By Patricia Zapor
BALTIMORE (CNS) — New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan was as surprised as anyone that he was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Nov. 16.
“I’m surprised, I’m honored, I’m flattered and a tad intimidated,” Archbishop Dolan told Catholic News Service shortly after being elected in an unprecedented departure from the USCCB’s normal tradition of electing the conference vice president to the presidency.
He beat current vice president Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., 128-111 on a third-ballot vote and takes office at the end of the bishops’ meeting Nov. 18.
Saying he didn’t know what was behind his win, and in keeping with the sense of humor for which he is known, he joked that the only thing he might have done to “campaign” for the presidency was to make one offer: “I did promise we’d have Dunkin’ Donuts at the morning coffee break (of the bishops’ meetings) and Haagen-Dazs sundaes at the break in the afternoon, but apart from that I didn’t make any promises.”
Archbishop Dolan is a Missouri native who was ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 1976. He studied for the priesthood at Cardinal Glennon College, St. Louis, and at the Pontifical North American College in Rome and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas, which are both in Rome.
After ordination, he completed his doctorate in American church history at The Catholic University of America, writing his dissertation on the late Archbishop Edwin O’Hara, a founder of the Catholic Biblical Association.
He told CNS he’s currently reading “Decision Points,” the autobiography of former President George W. Bush.
At a news conference following the election, he cited Archbishop O’Hara and his predecessor as archbishop of New York, the late Cardinal John O’Connor — whose gold pectoral cross he wears — as among his models as bishops.
Archbishop Dolan’s election marked the first time since the bishops’ conference was reorganized in 1966 following the Second Vatican Council reforms that a sitting vice president who sought the presidency did not win election. In two elections, in 1974 and in 1977, circumstances dictated that the vice president did not rise to lead the conference.
Amid some public criticism in recent weeks about the election process, he suspects bishops might have begun to “bristle” a bit at the notion the results were a foregone conclusion.
“I love Bishop Kicanas and I presumed he was going to be president,” the archbishop said. “I do think the bishops take these elections so seriously there’s a sort of bristling that anybody would be thought of as a shoo-in.”
“I think a lot of bishops said maybe it’s time that the vice president doesn’t automatically become the president,” he continued. “That is a surprise. You can see Bishop Kicanas got a great vote. He enjoys high esteem.”
He added that the vote “was hardly a landslide,” and that he doesn’t think it was a personal reflection on Bishop Kicanas.
At a news conference following the bishops’ morning session, he pointed out that he and Bishop Kicanas had been the final candidates for vice president three years earlier. The Tucson bishop won that vote of 128-106.
Archbishop Dolan, 60, said he’s a bit daunted to be succeeding Cardinal Francis E. George as president. In the CNS interview, he called Cardinal George “an amazing cocktail of wit, perceptive intelligence and pastoral savviness.”
Archbishop Dolan also admitted, “I’m not all that good at meetings,” so the prospect of being in charge of the flow of a meeting is a little intimidating.
“Even my brother bishops tease me, because they watch me at these meetings and they know my patience level isn’t all that high, that I’m one of the ones that often go for coffee in the middle of a session. I’m not going to be able to do that anymore,” he joked. “I’m stuck up at the bench.”
Archbishop Dolan said he regrets having to give up his chairmanship of Catholic Relief Services, which he said he’s found exhilarating for the sense it has given him of the universal church.
Archbishop Dolan has been head of the New York Archdiocese since his installation in April 2009. He said he’s “loved every day of it,” and acknowledged there’s been a steep learning curve in becoming head of one of the largest U.S. archdioceses but sees it as good preparation for becoming the national representative of his fellow bishops.
He likened his surprise over his election to his appointment to New York in February 2009. He had been archbishop of Milwaukee since 2002.
“I didn’t ask to be archbishop of New York, and when I got the word the Holy Father wanted me to be, I asked if I could indicate why I shouldn’t be that person,” he said. “And the nuncio said, ‘That wasn’t what I asked you. I didn’t ask if you should, I asked if you would, because the Holy Father wants you.’ So there’s an immense trust in God’s grace and mercy and that’s unfailing.”
He remembered telling his mother at the time that he didn’t know if he had the right attributes for the New York post. Her response was, “Relax, obviously the people in charge think you do.”
“I guess my brother bishops feel the same way,” he added about his election.
He said he gets “a kick out of the fact that people out there usually try to read more into the elections than we do.”
He said bishops are “so laudably absorbed in the governance of their own dioceses that a lot of the speculation and stuff, I don’t think we have much time for it. I’m not naive enough to not know that is on people’s minds, I don’t know the answer.”
He several times quoted Cardinal George in saying he doesn’t see the role of president as “bishop of the bishops,” but as someone there to serve the interests of the bishops.
Archbishop Dolan said he didn’t think being on the presidential slate it would lead anywhere except possibly to election as vice president. “No bishop runs for office,” he said. “In fact we run from it.”
The archbishop said he didn’t expect to bring about any significant change in the way the USCCB operates. He said changes made over the past 15 years, scaling back on the bishops’ involvement in a wide range of public policy issues, have put the conference into a healthy balance between public policy and pastoral concerns.
He said Cardinal George and his predecessors, retired Spokane Bishop William S. Skylstad and Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, in particular, set a model for the USCCB president in finding that balance.
“I think there has been a welcome rethinking, a welcome tempering of the position and the role of the conference,” he said. “There’s been a reclaiming of our Catholic polity, that when it comes to the governing of the church you have the bishop of Rome, you have the bishops in our dioceses and you have our pastors. And the conference is at the service of the bishops.”
“Its doctrinal or moral authority would only come from the fact that the bishops would come and proclaim what we do in our own dioceses,” he continued.
That said, however, he said there’s a clear role for the church to guide people beyond the strictly pastoral concerns. “Our forte is the realm of the spirit, but the kingdom of God, the call to conversion, the teaching of Jesus and his church does have implications in every part of life, including the political and economic sphere.”
He cited the list of issues: the sanctity of human life, the protection of marriage and family, protection of immigrants and the poor and the promotion of a civilization of love and a culture of life, and “being on the side of justice and peace.”
“I think the high point of this meeting was certainly not my election but Cardinal George’s eloquent consideration of the suffering in Iraq,” for example. “Nothing is alien to the heart of Christ. There is nothing in the political and economic sphere that would not be part of the light of Christ.”
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