The Church in New York, and indeed all of America, rejoices this morning at the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI has named Archbishop Timothy Michael Dolan to be the next Archbishop of New York.
I have never seen Archbishop Dolan that he didn’t have his arm around someone. We first met in Rome when, coincidentally enough, I was working on an article about Cardinal John O’Connor. Dolan was hosting a reception in his apartment at the North American College for Thanksgiving Day. Every American Catholic in the Eternal City seemed to be crammed into the rector’s living room. Cocktails flowed, cigars were lit, and the sense of loneliness one has when celebrating a national holiday abroad was dispersed thoroughly by Dolan’s hospitality.
The last time I saw Dolan was outside the Przybla Center at Catholic University last April as we awaited the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI. This time, Dolan had his arm around blogger extraordinaire, Rocco Palmo and there were no cocktails or cigars. But the conviviality was the same, the big winning smile and sweeping arm gestures embracing those around him in his own energetic aura.
Both times, and those in between, we spoke about our common mentor, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis. In the New York Times this morning, Ellis is called a "liberal-leaning" historian which is true only if you define liberal in certain ways. Ellis’s view of the history of the American Church always sided with those who tried to "Americanize" the Catholic Church, to bring her methods into sync with those of the Republic, to resist the urge to keep the Church in an intellectual ghetto. He was unafraid of the freedoms afforded by our Constitution and fought, with John Courtney Murray, S.J., to have them recognized by the Church. Ellis spoke to a group of students and faculty the day Father Charles Curran was suspended from Catholic University, voicing what he termed his "profound disagreement" with Curran on each and every issue where Curran differed from the magisterium of the Church but likewise defending his right to differ as a tenured professor of theology.
It will be interesting to see how Dolan’s intellectual formation in history, so different from most hierarchs who have degrees in theology or canon law, will shape his tenure. But, the more enduring contribution of Ellis to Dolan (and to me) was his love of his own priesthood. He had never been a pastor in the canonical sense of the word. But, the day my best friend died from AIDS in 1989, when some religious leaders still considered AIDS a punishment from God, Msgr. Ellis helped me grieve, and find a faithful context for my grief, the way a good priest should. His devotion to the Eucharist was as obvious as his bias in favor of Cardinal Gibbons, whose biographer he was. Ellis was a priest’s priest.
During his time in Milwaukee, Dolan has been a model of centrism. At the blog "Cheeky Pink Girl" there is a posting by a conservative critic of Dolan: "On the other hand, while Dolan is certainly stable and a nice guy all around - that’s his problem. He’s been too moderate - too nice. He hasn’t fixed everything we had hoped (or needed). He hasn’t been the lightning bolt of conservatism that he was touted to be. (Unless you believe conservativism is simply upholding basic Church teachings.) So, New York, get ready for easy-to-swallow pablum, if Dolan is indeed who you’re getting." Conversely, the victims-rights organization SNAP has been harshly critical of Dolan. When you get hounded equally by both left and right, you are doing a good job.
It has been easy to applaud most of Pope Benedict’s appointments. But, in choosing Dolan to assume the cathedra at St. Patrick’s, Benedict has made a truly great choice. Dolan will be great with the necessary, if unseemly, task of fundraising. He will be great with the media. He will help build up the morale of his clergy. Ellis once said that Cardinal O’Connor was "a lion" in the mold of the greatest of American bishops such as Gibbons, John Ireland, and John Hughes. Dolan could be another in that tradition, a bishop who is unafraid to love his flock, to defend his Church, and to preach to a culture that is desperately hungry for the Gospel. Two weeks ago, in the Gospel reading, Simon Peter said to Jesus, "Everyone is looking for you!" This is as true today as it was two thousand years ago, although many people do not even know who they are looking for, or even that they are looking at all. It is Archbishop Dolan’s task to help them look for Christ and find him. I can’t think of a finer appointment. Rejoice indeed!