By the time this is posted, our new Archbishop, Timothy Michael Dolan, will be in his office for a little over a week; in that short amount of time, he has certainly taken the City (and its environs) by storm! Already termed “The Happy Bishop” by the New York news media (link), in just eight days Archbishop Dolan has already seen a Yankee game, distributed food to the hungry at a Catholic Charities run food pantry, visited incarcerated women at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, and preached a Sunday homily from what is arguably the most prestigious pulpit in American Catholicism. The Archbishop began his tenure a week ago Wednesday in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral at a three hour Mass that displayed all of the beauty, pageantry, magisterial ritual and continuity of Roman Catholicism. (www.cny.org) In that packed Church, a Papal Representative, fellow Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Religious Men and Woman, Ecumenical Representative and leaders from other religious traditions, a Governor, current and former Mayors, Senators, Congressmen, State Representatives, dignitaries and ordinary parishioners – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – joined with many others who watched the coverage on all the New York media outlets at home, and together they participated in what could authentically be called the “inauguration” of the spiritual leader of the 2.5 million Catholics of the Archdiocese of the New York or, as Pope John Paul II termed the office, the “Archbishop of the Capital of the World”.
The evening before the official Liturgy of Installation, I had the great pleasure of being at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral for the somewhat more intimate but no less beautiful event where the people of the Archdiocese welcomed then Archbishop-Designate Dolan to his Cathedral Church. Called a “Canonical Possession“, this millennium old ceremony began with Archbishop Dolan knocking at the great bronze doors of Saint Patrick’s with a hammer; when he had completed his third series of knocks, the Cathedral doors were opened to him and he was greeted by a thunderous round of applause as he entered the bright warmth of his new “See” Church from the damp cold April evening air outside. He began his long march up the center aisle up to the sanctuary, and a solemn prayer service began. (link)
A couple of days later, I was having a conversation with several good friends before dinner, and I began to recount to them my experience of the previous two days. At first when we were “catching up” with each other’s recent experiences, and I told the group that I had attended a “Canonical Possession“, some of my listeners – who were less then familiar with official Ecclesial language – gave me a quizzical look and questioned whether I was going on an expedition to recover an artifact from a sunken warship or Revolutionary battlefield. I quickly cleared up their confusion by explaining the ceremony to them, and elaborated on the wonderful words that the Archbishop used – both in the Cathedral and in the print media that day – to describe his sense of his mission.
Far from being a parapet from which to attack that my friend’s comical misunderstanding could connote, the Archbishop’s words that day instead were that he would approach his office as an instrument of God’s abundant love. In an Op-Ed piece published that day for the New York Daily News, he stated in part that he “aim(s) to be a happy bishop, sharing joys and laughs…You will see me at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and…the new Yankee Stadium, and at processions and feast days and barbecues across our almost 400 parishes”. (link) Upon hearing this, my friends were all heartened, and for good reason: with all of the tremendous difficulties that our city, our country and world have experienced in the past several years – the events of September 11th and terrible loss of life here, the two wars that those events precipitated and which both still continue, the shrinkage and near collapse of the world’s economy, and the terrible abuse crisis within our Church that still shakes the foundation of faith for so many – we have so seldom needed a “happy bishop” to lead us more.
In the week that has followed, our new Archbishop has shown that what he wrote and said on the occasion of his Installation were not merely words, but instead a plan of action. On Friday April 17th, Archbishop Dolan visited the Catholic Charities Emergency Food Program (one of more then 50) and Rusty Staub Mobile Food Van at the Highbridge Community Life Center in the Bronx; located in the poorest congressional district in the United States, the food pantry is a collaboration between Catholic Charities and the Rusty Staub Foundation and provides nutritious meals to over 500 hungry New York families a year (link). While there, the Archbishop helped distributed food and blessed dozens of people who rushed forward to meet him. When asked why he was there by the media, the Archbishop answered plainly saying that the work of Catholic Charities “…is where the Church shows its love and compassion”. Several days later, when he visited New York State’s only maximum security prisons for women, he reiterated what he had said further, stating that Jesus will not judge him as Archbishop based upon a visit to Yankee Stadium or a Sermon from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s, but instead “He is going to say, “When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was in prison, you came to see me…” (link).
In his Op-Ed in the Daily News, Archbishop Dolan proclaimed his love for the Church in plain language, telling us that he “love(s) being a Catholic”; he then invited us to share in this love reminding us that “loving the Church means supporting her indispensable work caring for the poor, the immigrants, the sick and elderly, the lonely, the unborn and the abandon….It means speaking…for justice and peace, for religious liberty and the sanctity of all human life.” In finishing, Archbishop Dolan promised to teach “the Catholic faith in season and out of season, as a good Shepard must…reminding New Yorkers that they must welcome God to this “capital of the world” as warmly as they have welcomed so many others.”
2009 has been a year that has witnessed some marked changes in our society – some of them have been billed as the kind we “can believe in”. Witnessing the appointment of Archbishop Timothy Michael Dolan and having heard about his activities within the past week, I am filled with God’s hope that here in this Archdiocese of New York, we can wholly embrace that phrase as true statement, and proclaim it to others on behalf of our beloved Church…yes, we can!