By Msgr. Owen F. Campion - The Priest, 9/1/2012
New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, current USCCB president, is a Church historian, a keen observer of popular socio-religious trends in the United States, a priest’s priest, an energetic bishop heading one of the world’s great dioceses, a former highly regarded columnist for The Priest magazine, and author of a book on the priesthood that has been one of Our Sunday Visitor’s best-selling titles.
All these attributes came to bear when The Priest interviewed him about Our Sunday Visitor’s centennial. He thinks that Our Sunday Visitor has been a very great service to the Church over the years, and that its founder, Father, later Archbishop, John F. Noll, is well worth imitating today.
“Our problem is that we can be so tsumanied by all we have to do. If I do all I can just to keep my head above water, I cannot do anything fresh and daring!” Cardinal Dolan said. “But, Father Noll did things fresh and daring, and he had his challenges.
“He saw that the Catholic population then in the U.S. needed cohesion. Threats were coming from outside the Church to assail it. Immigrants were arriving and had to be integrated into the Church. He would have loved the word ‘solidarity’!
“So came Our Sunday Visitor. When people read OSV, they think that they are part of a family. They see that other people are going through the same difficulties as they are, but that they have the same resources because we have the same graces available to us through the Church and the Sacraments. We need a sense of belonging, of being Catholic.
“This is another point. We still have some of the gall he faced, anti-Catholicism. Thank God that there is no more Ku Klux Klan, no more prejudice like that facing Al Smith or JFK. But we have it today, and perhaps it is more insidious. Now it is more covert. It is part of a culture. Rednecked anti-Catholicism is defanged. No more burning crosses. It is coming now from academia, entertainment, the press, the chic enlightened community. To some extent it is in government. People now will look at the Church as oppressive, as everything an enlightened, progressive, liberated culture should not stand for.
“I admire Noll. He was personally invested, but he knew it was not about him. It was about Jesus and the Church. I like his approach to priesthood: gritty, hopeful, can-do.
“I like his emphasis on apologetics. There is a different twist today. In his day, defense of the Faith was first. Bravo! Today, we need defense, but we need ability of laypeople in convincing, winsome ways to attract other people to Faith.
“We need a ‘neo-apologetics.’ We want to give our kids the tools that they need to interiorize the faith, to defend the faith. How many priests know that at some time every September a parent will say that a son or daughter, who went all the way through Catholic schools, just started to college and now is not going to Mass but to a mega-church? Their child’s new roommate is a committed Evangelical who has talked the Catholic out of the Faith.
“And, Father Noll got laypeople involved. OSV could fit into the great movements, Catholic Action, lay ministry, role of laity, all given theological precision at the Second Vatican Council and in Pope John Paul II’s Christifidelis Laici.”
The Priest asked Cardinal Dolan about secularism, a phenomenon not that evident in Father Noll’s time, but prevalent today.
“Archbishop Noll would agree that in pre- and post-World War II days there was a dominant Judeo–Christian culture. Bias was in favor of religion. Everybody professed some faith. They might have said that they were not too good at it, but rare would have been the person who did not identify with some church. Rare would have been a person who would have wanted to chip away at the blessed assumptions on which civilization rests, such as the Ten Commandments, marriage and the family, the role of virtue and honesty. Keep in mind this was intensified in post-World War II Catholicism by the external threat of totalitarian, atheistic Communism and the black cloud of possible nuclear annihilation.
“True, some at his time saw Catholicism as a foreign religion. Noll had to fight that. But he found a widespread sympathy for faith, for religion, for belonging to a Church, that now we cannot take for granted. It presents a different challenge for modern priests.”
For almost a decade, Cardinal Dolan was involved in formation of candidates for the priesthood, being successively rector of two major seminaries. Then, for just over a decade, he has been a bishop, obviously very much concerned about the formation of seminarians. How does he see modern aspirants to the priesthood? What makes them tick? What are they learning?
“I would be very hopeful about the caliber of the men coming through today,” he said but noted a difference between the past and present. In the past, seminarians almost always came from being deeply immersed in a Catholic culture, “in the warm cultural embrace of the Church, growing up in the Church, with Catholicism oozing from every pore. They now show another side, a voluntaristic side of the picture. You voluntarily choose religion later in your life.
“In the past, we even would look askance at the voluntaristic approach. The tension in America is because we come from a Calvinistic culture. America would emphasize ‘choice,’ a voluntary approach. Religion is something that we claim freely and rationally and enthusiastically as our own. Catholics still are embarrassed when an Evangelical asks, ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?’ Catholics answer, ‘I guess so. I cherish my Catholic faith, so I accept Christ as Lord and Savior.’ Then the Evangelical will ask, ‘Can you point to the moment when you freely accepted that?’
“We have to shift to this voluntaristic approach for aspirants. It has immense potential, but it is not an unmixed blessing. I would love it if both happened. Noll tried to create a culture of Catholicism that ‘formed and informed’ when one reached maturity, he or she would be able to choose it (Catholic faith) freely, to say that this faith in which I was raised now is part of my cultural and religious DNA, and I will bring these values to my family, work, marketplace, economy, morality, politics, you name it.
“We must assure that they (seminarians) have the tools, so that when they come to that fork in the road, that Augustinian choice, they at least have something to say ‘I want that!’
“Also, more often than not, seminarians will say that their upbringing in religion was not that good, superficial catechesis, parents who did not give the most radiant example. When you go to a first Mass, instead of it being the celebration of an intact Catholic family, you see tensions. Brothers or sisters of the new priest may not be married in the Church, may have drifted from the Faith, even rejected the Faith. You even see parents who no longer keep the Faith. The young man celebrating his first Mass may be unique in his family.
“Authors now speak of Evangelical Catholicity in which people freely choose Christ as He has been handed on in the Church for 2,000 years.
“On the other hand, as Noll would remind us, do not give up on Catholic culture, on things that keep us intact: schools, catechesis, Catholic organizations, study of the faith, devotion to Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, the confidence that we need as Catholics.”
Cardinal Dolan was asked if seminarians today are being well formed.
“I do not like caricatures, but in pre-1965 priestly formation we had something of the monastic model that relied on settled, unquestioning acceptance of Catholic truth, and depended on a clear life of piety and prayer. But this was thrown out in 1960s. There was some need for reform, but we threw out much of substance, consistency, clarity. It became almost ‘Anything goes. I’m OK. You’re OK,’ almost excessively emphasizing the apostolic side of priesthood rather than the ontological.
“Now we have recovered, much thanks to Blessed John Paul II. Men now get a pretty solid theological education with essentials of faith where dissent is tagged as dissent, where they learn to present the Faith in a compelling way, but with great emphasis on human formation and apostolic work so these men will be men of the heart and not just of the mind. It is a good balance.
“Is there a danger? Maybe there is in the tendency to return to that prior to the Second Vatican Council. Listen to Pastores Dabo Vobis. I used to tell seminarians that the major goal in the seminary — and the Church provides you with the luxury of four years — is to tend to the life of the soul and to the life of the mind. In classic Catholic theology this is called the interior life. There is an apostolic dimension. There is a pastoral dimension. But they flow from a very durable interior life. So the major goal of these four years is to develop such a strong and durable interior life that you will have, God willing, 50 or 55 years of priestly life that will flow from this interior life.”
What about priests and modern Catholic media, The Priest asked?
“Definitely, definitely, definitely I encourage priests to use Catholic media. Catholic priests especially today must have some knowledge of Spanish and some knowledge of technology. As priests, we must ask ourselves, ‘What or who is the normative influence on our people today? I look at youth today, and even if they have been to Catholic schools, the normative influence is the Web or Facebook or TV or entertainment. That is the influence — often at odds with the Catholic faith.
“What would Father Noll do today? Would he give a sermon condemning TV and the Internet? I doubt it. He would say, ‘Let’s take it over! Let’s get our word out through that.’”
Cardinal Dolan was asked what he sees as hopeful signs for the Church now and in the future.
“I see hope in the rise of evangelical Catholicism in which we have a steady flow of committed people, often young people, who have freely and deliberately chosen to let their lives be guided by Christ and His Church. Now, I am not wearing rose-colored glasses. I know some people are not there. But, when I go to a parish and see 500 young people at Mass, longing for and relishing the company of people who believe the same way they believe, praying in a very reverent and joyful way, celebrating afterwards, making plans to get together because they realistically know that they need God and that they need one another if they are going to be able to be faithful to the most important person in life, who happens to be ‘the way, the truth and the life,’ I see is a great sign of hope. And I see it so often.
“I see hope in the rise of a committed, educated laity, so that the people you see on the pages of OSV defending the faith are laypeople. That is the fruit of Father Noll, of Catholic Action, of lay witness, of the Second Vatican Council. When you have major thinkers in society — while we may disagree with them on a particular issue — say that their faith is important to them and that it affects what they do, and that one of their goals every day is to let the light of the Gospel and the Church shine on everything they do, that is excellent.”
Not that long ago, it was noted, Cardinal Dolan was among the most popular regular columnists for The Priest. When asked if he had any final words for readers of this edition of The Priest, the cardinal had these final words:
“Stick together. Get back to Father Noll. We see the challenges we face, and we have a wheelbarrow full of them, as did Father Noll. But, are we going to whine and complain, wring our hands, criticize, and give up, go into ideological niches, right or left, whatever it may be? Or, are we going to say, “What is Jesus asking me to do? How do I get my hands dirty in meeting the demands of the day.” TP
MSGR. CAMPION is associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor and the editor of The Priest magazine.
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