Catching Up with Timothy Cardinal Dolan
A Joyful Servant Leader
As a boy, he daydreamed of playing baseball in his hometown, but he always wanted to be a priest; today, he invites people to dash home to Jesus.
by Paige Byrne Shortal
Timothy Cardinal Dolan, archbishop of New York, is one of the most recognizable leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States. Known for his easygoing manner, welcoming strangers as if they were lifelong friends, and his exceptional memory for people’s names and the details of their lives, he is less intimidating than a person in his position might be.
Along with that disarming good humor is a dedicated man of prayer, a serious scholar of American Church history, and a prolific writer. Author of a dozen books and countless columns and op-ed pieces, Cardinal Dolan doesn’t hesitate to address issues, even at the risk of irritating people on all sides of an issue—whether he is talking about the protection of the unborn or welcoming the immigrant.
I got to know Cardinal Dolan, a native St. Louisan, in my parish of St. Francis Borgia in Washington, Missouri. That parish is where the cardinal’s mother served as the rectory cook for a time, his sister as the grade-school secretary, and where he would return to spend the holidays with his many nieces and nephews, often showing up to preside at the less-crowded Christmas Masses. My children served at Mass with him, the highlight taking place afterward when he placed his zucchetto on the head of my middle son.
The affable, insightful cardinal has been a priest since 1976, serving in many capacities and locations before assuming the leadership of the nation’s largest archdiocese in 2009. As he approaches fifty years in the priesthood, now seems a good time to explore topics universal and personal with Cardinal Dolan.
When and how did you know you were called to be a priest? Did you have a second choice?
I can honestly say that there has never been a time in my life when I did not want to be a priest. As a little boy, I remember attending Mass with my grandmother, pointing to the priest and saying, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.” Of course, on the way home, I probably pointed to a fireman and said, “that’s what I want to be” and so on. And, like any kid growing up in St. Louis in the 1950s, I always had a desire to be a Cardinal—a St. Louis Cardinal, like Stan Musial! But deep down there was always a desire to be a priest. Growing up in a Catholic culture certainly helped. I always felt supported when I said I was thinking of entering the seminary, not only by my mom and dad, but by my whole family, the Sisters of Mercy in Holy Infant School, the priests in the parish, and the folks we’d interact with around town. Never pressured, always supported.
It’s hard to think of what I would have done had I not pursued a vocation to the priesthood, since it was fairly obvious early on that I couldn’t hit a curveball, so the St. Louis Cardinals were out. I guess I most likely would have been a teacher at some level—either high school or college—since I’ve always enjoyed my time in front of a classroom.