By Gerald Korson
Pope Benedict XVI's appointment of Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, 59, of Milwaukee to lead the Archdiocese of New York last month is a move that surprises few and delights many. It is also an enormously significant one in that it involves what is arguably the most influential Catholic archdiocese in the United States, according to Church historians.
"New York is a city of national and international importance, one of the world centers of commerce, thought, art," said Timothy Matovina, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. "So the city itself, the size of it, its long-standing status as a Catholic archbishopric and the status of some of the men who have served in the post previously -- Cardinal [Francis] Spellman, Cardinal [Terrence] Cooke, Cardinal [John J.] O'Connor -- really gives the archdiocese its prominence."
The first American to be named cardinal, Matovina pointed out, was Archbishop John McCloskey of New York in 1875 -- 11 years ahead of Archbishop James Gibbons of Baltimore, the nation's first archdiocese and premier see city of the time.
Archbishop Dolan succeeds Cardinal Edward Egan, 76, who has retired after nine years of service.
Matthew Bunson, a widely published author and Catholic historian, believes Archbishop Dolan was tapped for New York in part because of his "capacity to articulate and advance Catholic teachings in a positive, optimistic and confident manner" and his reputation "as a compassionate and skilled conciliator."
The new archbishop, who also speaks Spanish, "has a good common touch and will be comfortable dealing with the richly diverse and boisterous Catholic community as well as the Wall Street financial crowd and the political leaders" of New York, he added.
That pivotal role that the archdiocese plays in the Catholic Church of the United States is not lost on its new shepherd, who had long been rumored as a leading candidate for the post. While he recognizes his move comes at a difficult time for the nation, he looks to the strengths of his new archdiocese and welcomes the challenges that lay ahead.
"When you look at over 400 vibrant parishes, when you look at 279 Catholic schools, when you look at your massive Catholic charities, it is the backbone especially so needed today with the economic duress that our great people are struggling under," Archbishop Dolan told Sirius XM Radio the day his appointment was announced. "In every family, in every business, in every parish there are challenges, and I'm sure there are in the archdiocese. ... But in general, you talk about sound health, thanks be to God."
A native of St. Louis, Archbishop Dolan's broad experience -- which has included parish ministry, a doctorate in American Church history, the Vatican's U.S. nunciature, seminary leadership, and a return to his home diocese as auxiliary bishop -- has prepared him well for service as head of a metropolitan archdiocese, something many who knew him had long anticipated.
Father John Jay Hughes of St. Louis has known Archbishop Dolan since his ordination. "St. Louis priests have long jested that when he was a little boy Dolan didn't play priest. He played bishop," Father Hughes told Our Sunday Visitor. "What distinguishes Dolan, however, is that he genuinely wants to serve the Church. This means that he has been and will be happy wherever he is asked to serve."
Experience has taught Archbishop Dolan how to handle the media spotlight that surely will shine upon him in his new high-profile post, Father Hughes said.
"He has grown over the years and handles himself well in the give-and-take of press conferences with secular journalists, not dodging the hard questions, and expressing himself fluently and articulately," he said. "This will stand him in good stead in the very public position of New York archbishop."
When appointed to Milwaukee in 2001, Archbishop Dolan took the helm of an archdiocese reeling after the retirement of longtime Archbishop Rembert Weakland, whose resignation came on the heels of new revelations that he had a sexual relationship with a man in the late 1970s and later had used $450,000 in Church funds to buy the man's silence.
Archbishop Dolan's personal charism and pastoral sensitivity helped heal a hurting people.
In a 2002 interview, he described himself as "a sort of fish-fry and bingo guy."
"He won people over quickly," said Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Archbishop Dolan in Milwaukee. "One of the things that was instantly obvious to people in the archdiocese was how available and accessible he was to the people of Wisconsin. He really worked to instill in all of us a sense of Catholic identity, pride and cohesion, and he worked hard and led by example with a very genuine sense of devotion and love of Jesus Christ and the Church."
Of his accomplishments, Topczewski cited the archbishop's focus on priestly vocations and lay formation as having a huge impact on the local Church. Seminary and ordination classes have increased, and he established the John Paul II Center for the training of lay ecclesial ministers along with revamped programs for lay adult education and the strengthening of marriages and families.
His infectious smile and engaging style are something of a living vocation poster. "His example of being a happy priest, a happy bishop, leaves no doubt," Topczewski told OSV. "He wears it on his sleeve, and it's a good example for men who might be considering a vocation to the priesthood. He's unapologetic about it: He loves being a priest."
That comes as music to the ears of Msgr. Dermot Brennan, a priest of the New York archdiocese for 53 years who is very concerned about vocations. He hopes the new archbishop will place heavy emphasis on recruiting men for the archdiocesan priesthood.
"Our young vocations director, Father Luke Sweeney, is doing an outstanding job, but my feeling is that it's really up to all priests to recruit," Msgr. Brennan told OSV. "If each one of us would replace ourselves with one man, it would be the beginning of a turnaround. We are in serious difficulties here on vocations, many of them cultural. I would hope that would be very high on the archbishop's list of priorities."
He said he hopes Archbishop Dolan shares the acumen in fiscal management of Cardinal Egan, who "came here with a very heavy burden of serious financial problems, and, through a series of very fine moves, he has solved those problems and leaves the archdiocese now on a very sound financial basis."
For Topczewski, Milwaukee will feel its loss, but will soon be comforted that it's all for the good of the Church.
"It's a sad day in many ways," he said. "As much as it's hard to have a generous heart, we just need a little bit of time [to mourn]. After that, we'll be happy for the Archdiocese of New York."
1950: Born, St. Louis, Mo.
1964: Entered St. Louis Preparatory Seminary South, Shrewsbury, Mo.; went on to study at Cardinal Glennon College, St. Louis, and the Pontifical North American College, Rome
1976: Ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of St. Louis
1976-79: Parish ministry, St. Louis
1979-83: Doctoral studies in American Church history, The Catholic University of America
1983-1987: Parish ministry, St. Louis
1987-92: Secretary to Apostolic Nunciature, Washington, D.C.
1992-94: Vice rector, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, St. Louis
1994-2001: Rector, Pontifical North American College, Rome
2001: Appointed auxiliary bishop of St. Louis
2002: Appointed archbishop of Milwaukee
2009: Appointed archbishop of New York
Gerald Korson writes from Indiana.
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