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The men who could be pope: Cardinal Timothy Dolan

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York smiles after a meeting at the new evangelisation synod (Photo: CNS)

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I met Timothy Cardinal Dolan in Los Angeles. I was in LA to meet some people in the film industry about some screenplay ideas and was invited to the annual prayer breakfast at the new cathedral. Cardinal Dolan was the keynote speaker.

He delivered a rousing, solidly scriptural address calling the crowd of media people to be involved in the new evangelisation with passion, zeal, humanity and good humour.

A genial, red-faced, people-loving prelate, he worked the crowd afterwards, listening carefully to each one, here enjoying an uproarious joke, there paying attention to a prayer request; here making connections with an old friend and there making new friends. He has a reputation as a conservative, but his style is downright Chestertonian. He may not have the paradoxical wit, but he has the same irrepressible optimism radiating through a large and exuberant style. In Los Angeles I saw a natural pastor, disarming in his humour and good-natured joshing, while delivering a dynamic and orthodox message.

Born and brought up in America’s heartland – strongly Catholic St Louis, Missouri – Timothy Dolan is the eldest of five children, and he says he can never remember not wanting to be a priest. The family recall his early interest in the Church and they remember him pretending, like many men called to the priesthood, to celebrate Mass as a child.

Dolan attended a junior seminary and earned his BA in philosophy from Cardinal Glennon College, a seminary in St Louis, Missouri. He must have been one of the “bright sparks” because he was sent to study at the Pontifical North American College in Rome and the Angelicum, where he earned his licentiate in Sacred Theology. After a stint as a parish priest he began a doctorate on the history of the American Catholic Church at the Catholic University of America. He moved from there to teach in seminaries, becoming vice-rector of his own seminary before being appointed rector of the North American College. During his time in Rome he also taught at the Angelicum and the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Pope John Paul II appointed him Auxiliary Bishop of St Louis in 2001 and the next year he was appointed Archbishop of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, taking over from the disastrous Archbishop Rembert Weakland. The archdiocese was reeling from Archbishop Weakland’s bad handling of sex abuse cases, financial mismanagement, nepotism and an autocratic leadership style, combined with modernist theology and moral turpitude. Archbishop Dolan pensioned off bad priests and attempted to turn the diocese around, but after only seven years he was tapped to serve the 2.5 million Catholics in New York City, the second largest diocese in the United States after Los Angeles. Cardinal Dolan visited India and Ethiopia as chairman of Catholic Relief Services. He now serves as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and serves on various committees and commissions including the newly created Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation. He is also a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and the Congregation for Oriental Churches.

Is Cardinal Dolan papabile? The general wisdom is that an American could never be pope because it would upset the global balance of power, placing great spiritual power into the hands of a citizen of the world’s only superpower. Cardinal Dolan, however, has good credentials. He’s forged the important Roman relationships as rector of the North American College and John Allen, the veteran Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, says that many meetings with cardinals invariably begin with a light-hearted anecdote about the jovial Dolan. In other words, nobody dislikes him.

One example of the sort of self-deprecating humour for which he’s famous is his quip when asked what he thought of those who were naming him as a possible pope: “They’re the ones who have been smoking marijuana.” When asked if he had ever had a mystical experience like John Paul II, who was found prostrate in prayer in the middle of the night, Cardinal Dolan said if he was found like that it would be because he’d “fallen out of bed from having too many beers”.

Cardinal Dolan’s affability and quick intelligence are perfectly suited for his fame as an expert communicator. Relaxed and jolly in front of the cameras, he overpowers his interviewers with an expansive bonhomie and exuberance. He communicates the Catholic faith with a dynamic optimism, good humour and serious depth at the same time. Cardinal Dolan is not all jokes and anecdotes. He has stood up to President Obama in the controversy over funding of contraceptives and abortion and, Allen notes, “the Church on his watch would not back down from a fight, but it would also not head for the bunkers”. On the world stage Cardinal Dolan would emerge as a beloved, larger-than-life papal rock star, a kind of happy warrior, countering the shy, gentleness of the bookish Benedict XVI.

But Cardinal Dolan’s very strengths are also his weaknesses. When compared to other candidates, he appears to lack gravitas. His academic accomplishments are adequate but not stellar. He’s written about a dozen books, but they are mainly pastoral and devotional works. He’s neither the world-class philosopher that John Paul II was nor the world-class theologian we saw in Benedict. His experience outside the United States is very limited and this is reflected in his poor showing in the language stakes. Compared to someone like Canada’s Cardinal Ouellet, who is a respected theologian, missionary to Latin America and fluent in six languages, Cardinal Dolan comes across as a lightweight.

But popes are not chosen simply for their academic accomplishments or their linguistic abilities. The primary question is not “What does the CV look like?” but “What are the world’s cardinals seeking as they gather in Rome?” If they are looking for a brilliant communicator with the personality and vigour to be a dynamic global evangelist, then Cardinal Dolan could be the man. If they are also looking for an able administrator and an efficient new broom to sweep clean the curia, then Cardinal Dolan could be the man once again. If they are worried about the lack of academic gravitas, it could be argued that the Church has had an able philosopher and theologian and now she needs someone to communicate those truths with energy, zeal, down-to-earth humanity and not a few laughs. Again, Cardinal Dolan could be the man.

Certainly he would be the unexpected choice, but if history teaches us anything, papal elections are unpredictable and if the last few weeks have taught us anything, we’ve been reminded that the venerable institution of the papacy is full of surprises.

Fr Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. Connect with his blog, browse his books and be in touch through his website: