Friday, May 15, 2009

At Catholic-Jewish Desk, the Torch-Pass Begins

If only Cardinal William Keeler were a decade younger, the 14th archbishop of Baltimore would be the odds-on favorite to fill Cardinal Walter Kasper's shoes as the Vatican's lead point-man both on ecumenism and the church's sometimes-fraught relations with Judaism.

Alas, the 78 year-old cardinal, who retired in summer 2007, is two years older than Kasper, whose age-induced departure from the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews is likely a good bit nearer now that the Pope's cleared the hurdle of his Holy Land voyage. Even so, the Charm City prelate's used his retirement less to rest on his laurels at 408 N. Charles -- where a modern-style menorah presides from one table in the historic Gibbons Room -- than take his long-standing interfaith work into overdrive... a task from which neither brain surgery nor injuries sustained in a 2006 car accident have kept him.

This week alone, against the backdrop of B16's pilgrimage to the church's birthplace, Keeler presided over a Big Apple meeting of rabbis and senior clerics before being honored by South Jersey's high-profile Catholic-Jewish committee last night at a local synagogue.

Despite his retirement, the cardinal remains co-chair of the national Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

A former president of the US bishops (whose 1992-95 tenure handed him the oft-unsung challenge of dealing with the Clinton administration), Keeler travels even more extensively these days than before -- and usually on his own at that -- on cross-faith duty. Yet even without the Vatican slot, he's had to groom an heir for the work on these shores... and by the looks of it, he's done just that in his close friend, fellow history buff and longtime favorite, now the archbishop of New York.

Indeed, that Keeler recruited Tim Dolan to join the working group in 2004 didn't hurt the latter's odds of landing in the world's largest Jewish community beyond Israel one bit. Though the cardinal was said to have vouched for the then-Milwaukeean to take his place at the helm of the nation's Premier See, the way the stars eventually aligned served instead to confirm the new occupant of 452 Madison as Keeler's heir apparent in the dialogue's top Catholic seat.

Along those lines, both to express "solidarity" with the Pilgrim Pope and reiterate the new arrival's open-door leanings, Tuesday's church-shul meet-up in Gotham saw a joint prayer service take place in the Archbishop's Residence as cameras were let into the place for the first time in nearly a decade.

The rabbis wore their zucchetti... the bishops didn't.

That is, Keeler excepted.

Not even a month into tenth archbishop's tenure, the gathering followed up Dolan's presence at an interfaith seder for Passover sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League and well-received remarks at the city's annual service for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Sure, he might've ended up well north of Maryland... but clad at the latter event in a simple black cassock, rochet, zucchetto and violet stole -- and in a Lutheran church, to boot -- +New York evoked no less a Baltimorean than James Gibbons himself.

Just a little less patrician-looking, of course.

PHOTOS: Gregory Shemitz/3VPhoto