Alaska & the future of U.S. Catholicism

Cardinal Dolan: Smaller and mission-minded church may be the future of U.S. Catholicism


A leading voice of the Catholic Church sees Alaska as where the rest of the U.S. church may be heading in the future.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, stopped in Anchorage March 24-26 to spend three days teaching, celebrating liturgies and inspiring Alaskan clergy during the annual priest convocation. During his visit, he spoke with the Catholic Anchor about challenges facing the U.S. church and her efforts to re-evangelize an increasingly individualistic secular culture. While small, the church in Alaska provides clues to the rest of the church for how to re-evangelize the nation, the cardinal observed.

The following interview was edited for length and clarity.


In one of your talks this week with the priests, you noted the fact that the church in Alaska, unlike many established Catholic regions of the country, is still building churches and schools and the basic infrastructure. In areas like New York, Boston and Chicago, dioceses are going through the painful process of shuttering long-standing parishes and schools. In some ways this looks like the shrinking or contraction of the physical church in the world. But Pope Emeritus Benedict has observed that this sort of shrinking is inevitable because the infrastructure of the church is larger now than the reality. How can a relatively new Catholic area, like Alaska, avoid some of the painful realities that more established Catholic areas are now experiencing?

CARDINAL DOLAN: One of the themes of Blessed John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis is that the church has to be into mission, not maintenance. We can get so absorbed in maintaining what we’ve got that we forget that it is a means to an end — namely spreading the faith, introducing people to Jesus Christ, revving up their sense of discipleship and holiness.

Alaska has always thought, “Oh, we’re kind of a primitive church and our job is to try and catch up with the big boys — the Archdiocese of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia — boy we’d like to be like them, with the infrastructure, the numbers, the traditions.

Are you kidding? This place, Alaska, isn’t behind the rest of the church in the United States. It is ahead because this is where we’re all heading. Any church back home that has its strength in numbers, buildings, personnel, budget, money — we’re gone! All of that is quickly going.

I use the phrase “used-to-be-Catholicism.” When I’m driving around the Archdiocese of New York, my priests will say, “Oh look, that used to be St. Vincent’s. Oh that used to be Our Lady of Good Counsel. Oh, that used to be the minor seminary.” It’s gone! It’s gone! We can stand around and cry and mourn and wring our hands. But, maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be. Maybe now we are going to be free from this choking duty of maintaining this infrastructure that is actually suffocating the church’s mission.

You up here don’t have to be in maintenance, because you don’t have all that much to maintain. You have advantages we don’t have.

Now I know you’ve got challenges. I know you want maybe a bit stronger tradition here and a stronger Catholic school system and all that and I’m sure glad you wish for that, and please God it will come. But in general you’ve got something we don’t have. You have a sense of dare and dream. You’ve got people who have had to claim their faith and are proud of it — who know the ability of sticking together. You’ve got priests who work hard and who know that their main job is seeing that their people have the sacramental life of the church.

You may have a church that is a lot more similar to the church in the Acts of the Apostles than the church in the Archdiocese of New York. We might be more similar to the church after Constantine in that it is an established church. That has some advantages, I’m not denying that. But Benedict XVI is often quoted as saying that the vine has to be pruned if it is going to grow. Benedict reminds us that perhaps we need a leaner church.

Now the emphasis of John Paul II and Francis would be different. But in a way they are both the same because Benedict would say, “Well we might need a smaller church, we might need to prune the vine, we might need a creative minority, only so that we can bring more in.” The goal is to bring more in, to be more all embracing. The goal is to preach the Gospel and present everyone with the person, message and invitation of salvation of Jesus Christ.


In one sense the work of evangelism seems like the most natural thing in the world — to tell people about the hope of eternal life and communion with Christ, quite an extraordinary message! Why is this task so difficult today? Have we forgotten how to share the Good News?

CARDINAL DOLAN: We as Americans tend to overcomplicate things. We automatically think that when we have a mission in the church — and now the buzzword is the “New Evangelization” — we think “Uh oh, how are we going to market this? What new office do we need? What people do we need to hire? What programs will help us?” Boy are we barking up the wrong tree, because there is nothing more spontaneous, more natural to a believer than evangelization.

The first place we start with evangelization is ourselves. If you know, love and serve Jesus Christ, then the New Evangelization is extraordinarily natural and spontaneous.

The major ways Catholics evangelize is that you’re born into a Catholic family. The church grows by conversion and by birth. For most people, if you ask them why they’re Catholic, they’d say, “I don’t know, because I was born into a Catholic family.” There is a lot of wisdom there because ultimately it is Jesus who said, “You didn’t choose me, I chose you.”
Just as we didn’t choose to be born into our natural family, we were also born into a supernatural family through baptism. That is the essence of the faith — it is something given to us from God, something inherited, so that’s good. It’s bad if it becomes purely superficial, cultural baggage, if it’s taken for granted and presumed. That is the flip side of being born a Catholic — that’s a problem.

As John Paul, as Benedict, as Francis have said, more important than the family you are born into, more important than your ethnic group — and those are the two reasons why a lot of people claim to be Catholic — I’m Irish, I’m Italian, I’m Polish and therefore I must be Catholic. But more important than that is being a disciple of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ is your best friend, if you admit that he’s known me for all eternity and he wants me to spend all eternity with him, if you believe that he knows you better than you know yourself, that he has chosen you to be one of his friends and followers, and you accept that gift and know, love and serve him, that’s the defining aspect of your life. Then you will be a faithful member of the church and you will exude evangelization.

Now we Catholics don’t use the Bible thumping mode. We use more the exemplary way. We hope people will watch us as they did in the Acts of the Apostles and they will say things like they did in the early church: “I wonder why he would rather be fed to the lions than deny his faith? I wonder why he sticks with his wife for 50 years rather than dumping her when things get bad? I wonder why they don’t abort their babies? I wonder why they take care of the sick and the poor? As people watch what we do, they begin to wonder why and they begin to ask. That is the evangelization for which Catholics have been known.


Pope Francis has awakened the world in terms of how evangelization can be accomplished. Think of him kissing a man suffering from boils in St. Peter’s Square and bathing the feet of prisoners. In some ways he has turned evangelization into something very simple and yet the world sees his actions as extraordinary. Pope Francis has implored the faithful to “touch the flesh of the poor,” to be with them in both body and soul. In fact he has said that if we don’t touch the poor, we won’t know Christ. Is this one of the keys to the New Evangelization?

CARDINAL DOLAN: Sure, and it’s one of the keys of the old evangelization too. Pope Francis learned well from Pope John Paul’s Christian anthropology in that we don’t speak about the poor, we speak about the poor person. Every person has a face and a name. Like Blessed Mother Teresa said, we love people one soul at a time. We don’t speak in collectivities, we speak of individuals made in the image and likeness of God.
Pope Francis has this radar vision that Jesus did. They say at the Wednesday audiences it takes him an hour to wind through the square standing in the back of the jeep. He usually stops about 80 times. He has this radar vision for the baby or the crying woman or the sick person or the man covered with boils. He’s not waving to a hundred thousand people in the square. He sees one person at a time. That’s part of evangelization.


In your recent talk in Anchorage, you mentioned the growing phenomena of people who, while not rejecting the spiritual dimension of life, want nothing to do with the institutional church. At the same time we also see a drop in sacramental marriages, confessions and baptisms. How can we show that the church and her sacraments are relevant for those seeking to live their faith in the modern world?

CARDINAL DOLAN: As Catholics, part of our genius is that God’s call, though it is to individuals, always leads to communion and community. We get that from the Old Testament. God prefers to deal with us as a people, a community, a church. So while his call comes individually — see Abraham, Moses, the prophets, Jesus calling his Apostles — the immediate implication is that we become part of something bigger than ourselves. From call to communion — that’s the Catholic wisdom. We’ve lost the second part. We weren’t the first to lose it. John Calvin lost it. Today, when you meet an Evangelical, they will say, “Have you personally accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” For them it is a personal thing. If you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, that’s all that counts. You might want to join a church, but you don’t have to.
But for a Catholic, once you accept the call, communion immediately takes over — you’re a part of something beyond. That’s why you can’t have Jesus without his church, they are a package deal.

You can come up with all the theological reasons you want for saying, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” But what it comes down to is that you’d rather spend your Sunday morning with your dog at Starbucks than going to Sunday Mass. You’d rather have the world on an iPad, than have to go with a messy group of people. It’s the same as those who live in gated communities. They don’t want the neighbors coming with covered dishes. They want to be left alone!

The individualism of our society is now trumping community and that is very much at odds with the Catholic vision. By the way that’s very much at odds with the Judeo vision and the biblical vision.

So you can see the dance we’re doing: The most intensely personal thing you can do is to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, to become one of his disciples. It is intensely personal but it is intensely not private! It immediately becomes communal, ecclesia, the church.

It’s very interesting when Jesus left. The Apostles didn’t say, “Well that was nice, he sure changed our life. We’ll see you guys later. We’re going to believe in Jesus and pray in our own way and God willing we’ll meet up one of these days.”
Are you kidding? They knew they were the church. They knew Jesus brought them together and they knew that their job of bringing Jesus to people was also going to be bringing them into that communio they called the church. That is the challenge today.


What is the role of the liturgy and the mystical, sacramental elements of the church in revealing the relevance of the church to modern people who are seeking faith?

CARDINAL DOLAN: The main purpose of the liturgy is to praise and worship God. It’s not something that we do for ourselves. It’s the duty we have to praise and worship God, to thank him, to ask him to continue his blessings and to tell him we are sorry for having hurt him. That is what the liturgy is all about and it does it magnificently.
You can do that kneeling down by your bed in the morning and I hope most people do, but there is a special mystical value and a special power when we do it as a people. We are reminded of the great community of heaven. And we are reminded that the worship that we do on Sunday in the Eucharist is a reflection of what we do in the world. We are united to one another, giving worship to God.

Catholic worship has always been extraordinarily incarnational. Like the Orthodox and like the Jews we believe in the redemption of time and space.

We believe that time and space, creation and seasons, smells and colors, ritual and movement, chant and song and prayer have all been redeemed. Just as the Son of God took upon himself a human nature, so our worship takes on a human nature and becomes divine. It is an extension of the incarnation.

But back to the temptation of individualism. If the purpose of life is to entertain me and satisfy my urges and appetites then I’m not going to be much for liturgy. I’d rather take the dogs for a walk and get another latte at Starbucks.
But if you have accepted the divine promise — that it is in giving that we receive, in dying that we are alive, in giving ourselves away in love that we actually become most self actualized, well then you’re going to run to the liturgy. You’re going to want it and need it.

Let’s be a light to the world. Let’s concentrate on having prayerful uplifting, reverent liturgy and the rest will take care of itself. They will come!

'Alaska & the future of U.S. Catholicism'
has no comments

Be the first to comment on this post!

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

Copyright © 2021 Catholic Anchor Online - All Rights Reserved