I have long had a high opinion of the man who (since February 2009) has been the new Catholic archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan: I have read some of his writings, heard anecdotes about his joviality, and seen him occasionally on TV. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the splendid impression he makes in real life. Today, at the 10:15 Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he radiated a genuinely folksy exuberance combined with theological candor that makes it clearer to me than ever that New York Catholics — and New Yorkers generally — are fortunate to have him in our civic life in this dark period for our politics and our economy. I stress the word “genuinely,” in “genuinely folksy,” because there are few things as dispiriting as watching someone try to be “folksy” because his campaign consultants/professors/church superiors/etc. have told him he has to be in order to get the job. With Dolan, you get an exuberance that seems like it comes from deep within. Instead of speaking from a pulpit or a standing microphone, Dolan walks back and forth across the altar end of the nave with the poised assurance of a gifted talk-show host, but without the smarminess or self-regarding staginess that usually accompany professionals of that genre.
Which brings me to the substance of what he said. His ten-minute homily was a meditation on what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples, in the episode of the Transfiguration. In short, said Dolan, Jesus was preparing his disciples for the event that was to happen in Jerusalem — his passion and death — and to give them something to remember that would keep their faith alive when the hour of darkness came upon them. I thought he made a strange decision at this point: He didn’t mention that Jesus’s strategy in this regard actually failed, i.e., the disciples did as a matter of fact lose heart and abandon him when he was arrested. Dolan might have used that opportunity to point out that Jesus is with us even when we fail him, and is ready to forgive; perhaps he thought that point would have been too obvious to need stressing. In any case, the point he did make was a striking one, and always in season: that God is with us as much in desolation as in exaltation, when we are being tempted in the desert as much as when we are on the mountaintop with him. It is a not a novel message, but New York needs to hear it, and from a man whose sincerity and likeableness make him an excellent ambassador.