in their gratitude for all his contributions to Catholic – Jewish rapprochement.
Cardinal Keeler, may you rest in peace. I know all those involved in the ministry of ecumenical and interreligious outreach will miss your gentle and tireless contributions to the cause of unity.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.