Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Gang's All Here

Greetings from the Big Dance.

There was no small amount of "Oohs" and "Aahs" from the bishops of the United States earlier tonight as they returned to the first home of American episcopal gatherings, the restored Baltimore Basilica. And they didn't even get to see it in the daylight. (By the by, the mother-cathedral made it onto NPR earlier today.)

In his first walk down the aisle of his pride and joy, Cardinal William Keeler was greeted with a rousing and thorough ovation during the processional, but the first of several through the course of the almost two-hour long liturgy, which began late as the buses of hierarchs didn't arrive on time. Despite the delay, as one bishop noted, the members of the USCCB "didn't get this kind of treatment in Washington," with full police motorcycle escorts and other such trappings of welcome.

With a first impression like that, who knows? The November Meeting might've just come home to stay.

While local boy done good Cardinal James Francis Stafford, the papal legate to the celebrations of the last week, served as principal celebrant of tonight's liturgy and occupied the cathedra, Keeler -- vested in the metropolitan's pallium -- served as homilist, greeter and offered post-communion remarks. The lovefest of the two cardinals of the Premier See continued as Stafford, referring to the 1858 decree of the Holy See granting this first archdiocese "prerogative of place" in the US church, said that Keeler enjoyed not only the honor born of seniority, but a "prerogative of esteem" among his people.

Quoting a Baltimore layperson, the major penitentiary said this was due to Keeler's preeminence as "the kindest, gentlest soul in the archdiocese." And another standing ovation was had.

The 13th successor of John Carroll responded in kind, that the city was "thrilled" to have its native son return to perform the dedication rites, and expressing his gratitude to Stafford -- who served as auxiliary bishop of Baltimore from 1976-82 -- for having taught him even more about the history of the archdiocese in the last week.

As those who know Keeler are well-aware of his affinity for things historical -- yet again, he donned Carroll's pectoral cross for tonight's Mass -- hearing more of the story clearly meant a lot.

In his homily -- delivered from a portable ambo given his continued difficulty with steps -- the cardinal-archbishop offered what sounded conspicuously like a farewell address to the conference he led from 1992-95. The end of this week's bishops' meeting and the completion of the basilica project will augur the beginning of what one ranking Baltimorean termed the "retirement watch" for the 75 year-old prelate.

Citing the generosity of the widow in today's Gospel, Keeler said that her "generosity... is merely a shadow of the generosity of Christ himself.... It is this sacrifice which gives life to the Church; it is this sacrifice we celebrate in the Eucharist," enumerating all the works into which that sacrifice flows.

"Being together again in this Basilica -- newly returned to an ancient glory," the cardinal noted that the venue impelled his confreres "to be mindful of the responsibilities facing us as we too chart a course for the future of our Church." Toward the Mass' end, he noted that he first broached the idea of moving the USCCB's fall plenary to Baltimore on the morning of September 11, 2001, not long before the administrative committee meeting in Washington received the news of the attack on the World Trade Center.

There was, however, one gaffe in the midst of eloquence. Intending to acknowledge the presence of his predecessor, 93 year-old Archbishop William Donald Borders, Keeler referred to him as "William Donald Schaefer" -- the Democratic governor of Maryland from 1987-95, who's retiring from public service at age 85 after two terms as the Free State's comptroller.

Catching himself, Keeler corrected, "It's not Schaefer -- it's Borders!" From his seat alongside apostolic nuncio Archbishop Pietro Sambi and USCCB president Bishop William Skylstad, the 13th archbishop (who also got quite the ovation) appeared quite amused.

Of all the events since last Saturday's grand reopening, tonight's ticket was said to be the toughest to get. The sanctuary of the 880-seat shrine was limited to but a select few bishops alongside all the archbishops and cardinals, with the rest of the prelate-concelebrants -- including Auxiliary Bishops-elect John Dooher and Robert Hennessey of Boston and Daniel Flores of Detroit -- filling almost half of one side of the nave.

Aided by a cane, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York made his first public appearance since an early September knee-replacement, and Cardinal Francis George of Chicago -- the conference's vice-president -- made his first national appearance since his July surgery to remove a cancerous bladder and a portion of his ureter. Many of the bishops of the West Coast are still to arrive, but Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles was present to take his place among the US' princes of the church.

While this evening was beautiful, the business -- and the fun -- kick into high gear at mid-morning. Stay tuned.

AP/Chris Gardner