The present resident in the Archbishop’s official mansion at 412 Madison Avenue, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, is the media’s go-to guy on politics and controversy within the Catholic Church. With his Irish humor, “Timmy” Dolan, considered "America's Pope," is the figure the press frequently turns to for comment — whether the topic is abortion, the controversy of the past decade over predator-priests, or if U.S. elected officials are exempted from the teachings of their church on certain secular issues.
Dolan and his nine predecessors as archbishops of New York are brought to life in “Sons of Saint Patrick,” by George Marlin and Brad Miner. In tracing back the history of the archdiocese, which now oversees 405 churches in 10 counties in and outside New York, veteran church-watchers Marlin and Miner tell how it was created by the Vatican and reveal much of the insider politics used to select each archbishop.
Perhaps most interesting is from the time preceding the Civil War to today, there have been only 10 archbishops. That is an almost minuscule number, compared to the 32 U.S. presidents, 40 governors and 12 Popes who held office in the same period.
The first to hold the position, Archbishop John Hughes — “Dagger John” to friends and foes for his aggressive style — was a two-fisted Irish immigrant who entered the priesthood in his late 20s after years as a gardener and laborer. Hughes’ entry into the seminary was in large part due to the intervention of his behalf of the first American saint, Mother Elizabeth Seton, for whom he worked as a gardener.
Along with building the diocese and its churches, Archbishop Hughes took to the “Letters” pages of New York’s several newspapers to answer Catholicism’s American enemies. Like his successors, he became a friend and confidant of the powerful.
New York’s Gov. William Seward was an intimate of Hughes, and when he became secretary of state, introduced the archbishop to President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, in turn, dispatched Hughes on a mission to Europe to convince its leaders not to intervene in America’s Civil War.
Lincoln hope to see his friend Hughes receive its highest honor — the red hat that makes its holder a cardinal, one of the “princes of the church” who elect the Pope from their ranks. But Hughes died in 1864 and that honor went to his much more low-key successor, Archbishop John McCloskey.
The archbishops of the 20th and 21st centuries have genuinely symbolized the Catholicism that characterized their time in office and the particular issues that beset the church of their era.
Francis Cardinal Spellman, the longest-serving archbishop (1938-1967), held the office during the “Golden Age” of his faith. The post-World War II church was growing rapidly and, given “Spelly’s” friendship with Pope Pius XII and his widespread political contacts, his official residence was dubbed “The Powerhouse.”
Cardinal Spellman went further than most churchmen of his time by supporting the anti-Communist crusade of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and calling for U.S. victory in Vietnam. A vocal opponent of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council that included replacing the Latin Mass, Spellman nonetheless accepted the changes (sadly to his supporters, Spellman’s own funeral was a post-conciliar Mass in English).
His successor Terrence Cooke faced the crisis-riddled church of the 1960s and ’70s. With the priesthood’s rank dropping dramatically and church attendance plummeting, Cardinal Cooke dealt calmly and firmly with priests suddenly empowered by the Second Vatican Council and wanting their church more involved in reforms they called “social justice.”
Easily the most controversial New York archbishop of modern times was John O’Connor, who held the position from 1984-2000. Whether it was refusing to permit Bill Clinton to speak at St. Patrick’s Cathedral because of his pro-abortion stance or clashing publicly over New York Gov. Mario Cuomo over whether a Catholic can exempt himself from teachings of his church, Dolan never flinched in voicing the pro-life line of his church.
“Sons of Saint Patrick” is a majestic work that illustrates a relatively unknown-but-highly influential office to Catholics and non-Catholics. In the process, it breathes life into unforgettable leaders of consequence and vision.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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