New York archbishop likes being on the front lines ‘with the folks’

NEW YORK – Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York is a man familiar with the inner workings of the Catholic Church but once described himself as “a sort of fish-fry and bingo guy” who preferred being “in the field … on the front lines … with the folks.”

The gregarious prelate was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Nov. 16, the second day of the bishops’ fall general meeting in Baltimore. He will begin serving his three-year term at the close of the meeting Nov. 18, succeeding Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George.

Since being installed as head of the New York Archdiocese in April 2009, Archbishop Dolan has announced a strategic plan to close underperforming archdiocesan elementary schools and change the traditional parish governance model, addressed the growing controversy over plans to build an Islamic community center and mosque a few blocks from ground zero, and urged Catholics to make Mass the center of each Sunday.

At a February 2009 news conference in New York after the announcement of his appointment to the city, the archbishop said, “The vitality of this great archdiocese is in its parishes.”

“The priests are on the front lines,” he said. “I am their servant. You can count on me to help them.”

“I look forward to being with the priests,” he added. “That’s not a chore; that’s a choice.”

Archbishop Dolan, 60, has been serving as chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency. With his election as president, he will have to step down as chairman and will appoint his successor. He is co-chair and moderator of Jewish affairs for the USCCB.

Before his appointment to New York, he was archbishop of Milwaukee for seven years.

Although the New York archdiocesan strategic plan is designed to reduce a growing deficit by closing underperforming schools, Archbishop Dolan has repeatedly pledged that there will be a seat in a Catholic school for any child who wants it. He called the new archdiocesan plan “the beginning of a recovery of confidence in the school system.”

The plan will channel funds from the sale or rental of shuttered properties to an education fund.

As controversy grew over plans to build an Islamic community center and mosque a few blocks from ground zero in New York, the archbishop worked with Jewish and Muslim religious leaders to identify clerics and laypeople to invite to interreligious discussions to work out conflicts as they occur.

“I’m afraid we have maybe not been as energetic with fostering relations with our Islamic brothers and sisters,” he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, adding “our coming together is not to say we can settle the mosque site issue,”‘ but “the wider issue of church, Jewish, Islamic tensions.”

Earlier this year, Archbishop Dolan issued his first pastoral since being named to head the New York Archdiocese. In it, he urged Catholics to make Mass the center of their Sunday, saying the observance of the Lord’s day is essential for the church, “the vibrancy of our faith” and the “clarity of our Catholic identity.”

In March, as allegations of clergy sexual abuse in Europe, particularly Germany, made news, he told New York Catholics that the “tidal wave of headlines” about the abuse and new stories about an old case in Wisconsin have “knocked us to our knees once again.”

“Anytime this horror, vicious sin and nauseating crime is reported, as it needs to be, victims and their families are wounded again, the vast majority of faithful priests bow their heads in shame anew, and sincere Catholics experience another dose of shock, sorrow and even anger,” he said at the end of Palm Sunday Mass March 28.

He also defended Pope Benedict XVI against claims by some, including the media, that he had not done enough to address the abuse situation.

“What deepens the sadness now is the unrelenting insinuations against the Holy Father himself, as certain sources seem frenzied to implicate the man who, perhaps more than anyone else, has been the leader in purification, reform and renewal that the church so needs,” he said.

Timothy Dolan was born Feb. 6, 1950, in St. Louis. He studied at the Pontifical North American College in Rome and was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 1976.

After his ordination, he served in parish ministry, then earned a doctorate in American church history from The Catholic University of America, Washington.

He returned to St. Louis and served in parish ministry from 1983 to 1987, when he was appointed to a five-year term as a secretary at the papal nunciature in Washington. He again returned to St. Louis in 1992 as vice rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.

In 1994, he was named rector of the North American College, serving in Rome until 2001, when he was named auxiliary bishop of St. Louis by Pope John Paul II.

Pope John Paul named him archbishop of Milwaukee in 2002, and he served there until Pope Benedict appointed him to New York.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.