NEW YORK. Interview with the new Archbishop
Unity in faith, pluralism of cultures
Meeting with Timothy Michael Dolan, new Metropolitan Archbishop of New York
Interview with Archbishop Timothy Michael Dolan by Giovanni Cubeddu
The Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan with the workers on the construction site of the new subway [© Associated Press/LaPresse]
TIMOTHY DOLAN: Yes, definitely. You are correct, there is a sense of hope in the election of President Obama and in his first months. No matter how much one might disagree with the policies of President Barack Obama – and I would be one who would have disagreements – one cannot deny that he speaks eloquently of hope, and that a lot of his dreams and visions are very encouraging and challenging for the United States, and very consoling as well. He really seems sincere in wanting to be a bridge, and to bring people together, and we cannot take that away from him. I would think it is nearly impossible for us to imagine the joy and the pride of African-Americans in the election of the first African-American President. It’s so good to see how proud they are, and rightly so, to see one of their own finally in the White House. It would be similar, maybe, to us Catholics in 1960 when one of our own, John F. Kennedy, an Irish-American Catholic, was elected President. I can remember as a boy – I was only ten years old then – the exhilaration, the pride, the joy. In retrospect, as I look back now, there are many policies of President Kennedy that now I would disagree with, but I am still very proud of him and I am still very grateful for the hope, challenge, and inspiration that he gave; this is also very true with President Obama.
He seems a very sincere man.
When I was named Archbishop of New York, he called me, and I could tell he was very sincere. This was not some political strategy when he said to me, “I just want to tell you congratulations, and I’m praying for you and I’m asking you to pray for me”. He also said, “I know how wonderful the Catholic Church is in the Archdiocese of New York and certainly in the United States of America, and I need you very much and I pray for your leadership”. I could tell he meant it. I think some of the progress that he has made in speaking about relations with Islam, with some practical overtures for peace in the Middle East, with his desire to have an equitable and expansive healthcare network, with his attempts to fix the economy — these are promising. One might disagree sometimes with the “what” of his doing, but you can still admire the “how” he’s doing it, and I will not take that away from him. He has given a sense of hope.
And in the city of New York?
DOLAN: In New York, where there are many poor people, many African-Americans, and many immigrants, he gives a particular sense of excitement and promise because these people often feel on the margins, and to have someone who comes from an African-American background to now have the highest office in the land gives them a certain sense of inclusion that would be exciting in New York. New York City, of course, is traditionally the turf of the Democratic Party, so they would be happy anyway.
But, all of that having been said…?
DOLAN: I must be honest to say one of the things that very much dims and lessens that sense of hope would be his stance about the life issues, which are of premier importance to us as Catholics. I find myself praying hard that his wonderful dreams of taking care of the poor, defending the most helpless and achieving a just, fair, equitable society, that this will include the most fragile life in the United States, namely, the life of the baby in the womb. Until that happens, many, many Catholics would guard their support of him.
As Archbishop now you bear a heavier responsibility. How is the church of New York seen closely from within?
DOLAN: It’s an interesting question, because as you know, I just happened to live in Rome for many years. I find New York to be very much like Rome in its catholicity, in it’s universality, in it’s all-embracing character. This is the first feature. The Archdiocese of New York, which I’m now honored to serve as shepherd, is a wonderful mosaic of the universality of the Church. Everyday, when I go into St Patrick’s Cathedral, I see Filipinos, Chinese, Africans, Latinos, people from Haiti, people of German background, Irish background, Italian background. Everyday I meet with Jewish leaders. Everyday I meet with people from all over the world, and I am reminded of the colonnades of Bernini which reach out and embrace the world, and the Archdiocese of New York does that. Every Sunday, somewhere in the Archdiocese, we have Mass in thirty-three languages – thirty-three languages! Is that not tremendous, the universality of the Church?
DOLAN: What strikes me about New York is how at home everybody feels. You would think, because there were so many immigrants, so many people from different countries, that they might feel that they were just passing through, but they seem to be at home in New York, there seems to be a pride. You will sense that they’re very devoted to their neighborhood and to their parish. They will talk about their new parishes, where they go to Mass, where they went to school. They are very proud of New York. They’ve adopted it as a home because in America, of course, we’re all outsiders except Native Americans, because we all came here. And New York was very often the first stop. I said in my opening homily that what the Statue of Liberty is from an earthly point of view – the woman who is greeting people and making them feel at home – the Holy Mother Church is from a supernatural point of view; it was the Catholic Church that welcomed people, got them jobs, taught their children, helped them learn English and settled them in. That’s what the Archdiocese of New York has done for 200 years, and that’s what we still want to do: make them feel at home as we prepare them for their heavenly home, their eternal home. A third would be, how shall I say it, in enjoys a well-oiled infrastructure.
Obama with his daughter Sasha
[© Associated Press/LaPresse]
DOLAN: The Archdiocese of New York is “well-oiled,” it runs very smoothly and efficiently, and I praise Cardinal Egan for that, I praise Cardinal O’Connor, because the stature of the Church, of the Archdiocese of New York is high. Politicians look to it for encouragement, neighborhoods look to it for help, educators look to it for support. We had a former mayor in New York City, Mayor Edward Koch, who was a very prominent, successful mayor, and he said that the Catholic Church in NY is the glue, the colla, that keeps the city together with our Catholic Charities, with our soup kitchens, with our schools, with our parishes. It’s what brings cohesion. It’s the well-oiled machinery of the Archdiocese of New York that does that so beautifully. The Church is very much alive. It’s vibrant, it’s growing. When I go to Sunday Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, it is always filled. People are at Mass, at Sunday Mass, standing room only. So in the parishes, we need new churches, we need new schools ... and not just alive in numbers, but alive in spirit. We have many problems, we have as many problems if not more than some other dioceses, but the Archdiocese of New York would still be very much a microcosm of the vitality of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Would you also say that the Church in the United States is pluralistic?
DOLAN: Oh, very much so, very much so ... very pluralistic. But the magic of Catholicism to me is not how pluralistic we are, but how united we are in the face of pluralism. So when I offer Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, when I look out, there would be visitors from all over the world, there would be people from poor parishes in the Archdiocese of New York, there would be recently arrived immigrants, there would be fifth or sixth generation Irish policemen, there would be people from California, people from Harlem, people from the Bronx. And yet they all feel united. In the Church, we are all at home, we’re all in the home of Our Mother. And so, you’re right, there’s an overwhelming diversity in pluralism in the Catholic Church in the United States, but, essentially, we’re united. There are two places where the people feel united…
DOLAN: At Mass on Sunday, where we feel united even in our diversity and the second place is . . . when I go to Yankee Stadium for a baseball game and we all sing the national anthem. Everybody’s united even if the Yankees are playing Boston!
Maybe even your colleagues, the American bishops and cardinals may feel united at Yankee Stadium…
DOLAN: It’s difficult… No comment! (laughs) We just had our bishops’ meeting last week and you know, there are many challenges and difficulties in the Catholic Church in the United States. But bishop after bishop stood up and said thank God we are united in essentials. We may disagree in approach, we may disagree in the style, we may disagree in methods, but we are in unity when it comes to essentials. As St. Augustine said, “unity in essentials, diversity in non-essentials, charity in everything”. And that applies very much to the bishops in the United States.
What was your reaction to the last Encyclical letter? How has it been hailed in a country that created a major economic and financial crisis and now is struggling to recover?
DOLAN: People here in the United States are learning the hard way that our economy cannot continue on as it has, that it needs reform, and that our dealings in commerce, business, politics, investment, and trade must be guided by biblical values and virtues. Pope Benedict’s encyclical will be a welcome light.
As a historian, you went through the never-ending “identity issue” of the American church. What are your conclusions, if any?
DOLAN: The topic of the identity of the Catholic Church in the United States is a very crucial question. The late Fr Richard John Neuhaus – you know him, he was a wonderful theologian and a very astute observer of religion in America – used to say that the major question we face is, do we call ourselves “American Catholics” or “Catholic Americans”. He would say we should call ourselves “Catholic Americans.” We are not Americans who happen to be Catholic. We are Catholics who live in the U.S. The normative value in our life should be our Catholic faith: the decisions we make, the values we hold dear, the priorities that we have in our life, the way we think and dream and act and plan would be most formed by our Catholic faith. Now that’s the ideal, of course, because we also know that perhaps the major challenge to us is that the culture around us has more normative value than our faith. You even face that here in Europe ... correct? If you have a secular culture that does not support the faith, then our soul can be in jeopardy. Of course in Europe, in Italy, there would be more of a culture that at least traditionally is allied with the values of the faith. For instance, the Feast of Peter and Paul, is a holiday here, not just a holy day, but a holiday. Because you have a Catholic calendar, you would have a help to keeping a Catholic culture. In the U.S., we don’t. Some say we no longer have a Christian culture. I don’t agree with that. I think we still have a culture among our people – even if sometimes the politicians, universities, entertainment, and media don’t – the people still have very basic ingrained Christian values.
Timothy Michael Dolan in front of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, on 15 April 2009, the day in which he took possession of the diocese of New York [© Associated Press/LaPresse]
The major challenge in the history of the Catholic Church in the U.S. is how to be both a good Catholic and a patriotic American. Catholic leaders are always saying it is not only possible that one can be a good Catholic and a good American, it is natural, because American values at their core are based on natural law, faith, and Judeo-Christian morality. So, one can be a loyal American citizen and a good sincere Catholic; there should be an alliance there. That has always been the tradition or the challenge, the hope, the dream of Catholics in the U.S. But we also know that we have to decide what is of the essence of our faith, which we can never compromise, and what is not essential that we can assimilate or change to adapt to the culture. We had to adapt, we had to assimilate, we had to change some things, but that didn’t affect the essence of the faith. We must determine what’s of the essence of the faith, and what is of the non-essential, and sometimes that’s a little tricky, a little difficult.
There’s an ongoing dialogue between the Church and the world. Let’s remember Paul VI’s Ecclesiam Suam.
DOLAN: You are right and of course that insight of Paul VI from Ecclesiam Suam in 1964 would have been accented by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who would say that our Catholic values do not take us away from civic responsibilities but reinforce them, so that the Catholic Church at her best affirms and strengthens what is most noble, decent, virtuous, and liberating in the human project. John Paul II said this all the time. Benedict XVI says the Church is at her best when she says “yes, yes” not “no, no”. So we say “yes” to what is best in society, we say “yes” to what is most noble and freeing and leads to dignity in human enterprise. That of course is when the Church is a light to the world, salt to the earth, leaven to the dough. And that’s what we’re called to be. Catholic American history has been very challenged in that because in the U.S. it’s not part of the culture.
So you have to freely choose to be a Catholic, right?
DOLAN: In traditional Catholic countries, sometimes faith is taken for granted, but in the U.S. you can’t take your faith for granted. You must choose it, because everyday you are in an environment where your faith will be challenged and questioned, so you have to choose it, and you embrace it, and you love it and you learn it. I’m not saying you always do that, because part of our problem too is that, even in traditional Catholic families, sometimes people take the faith for granted and drift away from it. You’re familiar with the recent findings of the Pew Center out of Philadelphia that is very respected for research and religion. They said that the so-called “inherited religions” are suffering. What are the inherited religions?... Judaism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Islam. They didn’t conclude too much about Islam, because they didn’t have statistics, but the inherited religions have people now leaving them. It used to be that if you were born a Catholic, you never left the Church. You might stop practicing, but you would always identify yourself as a Catholic. The same was true for someone born a Jew. That’s not true anymore. So now you hear some of our people claiming, “I may have been raised a Catholic, but now I have left the Church, I am no longer a Catholic, and I’ve joined another religion”. That’s a tremendous pastoral challenge for us because the Church is a loving Mother who breaks into tears when her children leave home. She wants them to come back.