(RNS) Losing one’s friends to death is the price we must eventually pay for the gift of being alive, and last week I paid a steep one when Cardinal William H. Keeler, the 14th archbishop of Baltimore, died at age 86.
Laudatory obituaries noted the cardinal’s membership as a youth in the Boy Scout movement, where he met many Jewish and Protestant Scouts. The obituaries also recounted his 1955 ordination to the priesthood and his participation as a special adviser during the Second Vatican Council, when the world’s Catholic bishops overwhelmingly adopted the historic Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”) declaration that represented a revolutionary change in the church’s teachings toward Jews and Judaism.
Years later, Keeler was bishop of Harrisburg, Pa., and then in 1989 became archbishop of Baltimore, where he served until his retirement in 2007. He was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he served as the chief “point man” for improving Catholic-Jewish relations.
Such facts, of course, are necessary in any obituary, but facts alone cannot capture the essence of the man who was an extraordinary global leader in building human bridges of mutual respect and understanding between Roman Catholics and Jews.
That effort was a centerpiece of Keeler’s 62-year ministry. He carried out a series of vigorous programs and policies that included strong opposition to all forms of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. He also supported educational programs for both Catholic clergy and laity about the horrors of the Holocaust.
Even when there were flashpoints and controversies between Catholics and Jews, Keeler remained unflagging and zealous in solving and overcoming such difficulties and moving forward.
During our nearly 40 years of friendship, I led several interreligious missions with Keeler, including meetings with then-Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. We co-led trips to Israel, including a visit to a civilian bomb shelter, and a poignant painful pilgrimage to the infamous death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Sometimes public figures can seem distant and impersonal, but that was never the case with the always gracious and welcoming Keeler.
My wife recalls the times he called my home to discuss key Catholic-Jewish issues, “off the record” telephone calls made after official office hours. His opening words on those calls were always: “Hello, Marcia. This is Bill Keeler. Is Jim around? I need to speak with him.”
One of those issues arose 30 years ago when Pope John Paul II received Kurt Waldheim with full diplomatic honors at the Vatican. The Austrian president and former United Nations secretary-general was attempting to hide his ugly World War II record as a German officer in the Balkans, where, critics charged, he was involved in the mass murder of Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians.
As a result of his wartime record, our government had placed him on its watch list and barred Waldheim from entry into the United States. The warm Vatican welcome for Waldheim displeased many Jewish and Catholic leaders, including Keeler. The cardinal was a leader in the efforts to resolve the controversy — efforts that culminated with a conciliatory papal address to American Jewish leaders in Miami in 1987.
Marcia and I warmly remember a 1998 audience with the pope in Rome when she was suffering an acute stomach ailment. She worried about the possibility she might have to vomit at the very moment when Keeler introduced her to the pope.
But as always, the smiling archbishop was most comforting: “Marcia, I can assure you the Holy Father would not mind or be upset if that were to happen. He once had a man die in his arms. Please do not worry.”
The cardinal’s words were most reassuring. Happily, nothing untoward happened, but the vivid remembrance of Cardinal Keeler’s genuine sense of friendship and humanity will always remain with both Marcia and me.
On Tuesday (March 28), a funeral Mass was to be held for Keeler at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore’s Homeland neighborhood. The world has lost a gifted and energetic man who loved his church and dedicated his life to Catholic-Jewish reconciliation and authentic dialogue. But I have lost a loving friend and a trusted colleague.
(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. His latest book is “Pillar of Fire: The Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” published by Texas Tech University Press. He can be reached at jamesrudin.com)