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This week in Baltimore, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) elected Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville to a three-year term as the USCCB president, succeeding Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. Archbishop Kurtz had served as the conference's vice-president for the past three years and his election this week followed the usual pattern of a vice-president ascending to the presidency.
That pattern was not true three years ago when Cardinal Dolan was elected president by his brother bishops instead of the sitting vice-president. It was a stunning outcome on many levels. Never before had a vice-president standing for the presidency not been elected to the top post. Never before had the Conference elected an Archbishop of New York, with a huge archdiocese of his own to lead, to the additional duties as leader of the USCCB. Many bishops talked about Dolan's great leadership and communication skills as reasons for his election.
Now, upon conclusion of his three-year term, we can evaluate the results. Overall, it seems that the election of someone with his gifts and talents was providential. Cardinal Dolan was the right leader at the right time for the USCCB from November 2010 through November 2013.
His top accomplishment likely is that he was able to keep the bishops united in their initiatives. His surprise election led many to put labels on Dolan and other bishops and to focus on differences of priority, focus, and approach within the USCCB. Overcoming any divisions, real or imagined, was part of his job as a leader and bridge-builder.
Unity became a greater challenge with the Affordable Care Act's (Obamacare's) mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services that all health plans, including those of the Church, must include contraceptives, abortion-causing drugs and sterilizations. How should the Church defend its religious liberty on the issue, earn appropriate exemptions from the mandate, and not appear partisan as we approached national elections?
There were various opinions as to how to approach this. Dolan led the USCCB in a civil, principled and never-partisan articulation of what was at stake. He advocated for what the Church hoped for as an outcome. The period of prayer, fasting, education and action called for in the Fortnight for Freedom was a rallying call for Catholics nationwide.
The defense of religious freedom here in the U.S. on the HHS mandate and other issues continues. Cardinal Dolan used his final presidential address on Monday to create awareness about the need for religious freedom for millions of persecuted and suffering Christians across the globe. We hope that the bishops will continue to express a voice of unity on religious liberty and that Christians and all people seeking the common good will echo that unified message in the years ahead.
A second major accomplishment was Cardinal Dolan's prioritization of the new evangelization in the work of the Conference. He dedicated the first and second of his annual presidential addresses to aspects of the new evangelization. Pope Francis has regularly articulated that he wants the Church overall, and Church leaders in their duties, to be focused outward -- to find and engage those on the periphery -- instead of on internal Church management issues. Dolan has been practicing that for three years in his affable, engaging and inclusive style.
A third accomplishment, and one I hope the Church at all levels follows, is his embrace of the media to explain, defend and share the Catholic faith. Most Americans, including the majority of Catholics, get their news about the Church from non-Catholic media and sources. For Catholics to bring the Good News to others, especially those on the periphery, it involves building bridges with the media so that journalists include the authentic perspectives of the Church in their coverage of issues affecting us.
Through his appearances on the Today Show, the Colbert Report, his own radio show on the SiriusXM network, his personal Blog, various op-eds and many other vehicles, Cardinal Dolan has succeeded at sharing the Good News of the Church through the media. He always ensures that he articulates what the Church is for (the common good) in order to overcome any misperception that the Church is often only "against" things. In his media appearances, Cardinal Dolan expresses a joy of living the Catholic faith, builds relationships on a one-on-one level, and opens minds of those in the audience to see the Church in a different or new way. In discussion of hot-button issues, Cardinal Dolan sheds light, not heat. As the son of a bartender, he loves to engage in a spirited, civil and down-to-earth discussion often with a good amount of self-deprecating humor too.
This week, let's give thanks to God for the leadership of Cardinal Timothy Dolan as USCCB president and pray for Archbishop Joseph Kurtz to be the right leader at the right time for whatever issues we'll face as a Church in the United States over the next three years.
Scot Landry is executive director of Catholic Voices USA and the host of The Good Catholic Life radio program.