NEW YORK — As Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was preparing to celebrate the annual vigil Mass for the March for Life in Washington, D.C. last January, his cell phone rang.

On the other line was the curator of the Met Museum’s blockbuster fall exhibit on Michelangelo. The show would be closing soon, she told him, and as cardinal archbishop of the city, they wanted to be sure he’d see it before it left town.

The image of a Catholic prelate headlining an event against abortion is expected. The sight of him as a sought-after cultural point of reference, courted by one of the world’s leading art museums, probably is less so.

Equally unexpected is the idea that he might go on to brush shoulders with New York’s glitterati at what most consider the Oscars of the fashion world.

Yet in some peculiar way, when Dolan showed up at the 2018 Met Gala on Monday evening — fashion’s most glamorous and photographed event of the year — preconceived caricatures or stereotypes of everyone involved became as outdated as last year’s fashion styles.

“How beautiful is it that these people that you might tend to caricature as stuffy or aloof or with their nose in the air, would want to have anything to do with religion or representatives of the Church?” Dolan told Crux on Tuesday morning.

“It was just the opposite. They were very appreciative, approachable, and very respectful.”

For the usual red carpet attendees, it was a moment in which they were presented with a lived example of the Church open to the world around it — both via Dolan, but also the cooperation of the Vatican in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition on “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”

For Dolan, he would soon realize that despite his own original apprehension about participating in the event, both its organizers and the attendees were there to pay tribute to the “Church’s legacy to arts and culture.”

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Speaking just hours after the last champagne cork was popped and cleanup crews hurried to prepare the museum to open to the public, Dolan described the night as an “upbeat and inspirational evening…and a boost for the Church.”

When the Met Costume Institute’s curator, Andrew Bolton, and Met board member and Vogue editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, sought Dolan’s blessing on the event, he said that while he thought the idea, on the whole, was “very promising,” he was also nervous about potential irreverence and the possibility of the evening turning into an occasion for jabs at the Church.

They assured him that they would deliver a respectful celebration of the Church’s cultural influence, and on Tuesday he was happy to report those promises were kept, not just by the Met’s planners and staffers, but by attendees as well.

Catholic Roots Remembered

Dolan described the scene inside the Met where he greeted hundreds of the evening’s starlets — all of whom seemed “genuinely happy to see me,” he told Crux — as a time in which he was overwhelmed with individuals approaching him to talk about their Catholic roots.

“A lot of people were honest to say that they’ve been less than faithful to the Church of their origin,” said Dolan. “But an evening like this brings back lots of happy memories, and I thought, my, what a celebration of what we call the evangelization of culture.”

Evangelization of culture — an opportunity to offer a positive vision of what the Church is for, rather than what it is against — is one of the hallmarks of Dolan’s ministry says Bishop Robert Barron.

Barron, who is auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire ministries, told Crux that “by sheer force of his personality, [Dolan] is one of the best evangelizers on the scene today.”

“Just watch him walking up the main aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York at the beginning of Mass and you’ll clearly see what ‘affirmative orthodoxy’ looks like: confident, joyful, and engaging,” said Barron.

“As a careful student of American Church history, he grasps the subtle ways that the Church has entered into a dialogue — both creative and critical — with the institutions of the secular culture. This makes him a canny player on the scene today,” he added.

And what a scene the Met Gala is, not just in New York, but beyond, where onlookers wait all year to see what the likes of pop singers Madonna or Rihanna will wear on the famous red carpet walk, and where attendees are usually encouraged to dress in accordance with the evening’s theme.

Dolan said that in the early planning with Wintour and Bolton he requested a dispensation from walking the red carpet. They happily granted it — but as he later learned when speaking to Mitt and Ann Romney, with whom he was seated at dinner, not everyone who requested that privilege was granted it.

“I’m the only one who didn’t have to go out and buy an outfit,” Dolan said of the evening’s haute couture, noting that he wore his standard black house cassock with the matching red buttons and sash.

“I was really there to advocate for the exhibit, as I’m not really into fashion. Lord knows I buy my clothes from the big and tall section of J.C. Penny,” he quipped.

Yet for the organizers at the Met, they never wanted him there as just another fashion statement. They were seeking substance, too.

As Nancy Chilton, chief communications officer for the Met’s Costume Institute, told Crux,

“He brings the bigger view about the faith and its adherence to why beauty is so important in uniting people, and he shares that with everyone.”

Reviving the Catholic Imagination

If the evening commenced with some folks suspicious that religion would serve as a buzz kill to an otherwise good party, misgivings abounded, including with the cardinal.

“I may have been a little nervous and feeling out of place to have been there, but it struck me that a lot of people feel that way, even celebrities who are used to this,” Dolan explained.

As he made his way into the receiving line inside the Met, Dolan said he was surprised to see Hollywood megastar George Clooney standing alone.

He soon approached Dolan, recalling his latest trip to Rome where he met with Pope Francis — but what he said next shocked the cardinal.

Clooney said that he and his wife Amal, one of the Gala’s co-chairs, had recently been watching Dolan’s Facebook live videos from a trip to Lebanon in April. They then discussed the fact that Amal is Lebanese and part of the Druze minority in the country, a background Dolan said he knew well.

He added that he told Clooney that he knew of Amal’s “laudable advocacy and her sensitivity” around these issues, and that he surmised it must have given her an appreciation for the importance of religious freedom and the rights of minorities.

“You bet it did,” Clooney told the Cardinal.

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Dolan went on to describe other such encounters throughout the evening, where his own stereotypes were shattered — perhaps not unlike ones some attendees may have held about him or the Church.

For the naysayers — and just one glimpse at social media will evidence that there are many, convinced the Church should have never partnered up with the Met for the occasion — Dolan is quick to counter outside attempts to caricature the event as something that it was not, and instead, to see it as an opportunity.

“I did not find the spirit of the evening to be offensive or blasphemous at all,” he said.

“Was some of it edgy? Yes, but I never met any person that seemed to be snippy or snotty about the Church, or who intended anything to be offensive.”

“We could have had a lecture at the museum on the Catholic imagination and not too many people may have showed up, especially the crowd from last night. But when you do an evening like that, you get everybody,” he told Crux.

Boy, you talk about the public square — with some of the movers and shakers who were there — and they’re reminded of positive memories of the Church and of devotions, prayers, traditions, and liturgies, as many of them told me they were. This could only be for the good of the Church.”

“I was really happy to have been there,” Dolan added. “If this helps people rediscover those roots, then hallelujah, it’s a winner.”