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Chris Thompson: Cardinal Dolan discusses the pastoral challenges facing Pope Francis

Chris Thompson

A rare event happened for Anchorage Catholics on March 24. Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York appeared at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to address local Catholics and the public on "Three Challenges Facing Pope Francis and the Church." The church was packed with a crowd of about 700 people.

Cardinal Dolan said there were three challenges Pope Francis needs to address: Marriage and family, restoring the credibility and luster of the church and the relationship of the church and culture.

Early in his remarks, Cardinal Dolan humorously recounted Pope Francis' statement, made 11 days before in Rome, after a dinner celebrating his first year as Pope. Raising a glass of spumante in toast he said, with a twinkle of humor, "May God forgive you for what you did."

Reflecting on the gift to the church Pope Francis represents, Dolan pointed out the acclaim Francis has received: he's been featured in Time, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Fortune magazines named him "Most Influential Man of the Year," President Obama traveled to see him and President Putin quoted him -- without Francis' asking for any of this. Dolan said that Francis exemplifies humility, saying that his stature continues to increase, even as he tries to downsize the papacy. Dolan noted Jesus' example of putting the gospel first, and said "if we come to serve and not to be served, then we're going to captivate people."

Marriage and family

Dolan recalled, post-Vatican II, there has been only a couple of bishop synods. One is scheduled this fall and Francis has made marriage and family a high priority by designating it as a key topic. Why? Marriage and family are in trouble in the Catholic Church. There are few marriages, and even fewer are going to the orders. Marriage is a reflection of how God loves us. Marriage is life-giving and comes from God. Sexual love ties to marriage. "We're the only credible voice that stands up for chastity," Dolan said, "but we're not making much headway."

Dolan cited studies from the Pew Research Center and the Center for the Applied Research of the Center for the Apostolate at Georgetown University. He said 51 percent of Catholic young people are approaching the sacred sacrament of marriage. At the same time, he said, state is trying to redefine marriage, while TV makes fun of it and dumbs it down. Dolan repeated Pope Francis' statement that, "If the church is going to reclaim her role as teacher of the nations as Jesus intended. If we're going to revive ourselves internally, and if we're going to teach outside, we had better reclaim the beauty, the dignity of married love." Recovering the sacredness of marriage will be a major focus of Pope Francis.

Restoring Church's luster, credibility

Cardinal Dolan noted this restoration "is one big, fat, heavy chore." Establishing that Jesus and the church are one, Dolan asserted more and more members were saying, "I don't need the church." "People today want to believe, but they don't want to belong. They're OK with spirituality; it's religion they don't like," Dolan said. He mentioned Pope Francis' assertion that one can't have Christ without his church. Dolan said research shows more and more Catholics leaving the church, for all kinds of reasons. But research also shows "that over 80 percent of Catholics that are born Catholic remain loyal to the faith." Francis wants to address this challenge. Alluding to Francis' name selection, Dolan told the story of St. Francis of Assisi, who while in seclusion, heard the voice of Jesus saying "rebuild my church." Pope Francis took his name due to its association with his sincerity for simplicity, and love for the poor.

Relationship of church and culture

Cardinal Dolan said traditionally culture -- that is, values, traditions and mores -- used to be an ally of the church. It was the engine of Catholic values in many traditional Catholic cultures, for example Italy, Spain, France, Holland, Poland, Germany, Ireland and Latin America. He said America was beneficial for Catholic culture in several ways, including its friendliness to religion and tolerance for religion. But that is changing. The U.S. now has less tolerance for religion, and increasingly is against religion. Catholics created an internal Catholic culture, especially notable if you're 55 years or older. Young people, affected by our culture, are rejecting and not tolerating religion. Vatican II used the phrase to "engage culture." This is their goal.

In closing, Dolan recounted Pope Francis' homily last year at the Feast of St. Joseph. Pope Francis asked attendees to picture Joseph, Jesus' stepfather, tenderly embracing his virgin wife and tenderly holding Jesus. He then asked those present to be tender with each another, let God be tender with them, and be tender to God's creation. This was a challenge for those present.

During the question and answer session, Cardinal Dolan observed that his New York City office building has an entire floor devoted to annulments. He said he'd like to see it replaced with a full floor of marriage rebuilders.

An excellent communicator, Dolan's remarks were frank, and deeply personal for many in attendance. I was pleased to have heard them. Video of his remarks are available on the Internet (search for "Cardinal Dolan Anchorage 2014").

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.


Chris Thompson