There were many titles on the résumé of the late Cardinal William Keeler, but “first and foremost was a faithful servant to God and his Church,” Father Paul Helwig said during a Month’s Mind Mass on April 23 to remember the cardinal.
The custom remembers the faithful departed a month after their passing from this world. The liturgy was celebrated by Bishop Ronald Gainer at St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg, and gave thanks to God for the life and ministry of Cardinal Keeler, who served as priest and bishop in the Diocese of Harrisburg before his appointment as Archbishop of Baltimore in 1989.
Though Cardinal Keeler, who was elevated to the College of Cardinals in 1994, hadn’t served in the Diocese of Harrisburg for some 28 years following his departure for Baltimore, he is well and fondly remembered by many here.
“I could always tell how holy he was whenever I was in his presence. He called all of us to be the same,” Karen Balaban told The Catholic Witness.
She and her sister, Beth, longtime friends of Cardinal Keeler, served as lectors at the Mass.
They fondly recalled momentous occasions they spent with him, including a trip to the Eucharistic Congress in Kenya in 1985; and to Rome for his installation as a cardinal in 1994, as well as for the beatification of St. Teresa of Calcutta in 2003.
“It was very thrilling to accompany him on pilgrimages and have him lead us to various sites where he knew so much about their history,” said Beth. “He was a priest of the people. When we walked around the Vatican, everyone knew who he was. Often because of that, he could give us special tours.”
During a visit to the Sistine Chapel, for example, Cardinal Keeler took the group to pray in the chapel where cardinals pray during a conclave.
“We were extremely fortunate to be there. He wanted us to have that experience, and what a gift it was,” Beth said.
“He had tens of thousands of friends,” Karen said. “Everybody had a connection with him. You’d have to almost try hard to not have a connection with him.”
In his homily for the Mass, celebrated on Divine Mercy Sunday, Father Helwig spoke of the three personages connected to the day’s liturgy: St. Thomas – presented in the day’s Gospel – the apostle who remained unconvinced of Jesus’ Resurrection until he touched the Lord’s wounds; St. Faustina Kowalska, to whom Jesus appeared in the image of his Divine Mercy; and Cardinal Keeler, who Father Helwig recalled as a “mild-mannered man who was unquestionably dedicated to God and the Catholic Church.”
“In the center for all of them stood Jesus, their source of strength and inspiration,” said Father Helwig, who once served as then-Bishop Keeler’s master of ceremonies. He is now pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Harrisburg.
While Cardinal Keeler never had a physical experience with Jesus as St. Thomas did, or a mystical experience as St. Faustina did, he “committed himself to follow Jesus and accepted the Lord’s call to serve him and his Church with his life,” Father Helwig said.
The day’s Mass, he remarked, presents us the opportunity to offer three acclimations: “An acclimation of faith from Thomas: ‘My Lord, My God!’ An acclimation of hope from St. Faustina: ‘Jesus, I trust in you.’
“With Cardinal Keeler, it’s not a one-line verse that comes forward,” Father Helwig continued, “but a life of dedication and service to God and the Body of Christ, the Church, which evokes a grateful prayer that moves us all to say, ‘Eternal rest, grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.’”
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness