Dolan invites with BBQ and a beer

New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, center, talks with a group of bishops during a break in proceedings at the annual fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore Nov. 15. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York has had a stunningly swift and sure rise up the ecclesial ladder. His Nov. 16 election as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference is the latest indication that the 60-year-old Dolan has arrived.

Observers say Dolan blends a set of personal qualities that would make him a leader in any era, with a theological and political outlook ideally suited for a body of bishops shaped by 30 years of appointments from Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

He’s known as affable, with a lively sense of humor; he’s a quintessential “John Paul II bishop,” combining doctrinal orthodoxy with a natural gift for communication in an age when media savvy is at a premium.

Dolan is also a bridge-builder, whose defining quality may be a Will Rogers-esque inclination to like everybody he meets. His metaphor for relationships is his late father’s backyard barbecue pit, where he says he learned that “there’s almost nobody that if you eyeball them, have a beer with them and really start talking, with whom you would not find a common bond.”

Dolan was born in February 1950 and grew up in Ballwin, Mo., a St. Louis suburb, the oldest of five children in an Irish-Catholic family. He entered the minor seminary in 1964 and never looked back, at a time when many priests and seminarians struggled with their vocations.

In the 1970s, Dolan studied at the North American College in Rome, where he fell under the spell of Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, the distinguished American church historian. Dolan went on to earn a doctorate in church history, setting him apart from many bishops whose academic formation is in dogmatic theology or canon law.

After brief stints in two St. Louis parishes, Dolan worked at the papal embassy in Washington from 1987 to 1994, and then served as rector of the North American College from 1994 to 2000. Both jobs positioned Dolan to know virtually every current and future bishop in the country, as well as to win friends in Rome.

He became a bishop in 2001, serving briefly as an auxiliary in St. Louis. Dolan was named the archbishop of Milwaukee in 2002, taking over from the legendary yet embattled Archbishop Rembert Weakland, and then moved to New York in 2009.

Along the way, Dolan has sometimes drawn criticism for policy decisions and public statements, but even people on different ideological or theological planets usually seem fond of him. That may be his special genius: a capacity both to take strong positions, and to embrace people who don’t share them.
Dolan outlined his approach in a recent interview.

“We need to constantly be reaching out, constantly striving to make our lofty language about the church as a family a reality,” Dolan said. “If I can contribute to that dream, or if I can at least set an example, that’s where my time and effort need to go.”

For the next three years, as president of the U.S. bishops, Dolan will have a chance to invite the entire country to his metaphorical barbecue — and it will certainly be interesting to see what he puts on the grill.

[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. Random House is scheduled to release his book-length interview with Dolan in early 2011.]

For more coverage of the U.S. bishop's election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan, see Jerry Filteau's story: Spurning tradition, bishops elect Dolan as president

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