NEW YORK - The next Roman Catholic archbishop of New York is known as a gentle enforcer of Vatican teaching — a faithful servant of Rome who can disarm his critics with his self-deprecating wit, human touch and love of a good cigar.
Timothy M. Dolan, 59, was named by Pope Benedict XVI on Monday to what is perhaps the most influential post in American Catholicism. At a news conference, Dolan pledged "my life, my heart, my soul" to the 2.5 million parishioners of the archdiocese, the nation's second-largest after Los Angeles.
Dolan, currently the archbishop of Milwaukee, will succeed the retiring Cardinal Edward Egan, 76, who has led the Archdiocese of New York for nearly nine years. Dolan will be installed April 15.
"He's going to defend and promote church orthodoxy," said David Gibson, a former Vatican Radio journalist. "But he's a friendly guy who knows how to translate that into a real kind of pastoral presence."
Dolan said President Barack Obama called him Monday to offer his prayers, a gesture the archbishop called "extraordinarily gracious." Dolan mentioned the conversation during a visit to St. Joseph's Seminary in suburban Yonkers, and said he spoke briefly with Obama about the country's financial problems.
Born in St. Louis, Dolan began his path to the priesthood as a boy, setting up a play altar in his basement with cardboard boxes and sheets. He attended a seminary prep school in Missouri and was ordained in 1976. In 1985, he earned a doctorate in church history from Catholic University.
After working as a parish priest and professor, Dolan spent seven years as rector of the North American College in Rome, considered the West Point for U.S. priests, where he had studied for his own ordination.
"He's a very gregarious, optimistic, hardworking person," said the Rev. Greg Apparcel, pastor of the American church Santa Susanna in Rome, who knows Dolan from his years at the North American College. "He's very good at reaching out. I think his optimism and open nature will serve him well."
At the seminary in Rome, Dolan was known as a polished orator who wrote his sermons and notes in flowing cursive but rarely had to consult them. He walked the corridors talking to seminarians, and enjoyed Jamaican-made Macanudo cigars in his down time.
"He is utterly genuine," said the Rev. Paul Holmes, a Seton Hall University vice president who was chairman of preaching under Dolan at the Rome seminary from 1999 to 2000. "What you see is what you get."
Holmes remembers visiting Dolan at the archbishop's residence in Milwaukee in 2005, when Pope John Paul II was close to death. Dolan asked his guests whether they minded eating off TV trays in the living room so that they could watch the news.
"He wouldn't let ceremony stand in the way of human beings doing the most human things," Holmes said.
Like other bishops of his generation, Dolan is known as a defender of Catholic orthodoxy, affirming church teaching against abortion and supporting the all-male celibate priesthood.
But he also "understands the way to lead people to a richer, fuller life in Christ is persuading them. So punishment, vindictiveness or pettiness of any sort is just not part of his nature," said the Rev. Steven Avella, a history professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
A year into Dolan's tenure in Milwaukee, about a quarter of his priests, including Avella, signed a public letter saying celibacy should be optional for future Catholic clergy. Dolan responded by upholding the teaching of the church, but also praised the priests as good men.
Rather than deny communion to Catholic politicians who break with church teaching, Dolan held daylong sessions for local and state officers on church teaching and public life.
Dolan can preach and celebrate the sacraments in Spanish — something beneficial in the New York area, which has a large and growing Hispanic population. Like his predecessors, Dolan is expected to be elevated to cardinal to reflect the importance of the big-city post.
His selection continues a chain of Irish-American bishops that was broken only once in the history of the archdiocese, when French-born prelate John Dubois was appointed in 1826.
Dolan's predecessor in Milwaukee, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, abruptly retired after news broke that the archdiocese had paid a $450,000 settlement to a man claiming Weakland tried to sexually assault him. Weakland admitted an "inappropriate relationship" but denied abuse. In 2004, Dolan publicly released the names of local diocesan priests who had been credibly accused of molesting children.
However, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, has complained he has not worked closely enough with civil authorities to publicly identify accused clergy from religious orders. In 2006, the archdiocese agreed to a nearly $17 million settlement involving abusive former Milwaukee priests who had worked in California.
Peter Isely, Midwest director of SNAP, said he and Dolan are still on "good personal terms" despite their differences.
"He's got an awfully great Irish style. He's funny. He's very quick-witted," Isely said.
Dolan's Irish humor was on display at his introductory news conference. When a reporter noted that Dolan was the latest in a series of Irish-American archbishops in New York, Dolan responded: "It's a sign of the Holy Father's infallibility, don't you think?"