(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

 

Thursday evening we lost one of the great shepherds of the Church in the last half of the 20th century. William Cardinal Baum died at age 88. He was a kind and gentle priest whose soaring intellect was always at the service of the Church he loved totally and faithfully.

After the Second Vatican Council, he was the first director of the U.S. Bishops’ Office for Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs, a true pioneer in opening up passages of dialogue and conversation that 50 years later are nourished by his vision and insights.

Named a bishop in Springfield, Missouri, when he was 44 years, Cardinal Baum was  named by Pope Paul the Archbishop of Washington in 1973 and a Cardinal in 1976. In 1980, Pope St. John Paul II, knowing his brilliance and his goodness, asked Cardinal Baum to come to Rome as Prefect of the Congregation of Catholic Education for ten years.  He was then named the Major Penitentiary of the Roman Catholic Church for another ten years before he retired. For the past several years he resided in Washington at the Home of the Little Sisters of the Poor. He and I became friends in 1975 and remained closes of friends for these past 40 years.

All who knew him came under the spell of his quiet, holy demeanor. This was so with the “rich and famous” and equally so for a consecrated woman or the man who sold us newspapers outside St. Peter’s. He was the most cultured man I have ever known. And he was always available with a modesty that was genuine and an interest in others that made him a favorite confessor and a priest who counseled many and brought so many persons back into the Church.

From my observation post in the Vatican all those years, I saw that there were three cardinals to whom Pope St. John Paul turned to for counsel and advice on just about every area of the Church’s life: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, (later Pope Benedict XVI); my boss, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin and my friend, Cardinal William Baum. I cannot number how often I would be at his apartment of an evening talking before supper. The phone would ring and he would answer it, disappear into his bedroom, emerge in his cassock and be brought by the Pope’s driver to the Holy Father’s apartment. When he would return we had our supper. He never said a word about what had transpired. He never gossiped or spread tales. He had only good things to say of others. But his secretary andI knew that, once again, when an issue arose, the Holy Father wanted to hear what the Cardinal had to say.

Some of you may remember when he would come to Rockville Centre and concelebrate Mass with me at St. Agnes. He came to love it here and was saddened when the doctors said he could no longer travel because of his frail condition. I visited him whenever I went to Washington and brought him the cookies that he loved and filled him in on what was going on in the world.

 

He was an inspiration for so many of us bishops whom he taught how to be a bishop by word and example. I was privileged to spend two hours at his bedside as he lay dying. While he could not speak, I knew he could hear me pray the rosary with the sisters and other friends, whisper in his ear of our friendship forged in so many shared moments, and thank him for being the holy priest and caring bishop and great Churchman that he was.

He brought out the best in everyone because he was one of the best God gave to the Church: William Cardinal Baum. May he rest in peace and may he rejoice with all the saints as the Lord welcomes him to the banquet of eternal life: Well done good and faithful servant; thank you, unforgettable friend.

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