Book Reviews Subscribe Faith-filled Family Links for Learners Ask a Franciscan Editorial Entertainment Watch Saints for Our Lives Contents

Vatican II at 35: An Interview With Cardinal William Keeler

Photo by Christopher Gaul, Courtesy of The Catholic Review

As a young priest he was a media adviser at Vatican II. He went on to become a bishop, a cardinal and a world leader in ecumenism. Here's his Vatican II progress report.

By John Bookser Feister

Hear audio clips of Cardinal Keeler on the state of ecumenism today and the recent Vatican document Dominus Iesus.


Up Close at Vatican II

Reunion of East and West?

Culture Wars

Ask what happened at Vatican II and youíll get any number of answers. The liturgy was reformed in a dramatic way. The Church adopted Blessed Pope Johnís new stance of openness toward the world. The Church accepted a renewed approach to sacred Scripture. We Catholics quit talking about heretics and started talking Christian unity and even interfaith dialogue. The unfinished business of Trent—the role of bishops—was taken up and bishopsí conferences emerged. Laity were no longer to be considered less holy than clergy. Religious were encouraged to go back to the wisdom of their founders.

Move the clock up 35 years. How has the Church received Vatican II? Itís said three generations are required for a Church council to be implemented: the generation alive when it happened, those who learned of it firsthand from them (parents, teachers, etc.), and those raised with no direct contact with that council.

If thatís true, we are still in the early years for Vatican II (1962-1965). December 8, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, marks the 35th anniversary of its close. Many of those who influenced the Council have died (Popes John and Paul, cardinals such as Suenens, Bea, Ottaviani, theologians such as Karl Rahner, John Courtney Murray, Yves Congar). Many others who attended the Council—influential or not—remain and continue to contribute to the Councilís reforms.

Everyone knows itís been a bumpy road and that, in recent years, there has been renewed discussion about what really were the intentions of the Council Fathers.

Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore talks about Vatican II firsthand. As a young priest, he served as a peritus (expert adviser) at the Council, helping translate summaries of daily proceedings into English and helping to conduct news conferences for the English-speaking media.

His career since then has been remarkable: A year ago he marked five years as cardinal, 10 years as archbishop of Baltimore and 20 years as bishop (he served for a decade in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). From 1992 to 1995 he was president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB).

Vatican II set the stage for Cardinal Keeler. The centrist bishop has been an international leader in ecumenism and Jewish-Christian dialogue, in addition to leading an archdiocese of about a half million Catholics. He serves on the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. He has been a key player in the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue since 1986, and also in Catholic-Jewish relations.

Some would say that his commitment to interfaith and ecumenical relations goes back to the Council, where he reported the debates on ecumenism and witnessed, the day before the Councilís official close, the historic move by Pope Paul VI to begin mending a 1,000-year-old separation between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. But Cardinal Keeler says his belief in the value of dialogue goes all the way back to his Boy Scout days, where the Distinguished Eagle Scout learned ecumenism at summer camp.

St. Anthony Messenger recently interviewed Cardinal Keeler in his downtown Baltimore offices about the impact of Vatican II, with a follow-up phone interview. His simply decorated conference room was accented with two memorable artworks that speak to his priorities: one a strikingly original crucifix; the other a dramatic news photograph of the smiling, vested cardinal racing forward, reaching out broadly to embrace Pope John Paul II during the 1995 papal Mass at Baltimoreís Camden Yards.

During the interview we shared the corner of a conference table—he was obviously relaxed and eager to talk about Vatican IIís ongoing effect, its areas of highest impact and the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue that flowed from the Council. Our interview ended when he was whisked off to a Jewish awards luncheon, where he would receive yet further recognition for his role as reconciler between Christians and Jews.

Up Close at Vatican II

St. Anthony Messenger: How did you become a peritus at Vatican II?
Cardinal Keeler: My bishop, George L. Leech of Harrisburg, took me along as his secretary but he said, ďMake yourself as useful as possible,Ē because secretarial duties didnít take up the whole day.

For the first period of the Council in 1962, I was invited to serve on the press panel that met each day with the reporters of the English-speaking press, sponsored by the U.S. bishops. The other people on the panel were truly expert. I had just finished canon law the year before, so I was there as a canonical resource person. Most of the questions in 1962 were directed, for example, to the specialist on liturgy, or to Church historian Msgr. Robert Trisco, who were part of the panel.

It was a great education for me about the kinds of questions reporters asked. Almost none of them had any background in reporting events of religious significance.

Messenger: You were involved in a publishing project, too, right?
Keeler: During the second, third and fourth periods, I was invited to serve with four or five other priests in taking notes each day on the speeches that were given in the Council hall. After the Council session we would immediately type these up on stencils for duplication. By evening all of the English-speaking bishops who wanted our service would have English summaries of each of the talks and announcements given that day in the Council hall, generally in Latin, but a few in French.

I think it was a real service for the bishops, and not only of our country. By the end of a week or two, we had something like 900 bishops subscribing to our service. On one side it said, Council Digest, and on the other side it said, ďsub secretoĒ—it was not for publication. But Iíd see it quoted.

Messenger: What do you think was Vatican IIís most significant accomplishment?
Keeler: Sixteen documents were produced; the one that had the most instant visible impact was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Its initial impact, especially of moving into the language of the people, was in general positively received.

Iíve given probably hundreds of talks on the Council and a significant number of the questions that I have received are based on misimpressions, wrong information given in articles that were written about the Council. The misimpressions given by poor media reports touched clergy as well as laypeople. Explanations given at the time of changes were inadequate sometimes. In more recent years the liturgical approaches I see in the parishes here have been very deeply felt and effective.

Before the 1985 World Synod of Bishops, on the theme of Vatican IIís implementation, we had meetings in the Harrisburg Diocese about the perceptions of people on the Council and where we were going. The liturgy was very well received. What had happened with ecumenical relationships was seen as something very positive.

What was not really seen or implemented or fulfilled was an understanding of the documents on the Church [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and The Church Today], which were the most fundamental documents of the Council along with the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. In fact, recent surveys show that Catholics know less about the Scriptures than they did before the Council.

Messenger: Even today?
Keeler: Even today. Iím just telling you what Scripture people tell me about their surveys. Itís a wonderful thing having small groups study Scripture—which I certainly encourage. But in terms of instruction in schools, etc., and familiarity with the Scriptures, I am told that thereís significantly less today compared to before the Council.

Messenger: That seems to go against the common notion that Catholics are more familiar with Scripture than they used to be.
Keeler: Youíve got some who are qualitatively much better off in their knowledge and understanding of Scripture, but you have a great number of people who are qualitatively worse off because of their ignorance of it.

Messenger: Whatís your sense of the liturgical reforms today?
Keeler: At the 1985 synod there was a fear that the sense of the transcendent was being lost in the celebration of the liturgy, that we needed to have a corrective. For example, the periods of silence that were urged by the Council were not being observed. Now thatís not to say we have to have silence at every liturgy. But from time to time there should be silence.

Part of the implementation of Vatican IIís liturgy reforms meant also having a deepened sense of the sacred, of the transcendent, of the God-presence in our worship. In many places in the United States and in other parts of the world, too, there was a perception in the 1985 synod that a shallowness had come in. Now I see more frequently a period of silence, reflection and prayer after Communion.

Messenger: There was some concern expressed at that synod about people losing their knowledge of Catholic faith, too.
Keeler: With respect to the doctrinal issues and that sense of fuzziness, there was enormous support for Cardinal Lawís suggestion for a catechism of the Catholic Church that would integrate the conciliar insights with those of Catholic teaching that went before. The synod endorsed this and now we have the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I think it has already done a great deal to help those who want to become more familiar with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

Reunion of East and West?

Messenger: Youíve been described as an adviser to Pope John Paul II on ecumenism. How is that so?
Keeler: I donít sit down personally to talk to him about this. For many years I was the only U.S. bishop on the commission for dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Thatís the biggest bilateral dialogue that there is. Iíve been on the commission since 1986. My role there is to speak as the bishop of a diocese and how the decisions we might reach would impact our people in a diocese in the United States.

Messenger: Vatican II, in the Decree on Ecumenism and in the Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, helped us rethink our relationship with Eastern Christianity. Now the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue has been following an agreed-upon agenda since the early 1980s. How is it progressing?
Keeler: They projected a variety of topics, beginning with ones on which they thought it would be easier to achieve agreement. It began with the Eucharist and unity, and then went to the sacraments of initiation, then went to Holy Orders. In 1998 in Finland we issued a beautiful joint statement on Holy Orders and apostolic succession.

In 1990, in Germany, we were to talk about collegiality and the structures of synods, councils and so on, but the Orthodox would talk only about the reemergence of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The issue arose because, with the collapse of Communism in í89 and í90, our Catholic Churches of the East reemerged and in some places like Ukraine, reclaimed the churches that had been taken from them, and in some cases given to the Orthodox. This reclaiming was very upsetting to the established Orthodox Churches. That occupied the talks in Balamond, Lebanon, in 1993 also. Then the talks discontinued until this year.

Messenger: What was the most significant development this year?
Keeler: First of all, we had nobody walking out, as has occurred in other dialogue meetings.

Second, we had our public observances in ways that were edifying to the people. They enabled the dialogue participants to see the support that American Catholics and Orthodox, the faithful and the clergy of both Churches, offer to the coming together of Catholics and Orthodox.

Catholic and Orthodox pilgrims came from this region to services at the Basilica of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, in Emmitsburg [Maryland], to show their support and prayer for the work of the dialogue. An Orthodox icon of Our Lady had been provided from a church in Sitka, Alaska. That was set up in a separate chapel, and through most of the dialogue there was almost a constant stream of people praying in front of the icon—Catholics, Orthodox, Eastern Catholics. That helped the atmosphere.

The most positive thing I saw in this meeting was the presence of Romanian Orthodox and Romanian Eastern Catholics, who have started working together in Romania.

Messenger: Is there hope for progress on the question of the primacy of the pope, namely, that the Bishop of Rome has primary authority in the governance of the Church?
Keeler: I think so, but itís not going to be tomorrow. The next step really is what occurs on November 30, 2000, when the delegation from the Holy See, to be led by Cardinal Edward Cassidy, visits Istanbul and meets with the Ecumenical Patriarch and with the Holy Synodís committee dealing with relationships with our Church. What happens there will signal to us how fast we may be able to move forward.

Messenger: Sounds as if you ran into a roadblock again on the Eastern Catholic Churches, though.
Keeler: We thought the issue had been fully addressed in 1993, but what we learned was that six of the Orthodox Churches that did not attend that Balamond dialogue, including the important Orthodox Church of Greece, never accepted the agreements and criticized the participants for it. So we just werenít able to reach an agreement in Baltimore on the proper place of Eastern Catholic Churches. An agreement would have been wonderful, but I was not surprised.

The key issue, and the next item on our agreed-upon theological agenda, is collegiality and the apostolic succession. This will involve a discussion of such institutes as synods, ecumenical councils, provincial councils, plenary councils and, for us, conferences of bishopsóhow the responsibilities conferred through the apostolic succession are worked out canonically by bishops cooperating among themselves.

After that, the next topic will be the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. Really, the issue of the Eastern Catholic Churches relates very closely to the issue of the primacy, and the fact that these recognize the primacy of the successor of Peter, and that we recognize them as authentic Churches, particular Churches in communion with us and with Peter.

Culture Wars

Messenger: Some have said that in recent years thereís been a counterattack on Vatican II on the part of the Roman Curia. How would you assess the current state of collegiality in the Church?
Keeler: I can say itís working well in some ways. For example, I was involved in the preparation of several visits of the Holy Father to the United States. There was marvelous openness and mutual help. I think the Synods of Bishops have been signs of both progress and collegiality, but also of the need to do some more development of that synodal structure.

When you realize that the heads of all but three of the dicasteries [judicial bodies such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] of the Holy See are now people from countries other than Italy, there is a much vaster pool of experience in pastoral wisdom being brought on by the Holy See in the development of policies. I donít think people appreciate how much has been delegated to conferences of bishops and individual bishops that once was reserved to Rome. Thereís a tendency to look only at one or another of the most sensitive points.

A few years ago a document came out from the Congregation of Bishops on the role of conferences of bishops. That day I was interviewed by The New York Times, and I was able to say thereís nothing surprising; in fact, thereís a very strong affirmation of the role of conferences that we didnít have before, an official affirmation that the conference has a teaching role. The fact that whatever we teach would go before the Holy See for confirmation was no different from past practice. So there was nothing astonishing in it.

Yet weíre still picking up pieces from that story which represented the document as repressive and a step back when actually it was confirming the teaching role for bishopsí conferences. It gave a bigger platform and more clarity than anything weíd had before.

Messenger: What do you make of the pessimistic talk about ecumenism in recent years?
Keeler: There was a heady part to what happened in the late 60s but I can remember realizing from the very beginning of participating in theological discussions that we had to do so much more.

Messenger: Is it a hopeful time for ecumenism now?
Keeler: Iíd say itís an extremely hopeful time for what we might call ecumenism dealing with social-justice issues. Thatís where the most is happening right now in communitiesócertainly itís happening all over this city with the pastors of local churches and congregations working together to address problems in their neighborhoods. That is a very practical effort that is nothing short of ecumenism because theyíre doing it on a faith basis.

Theological ecumenism is happening in more restricted circles, but it always has. We do have some real theological dialogue going ahead, perhaps more now than weíve had at any time. All we have to do is talk to our NCCB office on ecumenism to see all the standing dialogues we have. We have more in the United States than anyplace else in the world.

Messenger: This past September, not too long after your Baltimore Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, we got the statement Dominus Iesus from Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Many called it a blow to Vatican II ecumenism. Do you think it was?
Keeler: It certainly wasnít intended to be. I happened to be there at the Vatican press conference. What I read in the papers was very different from what Cardinal Ratzinger said in the press conference. A copy of the document had been leaked a week earlier in London and reporters were taking cues from reactions in England.

The questions they asked Cardinal Ratzinger were really not helpful questions. They were the type, ďAre you still doing evil?Ē rather than, ďWhat does this document really mean?Ē

He made it very clear that the Catholic Church still sees herself as a Church of sinners. He paraphrased what the Council said in the Decree on Ecumenism, saying that the structures of the Church, insofar as they are human, need constant purification and updating in light of the Scriptures with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He spoke with enormous sympathy for both the ecumenical movement and the religious work.

You may have seen more recently, on the occasion of the canonization of St. Katharine Drexel [October 1], the Holy Father also said that this document had nothing to do with diminishing the ecumenical ardor and the religious commitments to the Catholic Church. It was directed toward some situations in Asia and to a few teachers in Catholic universities. This really was an internal, technical, theological document of the Catholic Church.

Messenger: The topic of the papacy comes up in the context of ecumenical discussions that grew out of Vatican II. The Holy Father himself brought it up in Ut Unum Sint and a lot of people are talking about it. Do you see the papacy as an insurmountable obstacle in ecumenical dialogue?
Keeler: No, I donít see it, but it depends on who youíre talking with. We are very anxious to get to this issue in our discussions with the Orthodox. Itís very important that people talk across a table out of a faith context and not talk at each other through the media. This is what the dialogue I hope would offer us an opportunity to do.

Iíve heard the Holy Father himself, meeting with leaders of other Christian Churches, invite their comments on how the papacy could be a greater service to the unity of the Christian faith. The recent document from the world Anglicans jointly with us on the importance of the central authority shows that even in the Protestant world there is an openness.

Messenger: Do you have a personal sense of how the Petrine office might be reformed?
Keeler: No, I think discussion has to happen. And I think that, even though Vatican II was 35 years ago, weíre just at the very beginning of the discussion.

John Bookser Feister is an assistant editor of this publication. He holds an M.A. in humanities from Xavier University, Cincinnati.


Visit our annual Advent-Christmas Web feature

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Ask a Franciscan  | The Bible: Light to My Path  | Book Reviews  | Entertainment Watch
Editorial  | Editor’s Message  | Faith-filled Family  | Links for Learners
Saints for Our Lives  | Web Catholic  | Back Issues

Return to

Paid Advertisement
Ads contrary to Catholic teachings should be reported to our webmaster. Include ad link.

An Web Site from the Franciscans and
Franciscan Media     ©1996-2016 Copyright