Brigid Bergin is the City Hall reporter for WNYC. She covers city politics including the 2013 mayoral race and transition.
Pope Benedict the XVI will elevate 22 men to the position of cardinal on Saturday, including Timothy M. Dolan, head of the New York Archdiocese.
In a ceremony, known as a consistory, held at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, these men become part of the College of Cardinals, which is tasked among other things with electing the next pope of the Roman Catholic Church. While few consider an American Pope a serious possibility, many expect Cardinal Dolan to be a major player in Catholic affairs in the United States and internationally for a long time to come.
Part of the reason is Dolan’s ability to manage his message. He co-hosts a weekly radio show on Sirius XM’s Catholic Channel, a program launched by his predecessor Cardinal Edward Egan. He also writes a blog on the New York Archdiocese website.
The media calls him affable, documenting his love of food, baseball and all things New York. This past week in Rome, he led a gaggle of reporters around like groupies.
“Typically each consistory has a lot of cardinals no one has heard of and then one rock star, one guy who clearly stands out from the crowd. I think it’s clear to everyone that Timothy Dolan is that rock star,” said John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.
Dolan’s already leading the Vatican’s campaign for “new evangelism” – an effort to bring lapsed Catholics back into the fold, particularly in the Western world. It was the subject of a speech he delivered before the Pope on Friday, after apologizing for his rusty Italian.
Terrence Tilley, the Avery Cardinal Dulles Professor of Theology and chair of the Department of Theology at Fordham University, says Dolan puts a “bright face” on Catholicism particularly compared to his predecessor, Cardinal Egan.
“He smiles, he laughs, he has a good time. He will present being a Catholic as being simply joyous. As someone who is a sinner who is a redeemed sinner, like a recovering alcoholic who is enjoying the new status,” Tilley said.
The elevation of someone like Dolan may offer a welcome boost to the Vatican’s image, as it grapples with yet another scandal unfolding the same week as the elevation ceremony.
The release of confidential Vatican documents to the Italian media has led Vatican officials to liken the scandal to Wikileaks.
“One of [the documents] refers to an alleged plot to kill the pope supposedly hatched in China, another had to do with alleged scandals at the so-called Vatican bank,” said Allen, who reviewed the documents for the National Catholic Reporter. There were also emails written by the current papal ambassador in the United States, back when he was a senior Vatican official, complaining of corruption and a campaign to get him out of Rome.
Allen said whether the allegations presented in the documents hold up under scrutiny may be of little matter. It’s hurts the Church’s image.
“All of which creates an impression of sort of petty infighting and bickering and senior church men stabbing one another in the back, which is not exactly the face the Vatican would like to show the world,” Allen said.
The charisma Dolan brings to the College of Cardinals may help.
Still, there will be limits to his influence — and likely a ceiling to his ascent. But his positions — church related or not — are clear. And he makes sure to reiterate them on television, radio, online and in op-ed pages of papers like the Wall Street Journal.
Maureen Tilley, a Fordham theology professor, along with her husband Terrance, says Dolan’s impact could eclipse that of New York’s last storied Cardinal.
“Between his personality and his record, he has the potential…and I say the potential, to be the most influential Cardinal from New York since Cardinal Spellman,” Tilley said.
Spellman served as cardinal for almost three decades until his death in 1967. He had a close relationship with Pope Pius XII and Tilley’s described him as a “kingmaker” of bishops in the U.S.