Cardinal Dolan Reflects on the ‘Pope Francis Effect’ in his Life and Work
May 31, 2014
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, New York’s archbishop, traveled to Rome for the canonization of two popes, stayed on to speak at a communications conference there, jetted to Jordan to see the work of a Catholic charity he chairs, and once home, spoke at two graduations in the diocese — all in the past month.
In other words, it was a typically busy month for him. So when The New York Times asked him, through a spokesperson, how the election of Pope Francis had changed the diocese and his own personal life, he asked that we submit a series of written questions.
His replies were classic Dolan, personal and engaging. We’ve decided to reprint them in full below. If you’ve ever wondered what Cardinal Dolan might ponder in the confessional, read on:
Have you shifted anything about how you run the diocese as a result of being inspired by Pope Francis?
While I don’t think there is anything different in how I run the archdiocese, in terms of administration, Pope Francis has certainly inspired me to reflect and question myself and those who work with me: Are we being welcoming to those who may feel alienated from the church? Do we focus enough on the essentials of sharing the beauty and joy of the Gospel? Do we become too focused on buildings, programs, or institutions — the apparatus of the diocese — and less on serving God’s people? Is the archdiocese seen as reflecting the mercy of Jesus? I pray that we were already doing that, and I believe we were, but have we been doing it enough? I hope so, but certainly Francis has inspired me to look for ways that we can be more welcoming, more focused on being with those who feel distant from Jesus and the church, and less focused on structures and institutions.
Have you shifted anything about how you live personally in response to Pope Francis’s call for clerics to live simply and humbly? Has that call given bishops something to think about?
Sure, Pope Francis has given us something to think about – and not just bishops and priests! He’s reminded us of what Jesus instructed his followers to do, like care for the sick, feed the hungry, visit prisoners, clothe the naked. Those instructions were not just for people 2,000 years ago, but very much apply to us today. I’ve told the story about being at Pope Francis’ Mass of Installation last year, and, after the homily, a brother cardinal turned to me with tears in his eyes and said “He speaks like Jesus,” and I replied, “I think that’s his job description!” And that is what Francis has done, reminding us in a beautiful way of what Jesus asks of all those who follow him, but, in a special way, those of us who are priests and bishops.
Again, I hope and pray that I was living a fairly simple life before hand. But I do have to examine my own conscience, and ask “Am I too comfortable? Do I take too much for granted? Are my priorities where they should be?” The answers to those questions are what I discuss with my confessor! I’ve been working on conforming my life more completely to the teachings of Jesus since my first communion!
Do you find yourself emphasizing themes like acceptance and mercy more when you are asked publicly about contentious social issues, such as gay rights, abortion and contraception? (Some commentators hear such a shift in tone, and hear less combative language.)
Pope Francis has certainly made God’s mercy a central theme of his papacy, just as it was a central part of his years as a priest, bishop, and cardinal. When I listen to Pope Francis, I hear classic Catholic teaching, expressed in a beautiful, loving way. And I have to remind myself that while none of us, including the pope, can change essential Church teaching or doctrine, we can certainly change how it is presented. Was I combative before? I don’t think so, and, in fact, I’ve been rather harshly criticized in some quarters for not being combative enough! But I do have to realize that what I say, and how I say it, is important, and what I intend to convey is not always what comes across.
So yes, Francis has been a good role model for me in being sure that Tim Dolan doesn’t get in the way of Jesus, that my words and actions don’t become a hindrance for others responding to Jesus’ invitation. I’m told that Cardinal John O’Connor used to pray every morning, “Dear Lord, please don’t let me get in your way today.” So do I.
"What I hear more than anything is how much people love Pope Francis, and how he has helped to bring back many people to a more active participation in the church," Cardinal Dolan wrote.Stefano Rellandini/Reuters“What I hear more than anything is how much people love Pope Francis, and how he has helped to bring back many people to a more active participation in the church,” Cardinal Dolan wrote.
Are you, or is the diocese as a whole, increasing focus on issues such as poverty, inequality, prison ministry and immigration?
I think what has happened is that Pope Francis has made it easier for us to be heard on these issues! He has inspired many people to think more about how we care for one another, especially the “least among us.” The bishops of this country have been a leading voice on immigration reform, for many years.
I get a lot of criticism that we bishops preach too much about the immigrant, the poor, the sick, the economy. These are all areas in which the Archdiocese of New York has always been enthusiastically involved. I can’t take credit for that; Cardinal Cooke, Cardinal O’Connor, Cardinal Egan all were great champions of immigrants, the poor, the sick, the unborn, our children. It’s my responsibility to carry that on, just as it is my responsibility to continue and expand our work in charity, education, health care. Yes, Francis inspires me in this regard, as he has inspired people everywhere. That’s a great gift he has given us.
Could you share a reflection or two about how Pope Francis’s election has affected parishioners and life in the diocese?
What I hear more than anything is how much people love Pope Francis, and how he has helped to bring back many people to a more active participation in the church. Let me give you an example. For the last few years, right before Christmas and Easter, we have something called “Reconciliation Monday” in our parishes. On that day, all of our parishes offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation – confession – at the same time for about 6 hours straight, so people know they can walk into any church and a priest will be available for the sacrament.
Priest after priest have told me that people mention Pope Francis in their confession, saying things like “It’s been 20 years, but Pope Francis has inspired me to come back to confession, to Mass.” That, to me, is what Pope Francis is all about, and I have to make sure that this is what I’m all about as well.
Cardinal Dolan then went on to express his love and admiration for the new pope, whom he helped select in March 2013.
You didn’t ask, but let me just add that I love Pope Francis very much! He is the kind of Pope we cardinals envisioned, but what has still surprised me, at least to some degree, is how he has already captured the imagination of the world. The first pope I really remember is Pope Saint John XXIII, and I have always had great respect, devotion, and affection for whomever was our Holy Father. I studied for the priesthood and was ordained during the pontificate of soon-to-be-Blessed Pope Paul VI, and Pope Saint John Paul II certainly had a tremendous impact on me personally, given that he was pope for most of my priesthood. I was – I am – a great admirer of Pope-emeritus Benedict, who was not only a towering theologian, but a kind and gentle pastor of souls as well.
Pope Francis has brought his own sense of the joy of being a follower of Jesus, and in little more than a year has reminded us all, but particularly priests and bishops, of the need to be Jesus to the people entrusted to our care. The pope has restored religion, faith, the church, to what it should be: a source of love, peace, unity, and good, not a cause of violence, hatred, or bitterness. That, to me, is the real “Francis effect.” The rest is all superficialities. If we can respond honestly to Francis urging us to configure our lives to Christ, to extend the invitation of Jesus to “Come and see” to all we meet, then the rest of those questions will have resolved themselves.