With a keen interest in promoting pro-life, education and social justice, Cardinal Keeler was active in the legislative process. Former chairman of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference when he was bishop of Harrisburg, he took on a similar role in Baltimore as chairman of the Maryland Catholic Conference, the Annapolis-based legislative lobbying arm of the state’s bishops.
The cardinal met with mayors and governors wrote letters to lawmakers and worked behind the scenes to advance initiatives such as funding for non-religious textbooks and technology in the state’s nonpublic schools.
Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, described Cardinal Keeler as an “extraordinary” diplomat.
“He had an amazing skill to be able to promote the principles that the church upholds – especially the value of life – in an appealing, convincing, yet firm, manner,” Russell said.
Cardinal Keeler met and prayed with convicted murderer Wesley Eugene Baker on death row in 2005, using the dramatic visit to call on then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to spare Baker’s life.
Speaking to reporters outside Maryland’s Supermax prison in Baltimore moments after meeting with Baker, Cardinal Keeler said he and other bishops were compelled to plead for mercy because of the Catholic Church’s respect for the sanctity of all human life.
The plea was ignored and Baker was executed one week after the cardinal prayed with him.
Russell said the cardinal tried to live his motto, “Do the work of an evangelist,” “by conveying the appeal and the beauty of the Gospel message through his words and actions.”
Cardinal Keeler was elected president of what is today known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Nov. 17, 1992, after serving three years as vice president.
Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, in a 2005 interview with the Catholic Review, remembered that Cardinal Keeler did not come to his leadership post with his own agenda.
“That’s not the president’s job,” said Archbishop Pilarczyk, who was president of the bishops’ conference during the time Cardinal Keeler was vice president. “The job is to get the bishops’ business done. Under his leadership, you got the work done. There was no messing around.”
During his three-year tenure as president, Cardinal Keeler laid the foundations for dealing with priest sexual abuse by forming an ad hoc committee to deal not only with priest sexual abuse, but to address sexual abuse throughout society.
Cardinal Keeler also joined two other Catholic prelates in meeting with President Bill Clinton in 1993. He won an apology from Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders for remarks on a television interview in which she dismissed the Catholic position on abortion as that of a “celibate and male-dominated church.” He also asked fellow bishops to take up a special collection for relief efforts in Central and Eastern Africa and spoke out in support of interfaith understanding and against abortion.
He became a mentor to future bishops such as Wilmington Bishop W. Francis Malooly, former auxiliary bishop of Baltimore.
“I was always learning from him,” Bishop Malooly said. “I was struck by how thoughtful he was. For someone who was involved in so many things locally, nationally and internationally, he always took time to be conscious of the people around him.”
Cardinal Keeler served as president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, chairman of the board of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, co-chairman of the Religious Alliance Against Pornography; member of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East; and member of the bishops’ Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians.
In standing up for the sanctity of life, the cardinal began what was then known as Project Rachel, a post-abortion ministry, in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and his former Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa. He also supported the Gabriel Network, which provides assistance to women facing crisis pregnancies and their children, and served two terms as chairman of the bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities, most recently in 2003-06.
In a 2005 homily at the Vigil Mass for the March for Life in Washington, D.C., Cardinal Keeler said Americans are increasingly becoming aware “of the vast network of lies that have been spun and fortified to sustain the illusion that abortion is somehow a good, or at least a morally neutral procedure; that it is a standard part of health care and family planning; that it is a proper exercise of a woman’s freedom; that it is a solution to intractable social problems.”
It is, he said, none of those things.
“What it is,” Cardinal Keeler said, “is an unfettered right to take an innocent, human life from the mother’s womb.”
This is an excerpt from the Catholic Review obituary on Cardinal Keeler by George P. Matysek Jr. For the complete article, click here.