VATICAN CITY — It was a ceremony with all the sobriety and ritual usually associated with the Catholic Church. But as the sun pierced the windows of a very chilly St. Peter’s Basilica, one man’s smile warmed the crowd.
Pope Benedict XVI added 22 new members to the elite College of Cardinals today, many of them old, frail and formal in manner. Which is why the casual demeanor and schoolboy smile of the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan stood out.
There he was bounding up the steps of the altar in his scarlet robes to accept the three-pointed hat and ring from the pope. The two men exchanged brief words and the pope could be seen to crack a smile. The newly-minted cardinal casually descended and embraced each of the more than 200 cardinals who had assembled for the occasion.
An hour later Cardinal Dolan stood on the steps of the Pontifical North American College (one of the Vatican seminaries) and spoke with American journalists. He was asked what prompted the papal smile.
“I don’t know what, I just, he (the pope) said, ‘Well, thank you again for yesterday.’ and I said, ‘Well, thank you for this!’ I guess that is what made him smile. I am the one that is grateful, he doesn’t have to be thanking me,” Dolan said. “And you run out of words to say. He said, ‘Well, thank you for your conference yesterday,’ and I said, ‘Well, thank you for making me a cardinal.”
At that conference on Friday then Cardinal-designate Dolan was given a rare opportunity to address the entire College of Cardinals in closed session. It was a solemn speech punctuated with jokes and references to films and books and his own experiences as a priest. Vatican sources say Pope Benedict gave Dolan’s performance an “enthusiastic, joyful and profound” thumbs up.
Dolan’s larger-than-life presence is being noticed beyond the American press. Many in the Italian media are charmed by his blend of devotion and good humor. A popular Italian newsmagazine, Panorama, ran a story on Dolan headlined “A cardinal faithful to the church and to baseball.” The accompanying photo shows Dolan holding a New York Mets jersey.
Dolan touched on that theme when he spoke with us after the ceremony. He picked up the scarlet biretta on his head and declared, “It is a great day for all of New York. This is the hat I want to put on the Empire State Building and the home plate of Yankee Stadium and the Statue of Liberty. So, because it’s for all of New York, it’s not for me.”
Dolan’s profile was boosted in recent weeks in a very public confrontation with President Obama over access to birth control for employees of Catholic-operated hospitals, universities and other institutions.
That and his profile here in Rome prompted the U.S.-based National Catholic Reporter to call Dolan a “rock star.”
With Benedict’s health visibly failing — he arrived in St. Peters aboard a wheeled platform that took him to the altar, where he struggled up the stairs — there is now open discussion among Vatican watchers about who will succeed him.
Inevitably, any cardinal who captures the imagination is immediately thrust onto the speculative list of “papabile” or papal candidate. Asked about that speculation by a reporter, Cardinal Dolan punted: “Io non parlo inglese,” he said in Italian with a wink. (“I don’t speak English.”)
It’s an idea that thrills the hundreds of pilgrims who followed Dolan here from New York, but it has always been considered unlikely that the Catholic Church would select a pope representing the world’s superpower.
Dolan noted with pride that his first official act as cardinal was to formally approve two new American Catholic saints — Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk Indian who spent most of her life in what is now upstate New York, and Mother Marianne Cope, who began religious life in the same area but moved to Hawaii to care for leprosy patients.
Dolan quipped he now has a new goal: “You know, as grateful as I am for being a cardinal, I really want to be a saint. And I mean that. And I got a long way to go, believe me. But it’s all about holiness, it’s all about friendship with Jesus, it’s all about being a saint, and that is what I want to be. So one of our first acts as a cardinal is being able to approve two new saints, that was a biggie.”
The other American elevated to the College of Cardinals today, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, former Archbishop of Baltimore and now a Vatican official, gently accepted that it was Dolan who was getting all the attention. Asked if he thought Dolan had the stuff to be pope, O’Brien deadpanned: “His mother thinks so.”