‘Larger Than Life’ Figure Dolan Taught What Priesthood Means
by Father Raymond J. de Souza
National Catholic Register
The garrulous Timothy Michael Dolan, preacher and raconteur extraordinaire, chooses his
words carefully. And when ordained a bishop in 2001 in St. Louis, his first words were: “Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on me! Immaculate Heart of Mary, help me!”
He then went on to express his joy in the priesthood, his love for the Church, his delight in his parishioners — and also brought the house down with his ever-ready wit. The newly appointed archbishop of New York is just that — a larger-than-life figure completely at home with the simple faith of ordinary Catholics.
Raised in a Catholic home in Ballwin, Mo., young Tim learned the faith from parents who never missed Mass — but also looked forward to cold beer and barbecues on Sunday afternoon. That formation came to the fore when Archbishop Dolan remarked that, among other things he looked forward to in New York, he noticed hot dog vendors close by the archbishop’s residence on Madison Avenue.
Critics of Archbishop Dolan consider the backslapping, guffawing, cigar-smoking, beer-drinking prelate an old Irish neighborhood pol, eager to lead the St. Patrick’s Day parade but not sophisticated in the life of the mind or the life of the spirit. A faithful son of St. Louis, he knows not only where every parish is, but how to get from the local rectory to the nearest Steak-n-Shake, a Midwestern diner chain. A nice fellow, his critics agreed, but not to be taken seriously.Those of us who lived under his guidance at the Pontifical North American College (NAC) know better.
Father Dolan served as rector of the American seminary in Rome for seven years (1994-2001). He was my rector from 1998-2001.
We were the privileged ones who regularly heard him preach — and he is a superlative preacher — not only during Mass, but at the memorable rector’s conferences that were later collected and published to great acclaim under the title Priests for the Third Millennium.
The printed page cannot capture fully his enthusiasm — and is excised of many of the in-house comments that provoked laughter all round — no one enjoys his jokes more than he does. Yet, the conferences are evidence of a fine mind at work, with a facility for bringing the Church’s perennial wisdom to current challenges. A historian by training, Msgr. Dolan taught a course on American Church history at both the Gregorian and Angelicum universities; a demanding professor, he did not cut corners for his own seminarians.
As a seminary rector, Msgr. Dolan lived the “both/and” intuition that is at the heart of the Catholic approach: both popular piety and liturgical prayer; both traditional music and contemporary styles of worship; both adherence to a rule and an encouragement of creative initiative; both theological orthodoxy and a cultivated life of the mind; both serious formation and fraternal good times; and, yes, both the pasta and the main course at pranzo. It was from Msgr. Dolan that I learned that the priesthood could be spiritually demanding, emotionally fulfilling, intellectually rigorous — and fun!
Before arriving at the NAC, I knew that the priesthood was a life of noble service, but looked ahead to a life of duty rather than looking forward to an enjoyable life. It has been repeated so often that it has become a caricature, but the first time I ever saw the rector, rosary in one hand and cigar in the other, I knew that I had found a compelling model of the priesthood.
My fellow seminarian at the time, Father Roger Landry, editor of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., newspaper, The Anchor, has commented that Archbishop Dolan is a needed corrective to the perception that the Catholic faith is a necessary burden that strips the joy out of life. “If there’s any priest in America capable of preaching the ‘good news’ of the Catholic faith with contagious enthusiasm and heart-piercing eloquence,” he wrote upon hearing the news of the New York appointment, “it’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan.”
The appointment itself showed Archbishop Dolan at his best.
Not so much the bonhomie — though only he could have slapped Cardinal Edward Egan on the back. It surely has been some time since the cardinalatial back had been so heartily thumped, but, then, Dolan has rarely encountered a back he considered unslappable. The real Dolanesque touch was to use the questions about the appointment as a teaching moment about the liberating potential of obedience.
“I wasn’t asked,” he said simply of the message from the apostolic nuncio. He was told of the Holy Father’s decision, and, therefore, the path was clear. Obedience can be liberating. It’s a Christian truth, but a disputed one, and something that many of those watching in New York and Milwaukee may not have considered before. It reminded me of the rector’s conference on obedience that he gave to us years before — an indication that this jolly teacher is capable of speaking hard truths.
“My own spiritual director believes that it is precisely in obedience — not in celibacy, strangely enough — that the priest of today is most countercultural,” Dolan said. “This culture of denigrating obedience is particularly obvious in our beloved United States of America, which was founded on disobedience. We legitimately celebrate the courageous patriotism of the revolutionaries who risked all to gain independence from an oppressive king, yes, but we also admit that at times we do equate liberty with license, freedom with rights unbridled by duty; that we exalt dissent over docility, and view with suspicion authority, tradition and accepting things purely on faith. … Astute foreign observers of the American scene, from Tocqueville to Solzhenitsyn, and from Bedini to Mother Teresa, have keenly perceived this flaw in American society, namely, to resist obedience to God, to tradition, and to moral principles, for the sake of choice, convenience or personal preference.”
When Archbishop Dolan arrives in New York, America will discover an articulate, critical preacher of the Gospel, deeply learned in the history of the Church in the United States, and confident of her future despite all the manifest difficulties. But more than that, America will rediscover that it is a proud, happy thing to be a Catholic.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston (Canada) and was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1999-2003.