Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is a former president of the US bishops’ conference, and at just 64 he’s positioned to be a force in Catholic life, both at home and abroad, for some time to come.
In the final installment of John Allen’s exclusive Crux interview, Dolan discusses a possible visit by Pope Francis to New York in September 2015, the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican and the current discipline banning divorced and remarried Catholics from communion, the sainthood cause of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, a looming round of parish closings in New York, as well as his personal legacy and whether he’s interested in finishing his career in Rome.
Crux: During his press conference on the way back from South Korea, the pope talked about a trip to the United States in September 2015 and mentioned that he might make a stop in New York. What’s the status of that?
Dolan: I’m wondering myself. Believe me, there’s nobody who wants to know more than me, and I get asked about it all the time. I sure hope it happens. I’ve invited him, both with a letter and also personally the two or three times I’ve been in his company.
Our mayor [Bill de Blasio] has gone out of his way to make it known this is a priority for him. His second day in office he called me and said, ‘I think I owe you an apology.’ He said that a good friend of his, Joseph Stiglitz, a Jewish economist at Columbia who serves on the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, was with him at the inauguration and told him he was going to Rome and would probably meet the pope. The mayor said he wrote out a handwritten letter inviting Francis to New York, and gave it to Stiglitz to give to the pope.
He said to me, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t follow protocol.’ I said, ‘Your Honor, I’m thrilled that you did it. I’ve already done it, and now that you’ve done it, you can pay for it!’
You think he’s coming?
I think he will. The other thing adding some urgency is that it will be the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s visit to the United Nations on the feast of St. Francis. I’d like to see him maybe retrace those steps. History is important to him.
How long you think he’ll be in town?
If he comes, probably just for a day.
If the morning is the UN, what do you hope his afternoon looks like?
What I’d love to see happen is for him to make a visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for prayer, to offer a blessing.
Will the renovations be finished? [St. Patrick’s Cathedral is currently undergoing extensive renovation to both the exterior and interior, the total bill for which is estimated at around $175 million.]
They sure will be if he shows up! That’s another reason I hope he comes, because it’ll give us the spark that we need, both in the physical work and in the fundraising.
I hope he’d take a nice stroll or drive through the streets of New York, so that our people can see him and he can see them. I also hope there will be a public Mass.
Yeah, Yankee Stadium.
When Benedict said Mass at Yankee Stadium in 2008, they set up the altar between second base and shortstop, so some people suggested Derek Jeter could give him tips on playing the infield. Got any plans for Jeter this time?
I’m going to ask Jeter to take up a second collection!
Let’s talk about the Synod of Bishops on the family in October. Who’s going for the United States?
[Louisville Archbishop] Joe Kurtz, as president of the conference, is sort of the only official guy. The Holy Father also asked [Archbishop William] Skurla [who leads the Ruthenian Church in Pittsburgh], which is a thoughtful and sensitive nod to the Eastern churches.
[Cardinal Donald] Wuerl and I, who are elected members of the secretariat of the synod, didn’t know at the last meeting whether we were expected to come or not. By the way, if you want to talk about something new under Francis, the meetings of the secretariat used to be … well, let’s just say you didn’t really look forward to them. But now, he comes to those meetings. He’s there. Anyway, I asked at the last meeting, ‘Should we plan on going, or is this just the presidents of the conferences?’ We got a clarification from [Cardinal Lorenzo] Baldisseri [head of the synod] that we’re expected to come. It’s not clear to me, though, whether we’re there as delegates, or more as listeners and sort of staff.
They also said they’d be inviting some laity, maybe a few married couples. Are there any Americans in that group?
We don’t know yet. One would hope that the new freshness and openness one finds within the internal operations of the Holy See will trickle down to this kind of logistical stuff, so that we can know what’s going on sooner and get on top of it. Let’s face it, if you went to somebody right now and asked them to come to the synod, they’d probably say, ‘But it’s a month from now … I’m teaching, or who’s going to babysit the kids?’ You can’t do it that way. We have been told that there will be experts and consultants appointed, but so far we don’t know who they are.
One hot-button issue is whether divorced and remarried Catholics ought to be able to receive Communion. Should people be expecting a dramatic change?
Probably not. Personally, I don’t see how there could be [a dramatic change] without running up against the teaching of the Church. What I hope the synod does instead is look at the bigger picture, figuring out ways to reintroduce people to the romance and adventure of a faithful, loving marriage.
You’ve gone through a pastoral planning process in New York that will lead to some tough decisions about merging and closing parishes. Are you satisfied with the process?
I’m very satisfied. You know, I admit I’m not a process guy. If it were up to me, I’d sit around with some good, street-wise men and women and just put together a list of what should close, what should merge, and what should be left open. But I know you can’t do it that way.
We’ve had a five-year process. When I got here five years ago, [Bishop] Dennis Sullivan, who was my vicar general and one of the most street-wise guys you’ll ever want to meet, said to me, ‘Tim, the major priority is pastoral planning.’ He said, ‘Terry Cooke tried to do it, and it went nowhere. John O’Connor tried to do it, and it went nowhere. Ed Egan wanted to do it and did some, so we’re poised for it. [Note: Cooke, O’Connor, and Egan are all former cardinal-archbishops of New York.] We need to do it in a systematic, careful process.’ It started back then. Two years ago we had the data, we’d gotten the stirrings of the people. There was a sense of real unanimity that something had to be done. Everybody says we’ve got too many parishes, everybody says some have to close … as long as it’s not mine!
We’ve got things in order. I’m not afraid to admit some apprehension, because now we have to make the decisions. In the next two weeks I’ve got three all-day meetings with my auxiliaries and the board of consultants that’s been receiving all this. We’ve got the list that came from the people, the list that’s been reviewed by the consultants, we’ve got the list that’s been approved by the pastoral council and the priests’ council. Now I have to decide if I’ll accept it as is, or whether there are other questions that have been raised and maybe we ought to rethink this one or that one.
When the dust settles, how many places you think you’ll have to close?
Right now, the recommendations they’ve given me are close to 60, out of a total of 380 parishes. I don’t think there’s going to be quite that many.
How are people reacting?
The first thing I’m hearing are ad-hoc comments from specific parishes, ‘Please don’t close us.’ The second, huge thing I’m hearing is, ‘Don’t back down. You’ve got to do it, because it has to be done.’ We might question a half-dozen or so, but in general this has to be done.
[Bishop Nicholas] DiMarzio [of Brooklyn], who went through this not long ago, told me, ‘Tim, swallow the bullet, do it, it will make sense.’
We just buried a guy in [Cardinal] Edmond Szoka who tried to do the right thing, but perhaps didn’t do it the right way. We look back to what he did in Detroit, and you talk about a courageous decision … he was maligned because he didn’t follow the process, but just did it. But he was ahead of the curve, and his successors have praised God for him. I praise God for tough decisions Ed Egan made, in terms tough decisions in administration. [Note: As Archbishop of Detroit in the late 1980s, Szoka presided over the closing of 35 parishes, at the time the largest such closing in American history.]
Do you have plans for dealing with the blowback?
We’ve not only talked about it, we anticipate it. In the parishes that Cardinal Egan had to close, he got it, and in some cases it’s still going on. By the way, this is another way the Holy See could help us. Pope Francis speaks about a collegial church in which you trust the bishops, so when people file canonical appeals against these closures, we’d like to get a speedy answer. We’d also like to think that there will be no apology, that the Holy See would say that our bias is to trust the local bishop. Rome’s duty in justice is to see that the bishop followed the right process, but the bias is that they trust him.
You’re confident what you’re doing will stand up to canonical scrutiny?
Two years ago, I asked an outside canonist to examine our process, tell us what we have to do, make sure there’s no stone unturned. You know who else has been helpful? [Cardinal Raymond] Burke. He said to me, ‘Make sure you do this, this and this, because I’m going to be on the Supreme Court when I get the appeals, and this is what we look for.’
It’s going to be painful. In a way, though, I’m kind of happy that people are upset when their parish closes, because it means they love their parishes and are loyal to them.
Do you ever get frustrated that some of the people who complain haven’t been there over the years to support the place?
We find that in some of the schools we’ve had to close, and I’ve said this when I meet with people. I’ve said, ‘Here’s the list of people upset with me for closing this school. I don’t see any of you on the list of those who have helped up until now.’
Speaking of New York, Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois, seems to fault the archdiocese for slowing down the beatification of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Is it true you’ve put on the brakes?
No, that’s not true. I share Bishop Jenky’s expectation and hope to go forward as quickly as possible, and I’m very grateful for all the work Peoria has done. I also share his frustration at the demands of any sainthood cause, because these things are never easy. In New York we know that from other causes we have in the system, such as Pierre Toussaint, Cardinal Terence Cooke, and Dorothy Day.
We’ve had some issues [with Peoria] over what to do with the remains of Archbishop Sheen and what relics we might be able to share, and I’m committed to doing whatever we can that’s consistent with Sheen’s own wishes, the wishes of his family, the instructions we get from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints [in the Vatican] and New York state law. The bottom line is that we want this cause to go forward as quickly as possible, and I thought I had shared that properly with Peoria and with the congregation.
I guess my next step is to write a formal letter to Bishop Jenky and the congregation, saying we’d be honored to take over the cause if that’s what seems best. Sheen was a bishop here and has deep ties to New York and we’re proud of him, so we’d be happy to do it, but we also want to respect Peoria.
Right now, most observers would probably say that your legacy starts with the religious freedom battles you fought as president of the bishops’ conference. Is that what you want to be remembered for?
I wouldn’t be happy if that were the main thing. I stand by the record, and I do think it was a high point in the history of the American hierarchy … not due to me, but to the consensus of my brother bishops, the way we stuck together. But I’d like to think that’s only an example, one among many, of what I try to be about, which is bringing the Gospel to the marketplace.
You no longer have the responsibility of the bishops’ conference, and you’re on the brink of getting past some tough local decisions. What’s your next act?
Good question. Look, we go through life thinking once I get this out of the way I can do, and I’ll be damned if something else doesn’t always come up. I went through the three years of being president thinking once I get this out of the way, I’ll have time for something else. Then I got into the parish planning process. You’ll never be free of that, and now I hope it will be a lifelong mission of mine. It’s not just about changing addresses and closing parishes. It’s what God’s people hope for in the leadership and pastoral outreach of their church.
Dennis Sullivan helped put together a series of very well organized listening sessions, which became part of the process, so we’ve heard God’s people surface things that now they want us to tend to. Now energy should be unleashed, because we’re not suffocated by the maintenance of museums.
What are they talking about? Let me give you some examples. We need a much more coordinated campus outreach. This is where our young people are. You know the Pew Center says that the major indicator of a person’s fidelity as an adult is if he or she had a positive religious experience in college. We’ve got to get big-time into that. Care of immigrants is another, as is building some new parishes where they’re needed and expanding the ones we’ve got. Marriage is a huge concern, keeping marriages together in an engaging way, restoring the luster and radiance of what I think is the great love story that the Church holds with the sacrament of marriage.
We’ve got to continue to solidify and strengthen our schools, without neglecting the 70 percent of our kids who are not in Catholic schools. Adult faith formation, engagement with culture, the arts, theatre, business … these are all areas where God’s people have said we want the Archdiocese of New York to be in the forefront. Right now we do fairly well, but I have to admit that my major energy is maintaining the massive infrastructure that we have. If a lot of that is freed up, we’ll be able to focus on these other pastoral issues.
You’re only 64, right in the sweet spot of the age range that guys are sometimes brought to Rome. At the moment, there’s no American heading a congregation or a council in the Vatican. If the pope calls and says ‘We need you here,’ is there a particular job in the Vatican that would appeal to you?
I don’t think so, no, unless he creates a new culinary department to help him work on an encyclical on eating or something. If I could make pastoral visits to the restaurants of Rome, maybe, but otherwise there’s nothing that really appeals.
If he asks, ‘What’s your preference, come to Rome or stay in New York,’ what’s your answer?
Lasciami stare! [“Let me stay!”]