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Remembering Cardinal Keeler: A Prince of the Church

Remembering Cardinal Keeler: A Prince of the Church

The world’s 224 Catholic cardinals are known as “Princes of the Church.”  That title always seemed particularly apt for Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, who passed away this morning.  He was indeed a Prince of the Church, and a prince among men.

Cardinal Keeler’s impact is manifest in his beloved Baltimore, where he led a remarkable restoration of the city’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and played a critical role in facilitating Pope John Paul II’s 1995 landmark visit to that city. 

Interfaith relations, especially the sometimes-fraught relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community, were a special passion of Cardinal Keeler’s. That was true from the beginning of his career, when he served as a peritus, or expert, at the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. Vatican II, as the landmark assembly was known, paved the intellectual path for the robust Catholic-Jewish dialogue we see around the country today.

It’s easy to recite the various titles Cardinal Keeler held – moderator of Catholic-Jewish Relations for the United States’ Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and president of the USCCB.   It’s harder, but no less important, to capture the energy and insight Cardinal Keeler brought to this vital work.

For many years, Cardinal Keeler hosted annual Catholic-Jewish interactions St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. It is a quiet place, but, when the cardinal was present, it was filled with joy.  Among my favorite memories of Cardinal Keeler was watching him walk the seminary grounds in the company of Jewish leaders, often the irrepressible Judith Hertz, z’l, who represented the Reform Movement.  The cardinal’s friendship with Judith always struck me as a model of what dialogue can be. Of course, Judith was a woman, and a lay person rather than a member of the clergy, but Cardinal Keeler not only welcomed her leadership, he rejoiced in it. 

His keen insights – and his powerful laugh – often filled a room.  He was serious about interreligious dialogue, but he did not hide the delight he found in such interactions. He was, if such a thing is possible, a haimish cardinal. (Haimish is a Yiddish word that, as David Brooks translates it, suggests warmth, domesticity, and unpretentious conviviality.)

Nonetheless, Cardinal Keeler was no pushover; our talks were not always easy.  But it was impossible not to be moved by the cardinal’s deep commitment to finding common ground and building bridges.

Mark J. Pelavin is the Chief Program Officer of the Union for Reform Judaism.  He served as Director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism, leading the work of North America’s largest Jewish denomination in building relationship with other faith communities.  He was a long-time participant in the official dialogue between the United States Catholic Conference and the National Council of Synagogues.

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