Cardinal William Henry Keeler, the 14th Archbishop of Baltimore, is remembered by friends and associates as a man of great integrity and compassion who was pivotal in establishing strong relationships between the Jewish and Catholic communities.
Keeler died at age 86 on March 23 at St. Martin’s House for the Aged in Catonsville, according to the Archdiocese. A well-attended funeral service was held March 28 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in the United States.
“It’s a tragic loss, not only for the citizens of the state and Catholics everywhere, but also for the Jewish community and especially for the Jewish community in Baltimore,” said Art Abramson, former longtime head of the Baltimore Jewish Council who worked alongside Keeler on many issues and counted him as a friend.
Keeler served as archbishop in Baltimore from 1989 to 2007, was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1992 and was elevated to the College of Cardinals in 1994. He was a leader of the faith because he lived it, said Bishop Denis J. Madden of the Archdiocese, a friend.
“He did what he was suggesting the rest of us do,” Madden added, pointing to the first time he met Keeler, back when the latter was the bishop of Harrisburg, Pa., and had to wait because Keeler was praying.
His time as archbishop is especially noted for his work in interfaith relations, and he established close working relationships with both local and national Jewish leaders. Both the BJC and Anti-Defamation League released statements mourning the passing of Keeler.
“The deep and meaningful relationship that Cardinal Keeler developed with Baltimore’s Jewish community earned him much respect and admiration,” read the BJC’s statement. “He was a genuine friend of the Jewish community, and his work built a foundation for future leaders of the Archdiocese and future leaders of the Jewish community.”
The ADL echoed that sentiment.
“Cardinal Keeler was at the epicenter of the transformation of Catholic-Jewish relations over many decades,” said ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt in a prepared statement. “He will be greatly missed for his efforts in building bridges of respect and understanding between faith communities.”
He truly enjoyed his interfaith work and was a key influence in helping fellow Catholics realize how their actions and language affected their fellow Jewish citizens, Madden said.
“I sensed early on that it wasn’t that [interfaith relations] was the cool thing to do but that he genuinely wanted to be involved,” he said.
Abramson said he and Keeler became each other’s go-to coalition partners, especially when it came to lobbying the legislature for issues they agreed on.
“I always used to say this when we would lobby in Annapolis that when the Jewish community and the Catholic community were together and we had the significant ability to lobby heavily on those issues, it was very tough to defeat us,” Abramson said.
Beyond his interfaith work, Keeler was known for raising tens of millions of dollars for the local Catholic schools and the restoration of the Basilica, which was completed under his watch in 2006. He also was the first bishop to release the names of local priests who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse after the scandal broke in the early 2000s, a move that took great moral courage, Madden said, and for which he was both widely praised and criticized at the time.
Keeler was born in San
Antonio, attending Catholic schools and becoming an Eagle Scout and was ordained as a priest in 1955. He would accompany Bishop George Leech of Harrisburg to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which aimed at modernizing the church before later becoming the seventh bishop of Harrisburg in 1984 prior to his time as Archbishop of Baltimore, the country’s oldest Archdiocese.
Most obituaries since his death note him as a moderate presence within the church, taking the church’s hard line against abortion and same-sex marriage, but also an advocate for those in poverty, healthcare and immigration.
His accomplishments may be numerous, but here in Baltimore, many are just mourning the loss of a friend.
“He was very much, in many ways, my Catholic rabbi,” Abramson said. “He was just a very special person.”