Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"I'm Not 'Archbishop of America'": From the President's Desk

A week since his stunning, historic election to lead the Stateside bench -- and three weeks since Archbishop Tim Dolan waged (then dropped) his latest campaign against the "anti-Catholicism" of the New York Times -- the Grey Lady scored the first extended interview with the new Chief:
Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, elected president of the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops last week, said Monday that the bishops faced the urgent task of stopping the huge exodus of Roman Catholics from the church of their birth.

He said the bishops would not stop speaking out on political issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration. But he said there was now a movement among them to confront internal problems like the “sobering study” showing that one-third of Americans born and baptized Catholic have left the church.

“The bishops are saying we need to make sure our house is in order as a church. We need to recover our vigor,” Archbishop Dolan said. “Then we can be of better service to the world and to our culture.”

In an expansive interview in the front parlor of his residence on Madison Avenue — the only news interview he has granted since he spoke to a Catholic television station after last Tuesday’s election — Archbishop Dolan discussed his surprise at his election, whether the bishops will push for repeal of the health care overhaul and what Pope Benedict XVI said about condoms.

“The Pope didn’t say, ‘Oh good, you should use a condom,’ ” Archbishop Dolan said, referring to a controversial comment the pope made in a book that is being released worldwide on Tuesday....

“You get the impression that the Holy See or the pope is like Congress and every once in a while says, ‘Oh, let’s change this law,’ ” he said. “We can’t.”

He was most animated on the topic of disaffected Catholics. Archbishop Dolan leaned forward as he cited recent studies finding that only half of young Catholics marry in the church, and that weekly Mass attendance has dropped to about 35 percent of Catholics from a peak of 78 percent in the 1960s.

He said he was chagrined when he saw a long line of people last Sunday on Fifth Avenue. “I’m talking two blocks, a line of people waiting to get into ...” he said, pausing for suspense. “Abercrombie and Fitch. And I thought, wow, there’s no line of people waiting to get into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the treasure in there is of eternal value. What can I do to help our great people appreciate that tradition?”
The USCCB president's comments on ecclesial attrition conspicuously echoed those of a critical mass of his confreres on the tone and agenda that emerged from their plenary last week.

As he departed Baltimore, Bishop Robert Lynch of St Petersburg -- a former general secretary of the bishops' conference -- wrote on his blog that this November Meeting's doings "seem, to my mind... to [have spent] a lot of time 'navel-gazing' – talking about budgets and assessments, etc." as opposed to thinking "about the number of people who are leaving the church and the possible reasons for this."

Put even more bluntly, in a conversation at the Fall Classic's edge, another ranking prelate admitted that -- with many of the same concerns at heart -- had he been watching the body's televised sessions from the outside, he thought the bishops "would've looked like fools."

"At some points," he said, "I couldn't help but think to myself, 'What are we doing?'"

* * *
It's not the kind of thing the Times would've known to seek out, but as Dolan was talking with the nation's paper of record, the latest edition of Pastores Dabo Vobis ("I Will Give You Shepherds") -- the Gotham prelate/former NAC rector's monthly letter to his priests -- was circulated via e.mail to the New York presbyterate.

In it, Dolan thanked the priests for their congratulations on his election, but sought to reiterate at the same time that (emphases original), "I am still first and foremost, 100% Archbishop of New York: not, never, can’t be, don’t want to be 'Archbishop of America.' No such creature exists!

"My passion for this archdiocese will not, I trust, be dimmed at all by this added duty," the new president added, "but I sure appreciate your promise of prayers!"

While the note largely dealt with temporal matters, it likewise included some pointed pastoral counsel.

Here, some snips (again, emphases as rendered in the original):
A good friend of mine was a very successful shoe salesman who was so effective that he now owns his own company and is a self-made multi-millionaire. He gives a good talk on “the priest as salesman,” and claims that “evangelization” is only a fancy word for marketing! Anyway, he was just in for a visit, and read me the riot act on how utterly frustrating it is to get through -- either in person or by telephone -- to our priests and parishes. He went on at length telling me that no wonder people are drifting away from the Church. They might show up, but the doors are locked and the parish buildings a ghost-town; they try to call the rectory and get nowhere; or try to contact their parish priest and can’t get through. Before you think he was picking on parishes, I need to tell you that he had equally bad grades for the Cardinal Cooke Center [i.e. Chancery], and berated me for being next to impossible to reach.

After years of trying my best to stay in touch with my priests, I’m afraid he has a point. It is very difficult to get through to some parishes or reach some priests. To get a cheerful, helpful, welcoming live voice is rare. Some parish electronic messages are literally “bloopers.” In attempting to reach a priest recently, his parish telephone message informed me of the Holy Week schedule! Another one bluntly told me to call back during “normal business hours,” namely, 10 to noon, 1 to 3! Normal?

Do we in our parishes exhibit a warm, welcoming, helpful atmosphere, or is it more “lights are out and nobody’s home”? When I was a parish priest in St. Louis, Archbishop John L. May mandated that every parish should have a large “welcome” sign with the name of the parish identified. This came after he had visited a parish surrounded by no trespassing signs!

My friend has a point: he concluded that if it was as hard getting in touch with him or his shoe salesmen as it is with some of us, he would be in a homeless shelter instead of a mansion on Lake Michigan.

My first pastor as a newly ordained priest was also on the clergy personnel board of the archdiocese, and a vicar (we called them “deans”). As such, he often had to do “referee” work with priests in parishes. I remember two particularly wise observations he made: one, “The true mark of a priestly gentleman is how he treats his predecessor and his successor.”; two, “For your first year in a parish, the only thing you should change is your socks.” Two sound proverbs.
In another part of the missive, Dolan relayed the impressions of a recent consultation from his archdiocesan Pastoral Council about the people's feelings on their priests:
-- they love you;
-- they worry that you have too much to do, especially in areas they consider less than essential to your primary duty to care for souls; namely, money, maintenance, and personnel, and that you are too reluctant to seek their collaboration;
-- what they most appreciate about you could be categorized as “human characteristics”: friendliness, approachability, reliability, openness, availability; and yet they also prize in you what we could call virtues: vibrant faith, reverence and joy at the sacraments, buoyant hope, compassionate charity -- especially for the sick, elders and children, poor, emotionally struggling, and grieving -- a man of obvious prayer and understanding of the life of the spirit;
-- they enthusiastically welcome our international priests, but are frustrated because sometimes they cannot understand them;
-- their major criticism of us? Poor preaching! Too long, can’t be heard or understood, boring, and wandering.

I found their remarks interesting and helpful, and trust you will as well.
PHOTOS: Philip Kamrass/Albany Times-Union(1); Hilton Flores/Staten Island Advance(2)