At 64, Cardinal Timothy Dolan is poised to be a force in Catholic life for a long time. In late August, he sat down for a wide-ranging interview about Pope Francis, anti-Christian persecution, the Obama administration, the Church’s sexual abuse scandals, hard choices in New York, and more.

(Read more about John Allen’s interview with Cardinal Dolan)

In Part 1 of Crux’s exclusive interview, which took place at his residence in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dolan talks about the “Francis effect,” including the non-ideological bishops this pope seems to want … and the climate of refreshing honesty – and occasionally irritating uncertainty — he seems to be creating in the Vatican.

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Crux: Pope Francis is almost at the 18-month mark. What grade do you give him?

Dolan: Oh, I’d give him an unqualified A. I thank God for him every day, because he’s a gift to the Church.

What’s very clear to me is that he really listened to the General Congregations that anticipated the conclave. [Note: These are daily meetings of the cardinals in Rome before the papal election, designed to work out the main issues facing the Church.] He was extraordinarily attentive, he listened carefully, and we cardinals aren’t surprised by what he’s doing because we can recall that it was all talked about on the floor.

Seriously, no surprises? You weren’t surprised, for example, by ‘Who am I to judge?

Yes, there would be some surprises, but they’re pleasant surprises.

My biggest surprise, and it’s a good one, is that he’s moving at the speed at which he is. He’s got a beautiful blend of humility and self-confidence, and he himself is willing to do what he encourages us to do, which is to not be afraid to have some accidents. There are moments when he might rethink … ‘I was misinterpreted there, people took me the wrong way.’ But it’s well worth those periodic misinterpretations, because the general record has been such a smashing success.

Look, as a local bishop, I’m pretty pragmatic. My question remains, is the pope helping me or hurting me? This pope is helping me immensely. At this stage, it’s not about specific programs, but it’s a matter of persona, of tone, of personality. There’s something in the last 18 months that’s refreshing, which is that people on the street are interested in the Church. This is a Church that used to have a public face of being old, craggy, and nay-saying, and now it’s thought of as young, exciting, daring.

You’ve got people who ordinarily wouldn’t even speak about the Church, or faith, or God, who will say to me, ‘We really like this new pope. We’re listening to what he’s saying.’ For a guy like me who’s pretty nuts and bolts about things, I’d send the pope a dozen roses because he’s helping me do my job better. He has succeeded in giving the Church a facelift.

Are you surprised there are still so many competing interpretations of Francis? From Che Guevara in a cassock to an archconservative in sheep’s clothing, and everything in between, he almost seems like a human Rorschach test.

I’d say that’s accurate, but it doesn’t really surprise me. The same is true of most of us. When I hear people talk about their parish priest, they’ll say they’re still trying to figure him out. People say they’re still trying to figure me out! After a while you just want to shrug and say, well, ‘Here I am, and I don’t really know if there’s much more to figure out.’

He is so sincere, so unafraid of the truth … he’s so unconcerned about marketing and PR that it’s working for him!

I live on Madison Avenue, which is the PR and marketing center of the world. I’ve actually had internationally acclaimed marketers say to me, ‘Whoever is doing this guy’s PR is a genius! Who is he? Who is she?’ I have to tell them, ‘There’s nobody … it’s all him.’ He doesn’t need somebody to say, ‘You know what would be a good idea on your first day? Go to your hotel to get your own luggage and pay your own bill.’ It’s just who he is. He is genuine, unscripted, uncoached.

Eighteen months in, do you notice a difference in the bishops Francis is appointing?

Yes, because right here in New York I just got three new auxiliary bishops. You know how that works … it meant I had to send nine names [to Rome]. As a matter of fact I sent 12, because they asked for three more. I sent a pretty wide array. Thank God we’re blessed in the Archdiocese of New York with a great bullpen, so it was pretty easy for me to send a dozen names. I was waiting like everybody else to see who the three would be.

What did he do? He chose three parish priests, guys with immense street credibility. Two of them spent most of their time in Hispanic parishes, and even though they’re not Hispanic they speak flawless Spanish. They’re also men who are older, so I got one who’s 70, one 69, and one 63. One of them, John Jenik, asked if he could call me ‘Tim’ now, and I said, ‘Hell, at your age you can call me ‘Sonny’!’ [Jenik is 70, Dolan 64.]

Presumably Francis is not personally involved in picking auxiliary bishops, so what you’re saying is that the system has figured out what he wants?

You’d like to think that, yes. That’s obviously a good model of leadership, which is that given my principles and preferences, these are the kinds of guys I want to see.

In the street, there’s a perception that Francis wants a shift from hardliners to moderates among the bishops. Do you see that?

Nationally, we don’t have enough of a scorecard yet to say. At least with these three guys, though, none of them would be known as ideologues or hardliners anywhere. Jenik is sort of your classic social justice guy, on the street serving the poor. Peter Byrne is also a classic social justice guy, especially with the pro-life issues and outreach to the poor. John O’Hara is just a good, loveable, folksy pastor, who has a particular aptitude for parish planning.

Look, we’re all waiting for Chicago. [Pope Francis is currently preparing to name a new Archbishop of Chicago to replace Cardinal Francis George, who is 77 and in failing health.] I can tell you that Francis takes a very hands-on, personal approach to the appointment of bishops. … Let’s face it, we’re still in April of the baseball season with this pope, but what would seem to stand out is that there’s a preference for men with seasoned pastoral ability.

So far, there also seems a preference for people who would not be associated with any one ideological camp.

Eighteen months in, do you notice any difference in the way the Vatican works?

Here’s the change I notice. There seems to be a refreshing honesty that one did not always detect before. These days, when you ask for guidance or for answers on something, officials will say, ‘You know, we’re wondering the same thing. You’re not the first bishop who has asked us this. We do know that the pope has asked us about it, we know it’s under consideration … stay tuned.’

In a way that’s irritating, because I’m not getting an answer. On the other hand, Vatican officials are laudably deferential to a new breeze, and they’re wondering themselves about what directions the pope may set. They’re grateful he’s been listening to them and consulting them, and they’re somewhat on the edge of their seat waiting for a new direction to implement.

I will tell you that there are some aspects [of the Vatican under Francis] that are frustrating. For instance, as a bishop, one of the things you want to do is to get people access to the pope. In the old days, when I had an influential person I wanted to get into the line at the audience to shake the pope’s hand, or into his morning Mass, that used to be easy because you knew who to go to. Now, you don’t. I can write, and they seem very attentive, but it doesn’t seem as predictable as it used to be.

For instance, I’ve got the coach of the New York Giants, an influential Catholic who takes his faith seriously, who says to me, ‘Cardinal Dolan, I’m going to Rome. Would it be possible to get into the pope’s morning Mass?’ I have to say, ‘Coach Coughlin, I hope you can. Something tells me that if the pope knew you were coming, he’d sure like you there. I don’t quite know how to do it now, but I’ll try my best.’ There’s an area where some of the wondering, and the benevolent confusion, might be a little frustrating.

Honestly, though, so what? These are just housekeeping details.

Speaking of a shift from hardliners to moderates, some have styled the election of Francis as a setback for you because by reputation you’re a neocon and he’s a progressive. What do you make of those perceptions?

I have heard that. It’s only frustrating if people think that’s the kind of thing that might cause me agony, because it doesn’t. That’s not the kind of thing that’s going to make me lose sleep at night. Actually, what’s frustrating is that sometimes it’s predicated on the perception that under Pope Benedict I had this amazing entrée and clout, and I don’t think that was ever true! I never saw myself as the ‘go-to’ guy with Benedict. It’s like there’s a supposed cleavage between Benedict favorites, who are now out of favor, and Francis favorites who never had entrée with Benedict. I think all of that is exaggerated.

Do you ever worry that when you do something perceived to be in the spirit of Francis, people are going to say, ‘He’s just trying to suck up to the new boss?’

Those who would interpret people in the Church, or leaders in the Church, as politically motivated or wanting to curry favor with the boss are always going to think that, aren’t they? You’re right, now people will say, ‘Dolan’s doing that because this is what Francis wants.’ More often they say, ‘Dolan should be doing X’ … You know, ‘Why hasn’t he sold the house?’ That can get frustrating, only because of the misinterpretation involved.

Recently I visited an immigrant center where we’re taking in the kids fleeing Central America. The way some journalists might write it up is, ‘Following what Pope Francis would do, Cardinal Dolan is up here.’ Now, I’m thrilled Pope Francis would do it, but I didn’t wait for him to tell me to do it. I was doing it already! It’s the same with the jails: ‘Pope Francis visited a jail on Holy Thursday, so now Cardinal Dolan is at this jail.’ No, I was going to jails six or seven times a year even before Francis came in.

Are you feeling damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

Let me give you a concrete example, which will be very evident this fall. We’ve got some delicate decisions to make about merging and closing parishes. I already know from some of the pre-controversy that I’ll get it from both sides.

Some will say, ‘You can’t close this parish because it serves the poor, and this is contrary to what Pope Francis is saying.’ Others will say, ‘You must merge these parishes because you’re spending so much money keeping the two of them open, and by bringing them together you’ll be able to serve the poor better, and that’s what Pope Francis would want you to do.’

You get both sides quoting Pope Francis, and that can be a headache.

In tomorrow’s installment, Dolan discusses Pope Francis’ comments on US airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and what he thinks Francis could do to call out moderate Muslim voices about anti-Christian persecution.