The cardinal was known as 'Baltimore' by St John Paul II, according to his priest-secretary

Cardinal William H Keeler, the retired archbishop of Baltimore who was known for his vital role in ecumenical and inter-religious relations, died today at St Martin’s Home for the Aged in the Baltimore suburb of Catonsville. He was 86.

“One of the great blessings in my life was coming to know Cardinal Keeler,” said Baltimore Archbishop William E Lori in a statement. “Cardinal Keeler will be greatly missed. I am grateful to the Little Sisters for their devoted care for the cardinal.”

Cardinal Keeler was the bishop of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when he was appointed the 14th archbishop of Baltimore in 1989.

Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal in 1994. He retired in 2007. As president of the US bishops’ conference from 1992-95, he participated in a wide range of national and international issues.

As part of his work with what is now the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Keeler developed a reputation for effectively building interfaith bonds.

He is particularly noted for his work in furthering Catholic-Jewish dialogue. He was appointed moderator of Catholic-Jewish Relations for the USCCB.

His first priest-secretary Fr Michael White told Catholic Review, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, that Cardinal Keeler “put Baltimore on the map in the Catholic Church”.

He drew to the city prominent figures such as St Teresa of Kolkata and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople during gatherings in the late 1990s. “Not a day went by,” he said, when a bishop did not call Cardinal Keeler for advice.

“Pope John Paul loved Cardinal Keeler,” Fr White said. “He used to call the cardinal ‘Baltimore.’”

Cardinal Keeler’s death leaves the College of Cardinals with 223 members, 17 of whom are from the United States. The College of Cardinals has 117 members under the age of 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave.

Archbishop Lori remarked on “the respect and esteem” in which the late prelate was held by his brother bishops, and praised his leadership in Jewish-Catholic relations and in Orthodox-Catholic relations.

Archbishop Lori also said he was known for his “prowess as a church historian” and had a “deep love and respect for the history and heritage of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.”

Cardinal Keeler was an ardent promoter of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sanctity of all human life. He twice served as chairman of the US bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities and testified at all levels of government on legislation ranging from abortion to euthanasia to capital punishment.