Some are sorry he's leaving, others are sorry he ever came. Some think he is one of the church's most intelligent leaders, others say he is just the kind of run-of-the-mill mind that would qualify for a high Vatican post.
These are a few of the reactions to the announcement that Cardinal William Baum will be leaving Washington for a job in Rome. In interviews with about a dozen Catholics -- clergy and laypeople -- a picture emerged of a man who could evoke both strong praise and strong criticism, even though the cardinal himself is seen as mild-mannered and even-tempered.
"He's a person who tries to under stand all viewpoints," says Dale Francis, the editor of The Catholic Standard, the archdiocese's weekly newspaper. "He has never told me what to write. His main suggestion was that I get the paper to express a broader viewpoint, to show a greater awareness of things happening in the nation and the world."
In the 14 months that Francis has been the Standard's editor, the paper has opened its editorial and op-ed pages to a wider range of columnists.The paper is well short of being a local version of The National Catholic Reporter, can be credited with breathing enough new life into The Standard to make it worthwhile reading.
In succeeding Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle, who went into public battle in the late '60s with a large group of priests and laypeople who dissented from Rome's teaching on birth control, Baum's approach to dispute has been considerably less fiery. He kept tempers calm in 1975 when he was pressured to take action against the pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown, when the latter, invited some circus people -- clowns jugglers and daredevils -- to perform in the sanctuary during mass on Palm Sunday.
In another dispute, he again chose compromise, not confrontation. When Edward Guinan, a local political activist and founder of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, fasted to protest Baum's purchase of a $525,000 house for his residence, the cardinal backed off, sold it and purchased a Spring Valley house for $210,000.
At the time, Guinan wasn't overwhelmed by the sacrifice. He is even less impressed by Baum's performance since. "The cardinal is a good and decent man, but he's been up on the mountain living like a contemplative Carthusian (a monk in a strict French order). Unless you moved in the circles of the wealthy and powerful, you didn't have much access to him. When he arrived here, he said his top priorities were social justice and easing poverty. Yet he's done little -- besides talk -- toward reaching those goals."
Brother Cyprian Rowe, executive director for the national office of black Catholics praised Baum. "When he issued his pastoral on racism, I responded to it. He had great sensitivity. He listened.Every occasion I've been with him, he gave me feedback that showed he was truly listening."
For one lay Catholic, an activist who attends mass daily, Baum's skills at listening have dulled his nerve-ends for decisiveness. "Frankly, he's a boring, uninspired man with very little drive. He was uncreative while he was here. And I fear in his new job in Rome, he'll be equally uncreative. It's a shame that the duties he's being given -- directing the church's educational policies -- couldn't have gone to someone who's imaginative and alert."
As the pastor of local pastors, Baum is known to be approachable by the archdiocese's priests and nuns. "He's been extremely generous with his time," says Father Joaquin Bazan pastor of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart at 16th Street and Park Road NW. "He's come to my parish often. I remember once when he devoted two hours just mixing with a group of parishoners. He had two big ceremonies that day and could have used the time for taking a rest."
Father Bazan, along with most other local priests, heard the news of Baum's departure on Tuesday morning. Knowing that Baum probably would be celebrating the noon mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral, several dozen priests went to the catherdral in a spontaneous gesture of support for their leader.