MILWAUKEE — John L. Allen Jr., author and Vatican analyst, came to the Milwaukee Archdiocese Tuesday, Feb. 28 to speak on the challenges the Catholic Church faces in the 21st century.
While he spent a portion of his approximately 60-minute presentation at Mount Mary College discussing two “mega-trends” shaping the Catholic Church of the future — the rise of the global south, and the biotech revolution, he seemed anxious to discuss a more recent “mega-event” that has present and future implications for the church.
Allen’s Milwaukee visit came 10 days after Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan received his new title from Pope Benedict XVI, an event where Allen enjoyed a front-row seat as senior analyst for CNN and correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.
Equally eager to hear Allen’s reflections on the consistory were the approximately 300 people in attendance at the second of his three speaking engagements while in the archdiocese.
The consistory was the sixth that Allen has covered during his 20-year career in the Catholic press, and like the other five, this one, too, had a “rock star cardinal,” in terms of what Allen described as the buzz around him, his name splashed across the covers of newspapers, the biggest lines at the receptions.
“He was the interview everyone (in the international media) wanted to get,” added the author of six best-selling books on the Catholic Church, including his latest, “People of Hope,” about Cardinal Dolan.
“The novelty of this consistory,” said Allen, “was for the first time in my experience and the first time ever, that rock star was American and it was Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York.”
His beaming image was everywhere, said Allen, who added that he was the cardinal that everyone wanted to talk about, and was the cardinal who “by far” created the greatest buzz of the new 22 members of the College of Cardinals.
While covering past consistories, Allen was the reporter who would walk into the Vatican press office in the hopes of securing an interview with “the rock star” cardinal of the consistory. For example, in 2001 it was Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga. But this time, Allen was the sought after reporter, as all the other international media clamored to him to learn more about the new American cardinal from New York.
“What I have to explain here, you have to understand that Rome was composed of people encountering Dolan for the first time. Think back to the first time you encountered him, and think back to how thoroughly he shattered stereotypes of what a remote, autocratic prince of the church is supposed to be like,” he said, adding that for people who had never “had the Dolan experience before, this was an absolute revolution.”
As Cardinal Dolan wowed the consistory, Allen said that naturally talk turned to the possibilities. He described a prominent writer in Spain who was “flabbergasted” by the experience. Talk turned to the inevitable question, said Allen, “Could this guy ever be pope?”
According to Allen, the Spanish journalist said, “‘In my heart of hearts, I can’t believe they’d elect a cowboy pope,’ – and he meant that in a very positive sense – ‘but can you imagine how much fun it would be if they did!’”
Allen noted that Cardinal Dolan will dismiss the possibility of his being elected pope in a heartbeat and “most informed observers will dismiss it almost as quickly because there’s long been a taboo against a superpower pope.”
Yet Allen said even the Italian media was examining the possibility.
He translated a banner headline that appeared on the cover of one of the most widely read dailies in Rome: “Among the 22 new cardinals, a new papabile breaks through.”
“For the first time in living memory, we were looking at a guy that seasoned insiders credibly believe has a shot and for an American to be in that position is (revolutionary),” he said.
Allen also noted that Cardinal Dolan was selected to deliver the “only substantive talk” of the consistory and described that selection as nothing “short of the pope rising out of his seat and pointing a finger at him, saying, ‘This is my beloved son on whom my favor rests.’”
Toward the end of the talk, Allen said the cardinal, whose Italian is “fairly good,” apologized for his Italian, calling it the “Italian of a child.”
At that, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, who Allen described as “a man of great accomplishment, but in terms of personality, the coldest fish you are likely to find,” bounded to his feet, ran to the microphone and corrected Cardinal Dolan, “It’s not the Italian of a baby, but the Italian of Dante!”
Allen noted Cardinal Sodano’s enthusiastic reaction to Cardinal Dolan, was mirrored by many others.
Regardless of Cardinal Dolan’s future as “papabile,” Allen noted that he is the premier Catholic face and voice in the English-speaking world and it’s abundantly clear he’s become the go-to guy for any challenge to the church in the English-speaking world.”