Big Apple Bishop
BY PAUL BARRA
November 29-December 5, 2009 Issue | Posted 11/20/09 at 7:01 PM
Archbishop Timothy Dolan couldn’t keep it to himself anymore.
Half a year into his tenure as archbishop of New York, he was bothered by widespread anti-Catholicism in the media. So he wrote a column about it and offered it to The New York Times. Most of the examples he cited were found in the pages of the Times.
The newspaper declined the column, saying it doesn’t publish op-ed pieces in response to things in the newspaper.
But Archbishop Dolan has a blog, The Gospel in the Digital Age, and that’s where the column can be found now.
All that was going on when the archbishop, leader of New York’s 2.6 million Catholics, spoke with Register correspondent Paul Barra Oct. 26.
How have your expectations met the realities of life in the Big Apple?
They’ve been extremely happy months so far. I keep repeating myself by thanking the gracious people of the Archdiocese of New York and, indeed, the wider New York community, for their warm embrace. As a Midwesterner growing up in Missouri and having spent the last nearly seven years in Wisconsin, I’m afraid I have to confess that I harbored some caricatures about New Yorkers, falling into the trap of thinking they were icy and aloof and kind of unfriendly. That caricature is about as inaccurate as they get. The people here have just been exceptionally kind. So, the honeymoon is still on, but I feel right at home.
In many ways, culturally and intellectually, New York seems to be secular or a left-wing city, but I’m also pleasantly surprised at how religious it is. First of all, it’s overtly Catholic; people seem to be proud to be Catholic. St. Patrick’s Cathedral is jammed with people praying, and Sunday Masses are filled. There seems to be a sense of confidence in being Catholic and a sense of legitimate pride in being religious. That would almost seem to balance the reputation New York has of being a secular, pagan city.
Cardinal Francis George has appointed you the new moderator of Jewish affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, saying that you are “a friend of the Jewish community who communicates the joy of his own faith, while … conveying profound respect for the spiritual gift of the other.” Is that a good fit for you? You must be busy with Catholic Relief Services.
Since New York is second only to Israel in its number of Jewish citizens, I want to take that with the utmost seriousness. So far, the dialogue, the friendship and the neighborly meetings with the Jewish community have been most inspirational and constructive. So, I’m honored and welcome the new invitation to serve.
I had considered giving up the chairmanship of CRS, although it’s a duty I relish, because of the demands on my time. Then I decided that my role here would give CRS more prominence and publicity, and the executive director, Ken Hackett, said that he still finds me accessible and attentive as chairman of the board to his needs. So far, so good. I look forward to continuing through my last year.
(The CRS Ambassadors program at Cabrini College and Villanova University) is one of our priorities. We want to be able to respond to the numbers of young people who want to give a year or two of their lives in service to the world’s poor in the name of Jesus Christ. We literally cannot keep up with the number who want to serve overseas. One of our goals is to expand (the program).
Does your position as spiritual leader of New York make you a major voice in the USCCB?
Like it or not, I suppose that I am, not because of Timothy Dolan, but because I inherited the cathedra at St. Patrick’s Cathedral; whoever occupies that has more attention rendered to him because of his role as the archbishop of New York. John Paul II referred to New York as the “capital of the world.” And St. Patrick’s is not just a museum or a tourist stop; it’s a real living, breathing, praying church. An Episcopalian friend of mine told me the story of a cab driver who was asked by a fare to be taken to Christ Church. He took him to St. Patrick’s. When the person said, “This is not Christ Church,” the cabbie said, “I don’t know much about religion, but I know that when Christ comes to town, this is where he stays.”
There’s something transcendent, something tangibly pious about the cathedral, situated as it is at Fifth Avenue and Rockefeller Center. The rector, Msgr. Robert Ritchie, opens the vast bronze doors to the street whenever the weather permits, to give the impression that “You’re welcome.” And people will come in and find themselves refreshed and spiritually uplifted from a busy, hectic day.
How do the demands of your ministry affect your own spiritual life, and how would a typical day for the archbishop of New York go?
I concluded a long time ago that to nurture my spiritual life through a good chunk of time in prayer, spiritual reading, reverent celebration of the Mass is not just a hobby, not just a luxury, not just a good idea: That’s essential for survival. And the bigger the challenge that you have in the Church, the more you find yourself on your knees. One of the great gifts I’ve inherited is to have a chapel literally next to my study, so first thing every morning I’m in that chapel. I literally step from my dining room into the magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral, so there I offer Mass every morning at 7:30, which is the heart of my day.
I returned to a custom of Cardinal John O’Connor of always offering the 10:15 Mass at St. Patrick’s on Sunday morning. I find that Mass to be particularly exhilarating. You’ve got over 2,000 people there, the choir is superb, the quality of the liturgy is excellent, and it’s a real icon of the Church universal. I try to visit the parishes of the archdiocese on Saturday evening and late Sunday afternoon. So, I say three Sunday Masses on a weekend — what priest doesn’t these days?
What are the big needs that you face in the changing culture of the times, especially the growing popularity of same-sex “marriages” and the battle over conscience clauses for physicians and Catholic hospitals?
Those are burning issues. Recently, we bishops have spoken about the threats that seem to be high in American culture to the whole religious-liberty question, the whole First Amendment question. There’s no denying the fact that there seem to be potent voices in our culture that would like to diminish if not mute the voice of religion and morality in public discourse, not only because we believe heart and soul in truth, but also because America is at her best when people pay attention to morals, to ethics, to religious values.
And, indeed, most of the grand causes in this noble experiment in democracy that we call the United States of America, from the Revolution itself, to anti-slavery, to the peace movement, to the civil-rights movement, to the pro-life movement have all been generated by people’s strong religious faith. To take the voice away, to diminish it, would be to gravely imperil our American experience.
We can’t let that happen. We must ensure that the Church is strong in its defense of its right to speak the truth. We don’t come at these combustible issues merely from religion; we also remind our neighbors and our fellow citizens that this is part of ingrained human reason, and this is part of natural law, of certain inalienable rights that are normative in the American constitutional tradition.
How have you been treated by the exuberant secular New York press?
The press has been exceptionally attentive; they have been interested in what I have to say; they have joined in the chorus of welcome, and I can’t keep up with the requests for interviews and articles and appearances. Now, I know that’s going to take a nosedive sooner or later and, as a matter of fact, as I’m speaking with you now, there are some matters that have been aired in the local press that I feel as a Catholic leader that I must take strong exception to, and intend to do so. As Catholics, we must never pass up an opportunity to catechize.
Paul Barra writes from
Reidville, South Carolina.
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