n the annals of the Premier See of these United States, two figures form the center of a legend born alongside the Constitution.
Yet even for all John Carroll and James Gibbons would bequeath to posterity, it would fall to another to bring the Maryland Tradition of American Catholicism into the 21st century. And this morning, the cleric who made that mission his own has been called to his rest.
The only man ever to wear both the badge of an Eagle Scout and the scarlet of a Roman prince, William Henry Keeler – 14th archbishop of Baltimore, ninth President of the nation’s bench, only the third of Carroll’s heirs to be raised to the papal Senate – died overnight at 86
after a long, gradual illness.
Named to Charm City in 1989 – amid the 200th anniversary of the nation’s founding diocese – Keeler’s two-decade tenure at the helm of the Birdland fold didn’t merely burnish the crown jewel he inherited, but served to achieve some history of its own. Above all else, the cardinal brought a Pope to the Calverts' colony, as now-St John Paul II celebrated Mass at Camden Yards and lunched with the homeless at Our Daily Bread on the lone sunny day of his final Stateside tour in 1995. And at his ministry's end, only after a sound footing for the archdiocese’s schools and charities was ensured through over $100 million in fundraising, the third cardinal pursued his long-desired legacy project, restoring the nation’s first cathedral – the Basilica of the Assumption – to the simple splendor with which it was conceived, stripping away a century’s worth of darkness to the recapture the vision Carroll hatched with Benjamin Latrobe: Catholicism's tribute in stone to the American experiment of religious freedom, a dream fused together in light.
A son of Harrisburg and Philadelphia ordained first in his class in 1955, the future cardinal attracted early notice on the Roman scene, so much so that, as a student-priest, he was dubbed “Ruby Keeler” given the shoes that went with the red hat in that era. Not even ten years in, Keeler would have his first brush with the spotlight during the Second Vatican Council as the secretary who led the daily English-language press briefings, a heady task given the involvement of 2,500 bishops and the Council's business being conducted entirely in Latin. Despite being almost painfully shy – a trait that expressed itself in a soft-spoken and dignified reserve – the experience birthed a driven interest in and support of the press which would remain for the rest of his life.
The lone prelate to lead the nation's hierarchy both by prerogative of place
as well as through election – likewise the first conference president to be given the red hat while at the bench's helm – the Keeler legacy on the broad stage is most intimately linked to another lifelong commitment: interfaith relations, above all with the Jewish community.
Having remained the church's lead figure on the national Catholic-Jewish dialogue well into his retirement, it was at Keeler's behest that, in the 1990s, John Paul conferred the first papal knighthoods on non-Catholics, to two rabbis who were the cardinal's counterparts in the effort. Such was the prelate's devotion to the cause that – even for an adherence to history that could border on the fanatical – Keeler shirked the almost sacred 19th century aesthetics of the "Gibbons Room" of the Archbishop's Residence on Charles Street to place one modern item within it: a menorah strikingly sculpted with six human figures, each one representing a million Jews killed during the Holocaust.
As with every prelate of his generation, Keeler's greatest challenge at home erupted in 2002 with the national revelations of clergy sex-abuse and cover-up. Yet while the storm placed an eternal cloud over several of his fellow cardinals and a host of other prelates, the unique response from Baltimore quickly made the scandals a local afterthought.
In a marked contrast to most places, where prosecutors or plaintiffs’ attorneys resorted to legal force to attain disclosures from the Chanceries, Keeler ordered the publication of the archdiocese's complete record of accused priests – a list of 57 names, their assignments, and the dates and nature of the alleged misconduct, all of it stretching back to the 1950s.
For much of the Baltimore presbyterate, the revelation – especially the list’s inclusion of the dead – proved an unforgiveable act of betrayal by their archbishop, who nonetheless remained unswayed in his conviction that it was “the right thing to do.” Almost 15 years later, his archdiocese spared the tide of charges, litigation and distrust which would devastate much of the East, the wisdom of the act almost speaks for itself… and in the eyes of those closest to the cardinal, his move to publish remains “his finest hour.”
All these aspects, however – the commitment to transparency and dialogue, the sense of history and community – are merely parts of a piece, its core found in the golden thread Keeler viewed as his unique treasure not merely to guard, but to revive for a new age.
As crafted by Carroll and reborn under Gibbons, the Maryland Tradition of Catholicism was forged as a leavening model of the church’s presence in American society: a distinctly home-grown and confident counter to the importing of Europe’s heavily-encrusted ecclesiology, all of whose variations failed to reflect the circumstances of a pluralistic society in formation an ocean away. In its vision, the American concept of freedom represented no threat to the faith, but a priceless gift, and the free institutions of state, press and religion were likewise no adversary, but partners for the common good, a goal which demands the church’s best contribution for the flourishing of all.
In a moment when both the civil and ecclesial order find themselves gravely challenged by breakdowns of trust and outbursts of selfishness – and, indeed, the very freedoms and promise that define this nation find themselves under siege – it could be said that the lessons of America’s founding fold provide an ideal antidote. And if the departure of the greatest champion of this heritage might bring about a return to learning and heeding its hard-won lessons, for the man, his dying breath would be worth it.
In any case, one lasting legacy on the national front still comes to the fore every year: on what would be the morning of the 9/11 attacks, during the USCCB's September Administrative Committee session in Washington, Keeler – then on his second stint as the bench's chair for Pro-Life Activities – proposed that the November meeting be moved from the capital back to Baltimore, where the collegial governance of the nation's church (and, by extension, the entire concept of an episcopal conference) saw its inception more than a century earlier with the annual gathering of the archbishops.
Initially envisioned as a temporary gesture when the move was approved, the Fall Plenary hasn't returned to Washington since.
Never one to express emotion publicly – even after surviving a 2006 car accident that claimed the life of his best friend, and whose injuries kept him from his most cherished goal – the warm soul behind those steely blue eyes nevertheless had its ways of reaching out. Simply put, you knew Keeler’s affection when it was made clear that he wanted you close by... and just as being successor of John Carroll in Baltimore was the greatest love of his life, he had the self-awareness to know where he fell short.
Accordingly, it is a testament that the auxiliaries he chose – Fran Malooly, Mitch Rozanski, and Denis Madden – each were and remain more cherished than the other among the locals. And as a wider affirmation of what they learned at his side, it is no accident that the latter two have been chosen in turn to lead the US bishops’ arm for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, all the more that the votes were taken without the cardinal in the room... nor, indeed, likely aware that it was even happening.
Of course, all this is the life of the church in its living stones. Still, for a figure who became almost as much a part of Baltimore as Old Bay and the Orioles – or, these days, Under Armour – despite hailing from outside, for the 14th archbishop, his crowning joy was reclaiming the temple which had been built to serve as the symbol of the Catholic presence on these shores, a holy place which had fallen on hard times.
In the late 1990s, the city's resurgence underway with the development of the Harbor and building of Camden Yards, that new spirit had yet to make it up the hill to Carroll's cathedral. At its lowest point in those days, an attempted robbery of a homeless man ended with the victim's fatal stabbing on the basilica's front portico.
Given the prevailing mood of the time, a push for a $30 million restoration was widely panned within the archdiocese as a needless extravagance or the manifestation of an "edifice complex." Yet again, though, Keeler would prove immovable in the face of opposition, and when the finished product was previewed to the locals days before its rededication, another round of begrudging admissions that "he was right" only added to his serene satisfaction in the moment. And for the kicker, the basilica project ended up jump-starting the revival of its Mount Vernon neighborhood, transforming the area into an urban hub again bursting with life.
Upon the cardinal's retirement a year later, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that Keeler couldn't bear to leave American Catholicism's equivalent to the White House, and so he didn't; ever the gracious sort, the incoming archbishop, Edwin O'Brien, honored his predecessor's wishes by holing up in an apartment across town owned by the Sulpicians.
Yet even as he handed over the reins of Cathedral Street, the cardinal's eye for the long sweep of history pulled off one final stroke for the future: asked by O'Brien to select his priest-secretary in advance of his arrival, Keeler plucked a certain 35 year-old from his first pastorate
for the job. Having become indispensable to the two archbishops since, the foresight of that call came full circle in January as Adam Parker, at 45, was ordained the youngest bishop
in a Stateside diocese and the first to be born in the 1970s – the same decade that Msgr William Keeler, then likewise a priest-secretary in his 40s, became a bishop himself.
For all the shimmering grandeur of American Catholicism's mother-church, to cross the footbridge from 408 N. Charles into the basilica always brings a sobering sight: on making their entry from their house into the nation's first cathedral, a century of archbishops have been faced with the crypt where Carroll and seven of his early successors are laid to rest.
Since the opening of the "New Cathedral" of Mary Our Queen in 1956, the bishops of the Premier See have all opted instead for the ample burial space there. That is, until now: in fulfillment of his last wish, late Tuesday afternoon Keeler will be interred beneath the basilica's High Altar, the first committal within its walls since Archbishop Michael Curley – the last Baltimore prelate whose territory included Washington – died in 1947.
The stone already chiseled out with an expansive Latin text in 19th century font, it is eminently fitting that Birdland's third cardinal will be placed next to its first: the celebrated Gibbons, the native son and citizen-prince he always yearned to imitate most.