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On the Papabile Cardinal Dolan

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 02/27/13 - updated on 06/07/17

The Cardinal has good credentials and good contacts, plus a jovial personality

I once heard Timothy Cardinal Dolan speak at a prayer breakfast in Los Angeles. He delivered a rousing, solidly Scriptural address in which he called on the crowd of media professionals to be involved in the New Evangelization with passion, zeal, humanity, and good humor.

A genial, people-loving prelate, he worked the crowd afterward, 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. In Los Angeles I saw a natural pastor, disarming in his humor and good-natured joshing, while delivering a dynamic and orthodox message.

Timothy Dolan was born and brought up in America’s heartland – strongly Catholic St. Louis, Missouri. One of five children, he attended a junior seminary and earned his BA in philosophy from Cardinal Glennon College – a seminary in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. 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 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 Archbishop of Milwaukee, Wisconsin the following year. The archdiocese was in bad shape, reeling from poor leadership and priestly scandals. Dolan pensioned off bad priests and attempted to turn the archdiocese around, but after only seven years, he was tapped to serve the 2.5 million Catholics in New York City – the second largest see in the United States after Los Angeles.

Could the jovial Archbishop of New York be the first American pope? Dolan has good credentials and good contacts. John Allen, the veteran Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, says many of his meetings with Cardinals invariably begin with a light hearted anecdote about the charismatic Dolan.

Dolan’s affability and quick intelligence sit well with the need to communicate the faith effectively. 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 humor, and serious depth at the same time. But Dolan is not all jokes and anecdotes – he has stood up President Obama in the controversy over funding of contraceptives and abortion. On the world stage, Dolan would emerge as a much beloved happy warrior, countering the shy gentleness of the bookish Benedict.

However, when compared to other candidates, Dolan 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 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 Ouellet, who is a respected theologian, missionary to Latin America, and fluent in six languages, Dolan comes across as a lightweight. 

However, popes are not chosen simply for their academic accomplishments or their linguistic abilities. The primary question is not “What does the resume 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 vigor to be a dynamic global evangelist, then Dolan could be the man. If they are also looking for an able administrator and an efficient new broom to sweep the Curia clean, then 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, Dolan could be the man.

This article is an abridged version of an article first published in London’s Catholic Herald newspaper.
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:
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