Remembering Cardinal William Baum

For nearly four decades, from the time I was still a young priest, it was my joy and privilege to know, work with and pray with Cardinal William Wakefield Baum. As the whole Church and I mourn the death of this good and faithful servant, we do so expressing thanks to God for his witness, and the legacy he leaves behind.

If we were to examine the curriculum vitae of Cardinal Baum, we would see a long list of priestly and episcopal assignments, and that he was both a witness to and maker of history in the Church. His life might well be described as scholarly, quiet and cultured. He possessed a keen mind, and all of us who spoke with His Eminence know that his conversations could go from questions about what is happening in the Church today, to reflections on the current culture and, as often as not, to theological matters.

Like leaven in the world, wherever Cardinal Baum served, he made a quiet but powerful impact with his ministry of engagement, not confrontation. With a profound conviction that the Church is the living presence of Christ in the world, this pastor of souls helped to grow the Church and the kingdom of God in our midst.

The most visible roles played by Cardinal Baum were his service as a shepherd of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau (1970-73) and the Archdiocese of Washington (1973-80), as well as his work as Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education (1980-90) and later as Major Penitentiary (1990-2001). His Eminence also participated in the three conclaves that elected Popes John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.


At the center of it all was Cardinal Baum’s firm commitment to serve the Lord as his priest. He did this faithfully and with great joy for more than 64 years, since his ordination in 1951 at the age of 24 in the Diocese of Kansas City, where he grew up. The roots of his vocation, however, began much earlier. He began serving Mass at his parish when he was 10 years old and soon he was thinking of the priesthood.

Cardinal Baum was a man of faith who many times in his life heard God’s call and responded daily with a firm and enduring “yes.” Over the years, he would be sent to many places, just as Jesus sent his apostles to the ends of the earth. First however, Father Baum would serve as a parish priest, bringing God’s grace in the sacraments and pastoral ministry to the people. He would later ask on the 60th anniversary of his ordination, “What could be more significant, more helpful to all of us?” In addition to parish work, Father Baum also taught school before going to Rome for the first time to study at the Angelicum.

Ecclesiastical duties

This most essential parish work, which touched the souls of people in immeasurable ways, laid the groundwork for what was to come. In 1962, then-Monsignor Baum was asked by Bishop Charles Helmsing of Kansas City to be his adviser at the Second Vatican Council. Subsequently, he would be named a peritus (theological expert) and assigned to the Secretariat for Christian Unity, where he participated in the drafting of Unitatis Redintegratio, the Council’s Decree on Ecumenism.

Cardinal Baum’s interest in ecumenism and interfaith dialogue was more than academic. It grew out of his own personal experience. With a Protestant father and a Jewish stepfather, he profoundly understood the need for harmony in our human family. Wisely, the U.S. bishops chose Monsignor Baum to be the first executive director of the newly formed Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and he was one of the co-founders of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington.

In 1970, he was named the third Bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau and, three short years later, he became the third Archbishop of Washington, where he would bear much fruit. Then-Archbishop Baum came to our nation’s capital at a time of strife in society and in the Church herself, so harmony was a priority for him. His ministry was one of engagement and reconciliation, not confrontation. He established special secretariats for Black Catholics and Spanish-speaking Catholics.

His Eminence was created a cardinal in 1976, and he eventually became the longest-serving American cardinal in our nation’s history at 39 years. Cardinal Baum’s crowning achievement in Washington was to host Pope John Paul II in his 1979 apostolic journey here. Four months after that widely successful papal visit, Cardinal Baum was appointed Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education. It was my privilege to then work with him in an apostolic visitation of the American seminaries. His Eminence also helped prepare the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as the apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Ministry of Reconciliation

Right from the start, Cardinal Baum understood how, in our human weakness, we need to draw strength and forgiveness from Christ. “Within 24 hours of my ordination [as a priest],” he explained, “I heard confessions for the first time.” This appreciation for the blessings of God’s mercy would be reflected in his episcopal motto, “Ministry of Reconciliation,” derived from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians (5:18). It also received special attention when as Major Penitentiary, he served as a confessor in special cases and helped design and explain indulgences.

Cardinal Baum said at the 25th anniversary of his episcopal ordination, “My goal primarily was to proclaim the changeless saving truth about Jesus Christ. Above all, I wanted to make the connection between the way we live and the teaching of Christ Jesus.”

It is clear that in his joy-filled life and ministry, Cardinal Baum made that connection. He brought us Jesus Christ. Now we pray, with faith in the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior, that God receive his servant into his heavenly kingdom to behold the beatific vision.

Cardinal Wuerl is the sixth and current Archbishop of Washington D.C. He studied at the Pontifical North American College in Rome and the Pontifical Gregorian University. After his ordination he received a Ph.D. from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.