Cardinal William Baum, 60 years a priest


Future cardinal Billy Baum, stands on the steps of St. Peter’s School, dressed as a bishop, c.1935.

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY — Priest; educator; monsignor; expert advisor to the Holy See and drafter of Vatican II documents on ecumenism; bishop; archbishop; cardinal, friend of Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI ­ the accolades go on and on. But to classmates at St. Peter’s School in Kansas City, retired Cardinal William Wakefield Baum is still “Billy.”

Their thoughts and prayers for “Billy” were with him as Cardinal Baum celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving at the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on May 12, the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.

He spent six decades of watching and making history in the service of his church, but his love for the faith goes back further than that. William Wakefield Baum was born Nov. 21, 1926, in Dallas, Texas, the son of Harold E. and Mary Leona (Hayes) White. While “Billy” was still a young child, his father, a Presbyterian, died and Mary Leona White moved to Kansas City with her son. She subsequently married Jerome C. Baum, a Jewish businessman, who adopted the child and gave Billy his last name. He was enrolled at St. Peter’s School as a preschooler and graduated from there in 1939. Cardinal Baum later said he could “recall with perfect clarity” the day his mother enrolled him.

Mercy Sister Mary Jerome, a long-time principal of St. Peter’s School, may have foreseen a vocation to the priesthood in Billy, for she always cast him as a bishop in school plays, recalled a classmate at Cardinal Baum’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2001. Later she would tap Billy to portray a bishop for the annual Kindergarten graduation ceremonies.

Billy Baum began serving Mass for St. Peter’s founding pastor, Msgr. James N.V. McKay when he was 10 years old. By the time he was 12, the boy was attending Mass daily. He was already thinking about the priesthood. More than 70 years later, Cardinal Baum told Mark Zimmermann, editor of the Catholic Standard, Washington, D.C.’s archdiocesan newspaper, that the priesthood is “so deep in me. From a very early age, I had this idea I’d like to be a priest.”

Msgr. McKay encouraged the boy’s vocation, and after he graduated from St. Peter’s in 1940, Billy entered St. John’s Minor Seminary. From there he went to Glennon College in St. Louis to study philosophy and in 1947 entered Kenrick Seminary, also in St. Louis.

He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Kansas City by Bishop Edwin V. O’Hara at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on May 12, 1951. The following day, May 13, Father Baum celebrated his first Mass at St. Peter’s Church.

More than 50 years later, he recalled that hours before the Mass was to begin, Msgr. McKay took the young priest by the arm, led him into the church and pointed him toward a confessional.

“Within 24 hours of my ordination, I heard confessions for the first time,” and realized the importance of the sacrament, for forgiveness of sins and to purify and sanctify the spirit before the reception of the Body of Christ in Holy Communion.

In fact, the sacrament of Penance was so important to the future cardinal that he later took for his Episcopal motto, “Ministerium reconcilationis,” the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).

The newly ordained priest served at St. Aloysius Parish and taught at the College of St. Teresa (now Avila University), Glennon High School and St. Aloysius Academy. Archbishop O’Hara and Bishop John Cody (later Cardinal Cody) sponsored Father Baum for two years in Rome while he did postgraduate work. He was awarded a licentiate followed by a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican university in Rome known as the Angelicum.

Father Baum was a multi-tasker. When he returned to Kansas City in 1958, he served as secretary of the Diocesan Tribunal, taught at the College of St. Teresa, and served in the parishes of St. Aloysius and St. Peter. In 1960, he was assigned to St. Cyril’s Parish in Sugar Creek.

The following year, the 35-year-old Father Baum was named a papal chamberlain by Pope John XXIII, with the title of Very Reverend Monsignor.

The Second Vatican Council was convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962. The Dioceses of Kansas City and St. Joseph had become one diocese while Msgr. Baum was studying in Rome and Bishop Charles Helmsing of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph asked Msgr. Baum to accompany him to Rome to act as his advisor during the Council.

While in Rome, Msgr. Baum was named a peritus (expert advisor) of the Council of the Holy See, and to work with the Secretariat for Christian Unity.

In that capacity, he was one of the drafters of Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism, approved in Nov. 1964 by the Council Fathers. Also in 1964, the U.S. Bishops formed the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and appointed Msgr. Baum the committee’s first executive director, a position he held for five years. Raymond J. Boland, Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, said at the occasion of the cardinal’s Golden Jubilee, that he put “his fingerprints on ecumenism.”

Msgr. Baum continued to serve in several capacities at the same time — directing the U.S. Bishops’ committee for ecumenical and interreligious affairs, serving as chancellor of the diocese and, in 1968, becoming pastor of St. James Parish in Kansas City, his only pastorate. He served in pastoral ministry, as secretary and notary of the Diocesan Tribunal, secretary of the diocesan liturgical commission, and examiner of the clergy. He was named privy chamberlain supernumerary on January 27, 1961. He served as Vice chancellor of the Diocese of Kansas City-Saint Joseph from 1962-1965. He was named Chancellor in 1967. From 1965-1969, he also served as a member of the Joint Working Group of representatives of the Catholic Church and World Council of Churches. Msgr. Baum was a member of the Mixed Committee of representatives of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation from 1965-66.

Bishop Finn with Cardinal Baum

Bishop Robert W. Finn, of Cardinal Baum’s home diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, greets the cardinal after the Jubilee Mass in Washington, D.C., May 12. (Photo courtesy Mark Zimmermann, editor, The Catholic Standard)

In 1970, Pope Paul VI named Msgr. Baum the third bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. His Episcopal ordination was held on April 6, 1970.

Three years later, the pope named Bishop Baum the Archbishop of Washington, D.C. He was installed as the second resident archbishop of Washington at the Cathedral of St. Matthew on May 9, 1973.

The Washington archbishop also serves as Chancellor of the Catholic University of America. Archbishop Baum continued to actively promote ecumenism and Catholic education, and his star continued to rise.

Pope Paul VI elevated the 49-year-old archbishop to the College of Cardinals on May 24, 1976, making him one of the youngest men ever elevated to the Cardinalate. For the next four years he served as chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine.

The Cardinal-archbishop had become acquainted with Cardinal Karol Wojtyla when he was Cardinal-archbishop of Krakow, Poland. When Cardinal Baum visited Poland sometime later, Cardinal Wojtyla played host to the American cardinal.

Cardinal Baum participated in the conclave of August 25 to 26, 1978, which elected Pope John Paul I. A month and a half later, following John Paul I’s sudden death, he participated in the conclave of October 14 to 16, 1978, which elected Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II. Shortly after it was rumored that Cardinal Baum would soon be headed for Rome. Both the new pope and Cardinal Baum were members of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, which is responsible for overseeing Catholic colleges, universities and seminaries around the world.

Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop emeritus Boland was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington in June, 1957. He served the archdiocesan church in many capacities over the next 31 years, including coordinating the October 1979 state visit of Blessed John Paul II to Washington, when Cardinal-Archbishop Baum played host to his friend, a visit which included the pope’s Mass on the National Mall for 175,000 people.

Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Baum to the Prefecture of the Congregation for Catholic Education at the Vatican and grand chancellor of the Pontifical Gregorian University, in January, 1980.

The appointment precipitated his resignation as Archbishop of Washington, D.C., and his move to Rome, his home until he retired in 2006. A quip of his was often repeated, “As a place of exile, Rome is not so bad.”

In 1990, Cardinal Baum was named Major Penitentiary. In this role, he dealt with confidential issues concerning matters of conscience and the procedures of obtaining indulgences. As Major Penitentiary, he also actively promoted frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance.

In the early years of the decade, he served on a commission that drafted the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church. And during the 2000 Jubilee Year, Cardinal Baum helped design and explain the indulgences that were offered as part of the jubilee. He also served as a member of the Congregation of Bishops; Oriental Churches; Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and the Evangelization of Peoples.

Cardinal Baum celebrated the Golden Jubilee of his ordination to the priesthood, and the 25th anniversary of his elevation to the Cardinalate, at St. Peter’s Church on Sept. 9, 2001. The man the Swiss Guards at the Vatican often called “the gentle cardinal,” chose St. Peter’s for the celebration, saying, “Home is still at St. Peter’s Parish, as it’s still in Washington, D.C., and that hasn’t changed.”

Cardinal Baum resigned the post of Major Penitentiary in November 2001. He retired Nov. 22, 2001, the day after his 75th birthday. But he continued to serve his church. When Cardinal James Hickey, archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., died in October 2004, Cardinal Baum represented an ailing Pope John Paul II at the funeral at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Pope John Paul II died April 2, 2005 at the age of 84. Cardinal Baum participated in the conclave, his last, which elected German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005. Cardinal Baum turned 80 years old in 2006, and so lost the right to vote in a papal conclave.

On March 8, 2011, he became the longest serving American Cardinal in U.S. history serving 35 years, surpassing the legendary Cardinal James Gibbons, who died in 1921.

A little over two months later, Cardinal Baum celebrated the 60th anniversary of his priesthood at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. He was joined by about 60 priests, 12 bishops, including Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Cardinal’s home Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and five cardinals for the special Mass of Thanksgiving.

In a story by Mark Zimmermann, he describes the presentation by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington since 2006, of a special gift from the priests of Washington a chalice and paten given in honor of Cardinal Baum that will be used at the archdiocese’s new Blessed John Paul II Seminary, scheduled to open in September. The chalice is inscribed with Cardinal Baum’s name and notes his 60th anniversary as a priest, May 12, 1951-2011, Zimmermann said.

Cardinal Baum thanked the priests for the gift, saying, “It is very close to my heart, preparing men for the priesthood.” Zimmermann added that in a recent interview the cardinal called the priesthood “the love of my life.”

Zimmermann described the final blessing of the Mass. “Cardinal Baum, who sat in a wheelchair at the side of the altar, offered the final blessing of the Mass, joined by Cardinal Wuerl, who stood beside him. In his remarks, Cardinal Baum offered special thanks to the priests there, many of whom he ordained, for their service to Christ and to their people. He noted how every day, priests celebrate Mass, hear people’s confessions and bring the sacraments to their people. ‘What could be more significant, more helpful to all of us?’ he asked, noting that he expressed his thanks to them ‘as a priest who’s been a priest for 60 years.’”

Zimmermann said that Cardinal Baum also thanked the Little Sisters of the Poor, who run the Jeanne Jugan Residence where he now lives, and the Sisters of Mercy of Omaha, who were his teachers at St. Peter’s, for their help to him, and for their “loving response to God’s call in religious life.”

Bishop Finn gave the cardinal a card signed by many of the priests of Cardinal Baum’s home diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, in honor of their native son. Bishop Finn recounted a conversation with Cardinal Baum in a recent issue of the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Key. Among the many roles of responsibility and influence he held as a pastor, educator, bishop, archbishop and cardinal, “Cardinal Baum is regarded as a dear and good man, brilliant and holy, whose humility in the service of Popes and all the Faithful is an inspiration to all of us who want to follow Jesus Christ more faithfully.

And … Kansas City is his home. Every time I have ever had the opportunity to visit with him, he speaks with affection about the Diocese. He loves Kansas City-St. Joseph. We are always close to his heart.”

As he is in the hearts of many Kansas Citians. Bishop Finn also presented Cardinal Baum with a special gift from Father Steve Cook, pastor, and the parishioners of St. Peter’s Parish. The gift was a digital photo frame displaying photographs that must have brought back fond memories to Cardinal Baum: photos of him as a student, dressed as a prelate in school plays, as a parishioner, photographs of his ordination and first Mass.

“Some of his classmates are still in the parish,” said Father Cook, “and Cardinal Baum is a well-known and beloved member of this parish.”

Father Cook said that when he was a seminarian studying in Rome, Cardinal Baum would often invite seminarians and priests from Kansas City and Washington, D.C., to his apartment. “He was demure, a humble man, quiet, proper and very dignified,” the priest recalled. “His secretary was the one to crack the jokes.”

Father Cook said, “We take a lot of pride in having one of our own as a cardinal of the Church. He still considers St. Peter’s his home parish. In fact, when another bishop asked what he could give Cardinal Baum to celebrate his anniversary, the cardinal suggested he give something to St. Peter’s. We received a check from that bishop in honor of Cardinal Baum’s 60th Jubilee.”

Cardinal Baum’s legacy is evident in Rome, in Washington, D.C., but also in Kansas City. Several years ago, St. Peter’s Parish purchased a former Methodist church on an adjoining lot for use as class and meeting rooms and to serve as a place where parish teens will gather for Confirmation preparation and youth ministry. Former pastor Father Joe Sharbel officially dedicated the building as the Cardinal Baum Legacy Center.

St. James Parish in Kansas City credits Cardinal Baum, who served as pastor there before his consecration as Bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in 1970, with the launching of their $600,000 capital improvements campaign in 2004. He served as honorary chairman of the fundraising efforts, kicking things into gear with a personal check.

Cardinal Baum’s contribution helped parishioners replace what Deacon Ross Beaudoin called “can’t-do” despair with “can-do” hope, and the needed funds were raised to restore and renovate the 92-year-old church.

Cardinal Baum’s home diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph moved its diocesan offices into the historic New York Life Building in downtown Kansas City in March, renaming it the Catholic Center. Bishop Robert Finn christened the large meeting room on the first floor the Cardinal Baum room, in honor of the retired cardinal.

And in the hearts of his classmates, his former parishioners and all who knew him, “Billy Baum” will always be Kansas City’s own native son, the “gentle cardinal.”


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September 27, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph