1st May 2013

Communicating with Cardinal Dolan

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

“In the public square, I hate to tell you, the days of fat, balding Irish bishops are over.”

That’s by now a famous — or infamous — quote by Cardinal Timothy Dolan talking about approaching media in such a way that people will listen!

As John Norton pointed out in Our Sunday Visitor at the time, Cardinal Dolan is “also a man known for his girth, shining pate and ancestral origins in the Emerald Isle.”

The ironic thing about the “fat, balding” comment, of course, is that if he were being self-referential, these actually do happen to be the days of Dolan. He commands media attention not merely because of his twin offices — cardinal archbishop of New York and current president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — but because of his openness to the media and pastoral warmth. This pastoral warmth is nourished by and emanates from his sacramental life, our life's call to renewal, to an ever-deepening union with the Blessed Trinity. This is the point of his preaching and teaching and why he tends to be effective at drawing people into the Gospel.

A former seminary rector to some of the rising candidates of yet the next generation of bishops in the United States, he knows well the pain that abuse and mismanagement have wreaked on people’s lives and on the Church itself, having dealt directly with the fallout both in St. Louis and Milwaukee. As shepherd in New York, he has encouraged vibrant ministries, including to the young, to make sure the Church is a welcome, uplifting, and healing presence in the lives of young single people in the city. He helps people make connections centered on prayer; he encourages the faithful to maintain hope; he reaches out to couples heartbroken by infertility. He prays with the sick and the imprisoned. He lives in the world of today, aware of and seeking to minister to those in the grips of its pain. He has talked with his brother bishops about the “deep need for the interior conversion that is at the marrow of the call to evangelization.” It’s about being guided by God and knowing the love of His mother.

Cardinal Dolan commands media attention because he communicates a sense of humility. He knows he himself is a sinner who is shepherding flocks of sinners, whose hope is in the Lord who made heaven and earth. He expresses a confidence in Church teaching and an authenticity; he tells stories that ground him firmly in the lives of American families and the souls he seeks to guide; he treats people with a respect and love rooted in an acknowledgment of human dignity of every man and woman. In a word, he is evangelical — in the spirit of the Gospel and as spelled out in George Weigel’s recent book Evangelical Catholicism — as he opens doors to the eternal wedding feast through his teaching and sharing with clarity, sensitivity, and humor.

And, as Dr. Timothy George, dean of the interdenominational Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., put it this past weekend in an evangelical tribute by the Colson Center for Christian Worldview in gratitude for the bishops’ vigorous defense of religious liberty, Cardinal Dolan manages to communicate “Gospel messages” in a “winsome” way in mainstream media interviews.

This week, it was announced that my friend Kim Daniels, a wife, mother of six, and religious-liberty attorney who graduated from Princeton and the University of Chicago, has been named a spokesperson for Cardinal Dolan at the bishops’ conference. Judging from some of the media reactions, I think some have misunderstood, and not for the first time, just what it is that attracts people to Cardinal Dolan.

One writer said:

Perhaps the only way to make sense of Daniel’s hiring is to accept Cardinal Dolan’s own words on the status of fat, balding clerics. This view, which elevates style over substance, does focus attention of a very real problem for anyone who wants to sell a product, service, idea or belief. In today’s world the competition for the public’s attention is fierce and marketing experts will tell you that imagery matters. If it didn’t, then we wouldn’t see so much glamour on billboards and beauty on TV.

This isn’t about eye candy, this is about the Gospel. Good Christian communications isn’t as much about “look[ing] good on camera” as it is about telling the truth. The “fat, balding, Irish” comment indicated a self-awareness about opening doors. We must catch people’s attention with the beauty of truth. We must open doors and welcome people. And while the “fat, balding, Irish bishop” can do it, he — and Pope Francis and others in collars and miters — cannot be the only one seen doing it! He is not the entire Church! He should not be among a few public faces of the Church! In our work together as directors at Catholic Voices USA over the last year, Kim Daniels and I have seen how effective “ordinary” Catholics in all walks of life — who need not be supermodels! — are on camera emanating the love of Christ with the knowledge of the Gospel and experience. It’s about authenticity, not lip gloss.

When Time magazine named Cardinal Dolan to its “Most Influential” list last year, former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham described Dolan as “a warm prelate who leads his flock more by charm than fiat.” His fiat is actually everything. All the appealing — attractive — media habits flow from his “yes” to Christ. He doesn’t pray at the political conventions because he wants to be the popular bishop but because he has a duty to tell the challenging truth in front of every audience. He has a platform others don’t, and he prays he makes the best use of it. Empowering other good communicators to speak the truth effectively is part of that.

But when we are talking Gospel truth, the communication is only ever going to be as good as the soul. As my friend Eric Metaxas put it the other night at that Colson Center Wilberforce Award dinner in speaking of Cardinal Dolan, “You can’t fake joy.” That’s what we must share. With full knowledge of the Cross, which is the reality of the human condition, joy will resonate. But the victory, oh the sweet victory! If we can communicate the Resurrection, if we can be seen as Easter people, that is the media strategy — whether in the parish or on TV.

What it is that is attractive about Cardinal Dolan — to use another one of the cardinal’s quoted terms — is the light of Christ in him. His faithfulness to his call and his life of prayer put his talents to good use in service to God and His kingdom.

It’s not so much about his “folksiness,” but it is fundamentally about his fiat.

When Cardinal Dolan made the “fat, balding” comment, he wasn’t putting some non-Fox News-ready anchors on TV out of jobs necessarily. And he certainly wasn’t saying that hereafter only pretty women should represent the Church in the public square.

What he was getting at is something else. Speaking at a public-policy day in Long Island last year, Cardinal Dolan said: “We are called to be very active, very informed and very involved in politics.” The implication is that we must raise our Catholic voices to infuse the politics with a respect for the dignity of man — in protection of his very life itself, as well as on a host of issues where injustice creeps in because of inefficiencies, corruption, and government overreach.

Our voice is only as credible as our integrity. We are called to lift up men and women, to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, and live the Beatitudes.

This is a point Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston made during the interfaith prayer service after the Boston Marathon bombing. “The Sermon on the Mount is a description of the life of the people gathered by and around the Lord,” he said. We are not called to only gather around our Lord and listen and share on Sundays, but everyday and everywhere. That includes on The Today Show, where then-Archbishop Dolan managed to talk about “the tenderness of God’s mercy” with Matt Lauer and Al Roker in an empty St. Peter’s Basilica over a year ago! It also includes writing letters to the editor in the local paper, postings on Facebook, or wherever the opportunity arises.

In reflecting on the Beatitudes, Archbishop Fulton Sheen once wrote:

We must thirst for justice and be on fire for the Kingdom of God. Why? Because everything that is good diffuses itself. The sun is good, and it diffuses itself to light and heat, the flower is good, and it diffuses itself in the generation of its kind; man is good, and he diffuses himself to the communication of thought; a Christian is good, and must therefore diffuse his Christianity, throw sparks from the flame of his love, enkindle fires in the inflammable hearts of others, and speak of his Lover because he is Love, for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

“Strong love makes strong actions, and the measure of our zeal in bringing souls to the feet of Christ is the measure of our love for Him,” he wrote.

“Converting souls to Christ,” Sheen wrote, “is not based on the pride of propaganda and public relations, but on a desire for perfection.” That’s perfection in Christ. That’s eternity. “An apostle desires to bring men and women to Our Lord for the same reason a business executive wishes to increase his trade. The businessman advertises to increase his profits; the Christian propagandizes to increase the happiness of others. He wants to bring souls to Our Lord for the same reason he wants to see the sun shine, the flowers bloom, and lambs grow into sheep — because it is their perfection and therefore their happiness.”

Just a little more Sheen and I’ll stop: “If a pencil is made for writing, we do not want to see it used for digging; if a bird is made for flying, we do not want to see it change places with the mole; if a souls is made for the fullness of life, then we do not want to see it clip its wings and wallow in hatred, half truths, and marred loveliness. We want to see it united with perfection which is the Life of Truth and Love and Beauty of God.”

Cardinal Dolan isn’t talking about packaging so much as he is talking about our lives. A “Christian soul is apostolic,” Archbishop Sheen said. “It loves perfection, wholeness, completeness, happiness, God. And therefore it wants everyone to be God-like and God-ward.”

That’s not just the work of Cardinal Dolan and the bishops, but also of every one of us who considers himself a Christian.

We must pray to shed light rather than heat, as my friend Austen Ivereigh writes in his eminently practical and ultimately pastoral How to Defend the Catholic Church without Raising Your Voice. His ten “Principles for Civil Communications” are so often on display in the work of Cardinal Dolan and so many of the most effective Church communicators.

In an interview last year, Philadelphia archbishop Charles J. Chaput told me:

[T]he public discourse of Catholics needs to be guided by charity and respect for others, but above all by truth. The truth can be difficult, so we often want to soften its edges. But this just wastes time and compounds our problems. Candor can be uncomfortable in the short run, but it’s much healthier in the long run.

The point is this: We need to be frank with each other as Christian adults, frank in our public witness and frank in our own self-criticism. Again, we also need to be prudent and kind — but not at the expense of courage, and not at the expense of speaking the truth.

We must not forget this. In love, the truth. It’s not so much that it is pretty, but that it is beautiful. It is at the root of our existence, it infuses our lives with meaning, it is redemptive in a world of pain and suffering, and it’s transforming.

We are all only human and we must pray for one another, that we each do know friendship with Christ, the source of our strength and love. We must pray for our priests and our bishops; for our leaders and teachers, neighbors and enemies; for strangers and those who feel alone in the world. We must pray that we might see the most attractive light of Christ, that we might know the Spirit, and move toward the Father.

As the two living popes have pointed to time and again: Evangelizing, which is our Gospel mandate, is about encountering Christ. No communications strategy will work without the communicator’s own constant contact with Christ, and every Christian’s communicating is about helping others encounter Christ, seeing His light in us, seeing the Spirit setting us ablaze with a love we can’t help but to share.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She is a director of Catholic Voices USA and blogs on Catholic things at K-Lo@Large. She is a member of the Archdiocese of New York’s Pro-Life Commission.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)