He’s one of the highest-profile Catholic leaders in the world – and one of the most quotable.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York lived up to his star billing Saturday during a visit to Charlotte in which he offered a preview of Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States, saluted the vibrant faith of Catholics in the South and even made jokes about his own love for food.
A bear of a man who stands out in his red cardinal’s garb, Dolan marched, along with thousands of others from scores of North Carolina parishes, in a ceremonial uptown procession Saturday morning. It has become a signature event of the Charlotte Diocese’s annual Eucharistic Congress — a two-day event of praise and worship.
After the walk, about 9,000 participants gathered in the Charlotte Convention Center for the 11th annual meeting.
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“We had a bit of a workout this morning did we not, with the procession?” Dolan said during a homily, or sermon, that he delivered at the invitation of Charlotte Catholic Bishop Peter Jugis. “I’m used to that. I try to walk every morning for a mile – I walk a half-mile up to Dunkin’ Donuts and a half-mile back.”
Dolan, who presides over an archdiocese of 2.8 million Catholics, lauded his Charlotte listeners – many of them Hispanic – for what he called “a tremendous upsurge in devotion and public expression of deep faith” among a rapidly growing Catholic population in the South.
He said the blocks of Catholics kneeling on uptown sidewalks Saturday represented an enthusiastic yes for Jesus Christ. “That’s intentional Catholicism on steroids, folks,” Dolan said.
Later, meeting with reporters, Dolan spoke mostly about the popularity of Pope Francis as well as his visit to the United States – including New York City – Sept. 22-27.
Dolan said the pope gave him a list of things he wanted to do in New York that will likely send a message that this pontiff wants to reach out to the poor, the outcast and people of all faiths.
Besides saying Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dolan said, the pope’s to-do list in New York will include meeting with undocumented immigrants, visiting an inner-city Catholic school that educates children from poor families and praying with a group that will show “the beautiful diversity of religious belief” in New York.
“He said the world needs this example of religious friendship and cooperation and freedom,” said Dolan. “So he said, ‘Please, can I pray with people of other faiths – not just Catholics?”
Dolan attributed the popularity of this pope who has refused the usual royalist trappings of his office to his authenticity.
“You know where I live – Madison Avenue. That’s the PR capital of the world,” Dolan said. “Every day, I meet these PR people who say, ‘Psst! Who’s Pope Francis’ PR agent? He’s doing a good job and we’d like some tips.’ And I say, ‘He doesn’t have a PR agent!’ He is who he is. There’s a remarkable simplicity and sincerity which connects with people.”
But Dolan acknowledged that Pope Francis’ welcoming message, particularly to divorced Catholics and others who have long felt ostracized by the church, was also resonating.
One recent example: The pope’s decision to let all priests, not just bishops, forgive women confessing to an abortion – considered a grave sin in the Catholic church – “gives to the face of Christ in his church a warmth and compassion that I think is well worth it.”
Dolan disputed the view from some Catholics that most of their bishops in the United States are still stressing same-sex marriage and birth control instead of following Pope Francis’ call for a renewed emphasis on serving the poor and caring for the planet.
“I’ve had a ... box seat to what the American bishops have done,” Dolan said. “Most of the time, we’re all on the same page (with the pope). We’re all copycats. We’ve got our script (from the Gospel).”
Dolan said it’s the news media that chose to focus on the bishops’ actions on “hot button issues” such as their opposition to Obamacare and same-sex marriage. The press, Dolan added, often ignores the U.S. bishops’ actions on behalf of the poor and immigrants.
The New York cardinal predicted that Pope Francis, in his upcoming addresses to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, would stick to present-day applications of the Gospel messages of love, mercy, hope and serving those in need.
But even before the pope’s visit, Dolan said, he has already had an impact on the lives of many who had been tuning out the Catholic Church before the 2013 conclave – attended by Dolan – that elected Pope Francis.
Said Dolan: “I can’t walk down the streets of New York without people saying –from the street person to the parking garage attendant to the guy wrapping my pizza to the bartender – ‘Boy, we love this pope. And for the first time, I started to re-listen to what the church says.’ Wow! To use a Catholic word – that’s bingo!”