Newly appointed Cardinal Timothy Dolan certainly grabbed the lion’s share of media attention last week in New York when he received his red hat from Pope Benedict in Rome on Saturday.

The new cardinal is everything his predecessor Cardinal Edward Egan was not -- avuncular, brilliant with a quote, hands on and charming.

He is a perfect fit for New York, where big is better and an outside personality is needed to break through the clutter.

Dolan certainly made his name in Italy too last week, with an Italian newspaper ranking him among the “papabile,” the handful of cardinals who could become the next pope.

Egan further damaged his reputation recently by rowing back on his admission of child abuse by clergy in his former parish of Bridgeport.

Dolan, on the other hand, threatens to become as popular as Egan’s predecessor, the much-loved John Cardinal O’Connor.

But times are very different since the relative innocence of the O’Connor era. Dolan is in charge of a church that faces challenges the likes of which O’Connor never had to contemplate.

The sex abuse scandals have exacted a terrible toll on the credibility of the church. The church’s continued political battles that have placed it firmly in the Republican camp, and the educational crisis which is seeing parish schools closed down all over the archdiocese are huge issues to contend with. 

The church needs to tack to the center politically, to advertise its myriad great works in Catholic hospitals and providing education for hundreds of thousands of children in the New York area.

The church’s mission of healing the sick and educating the masses is almost always lost in the latest controversy over its stance on political issues.

The recent contraception debate was a case in point. While the Obama administration regulations for Catholic employers to provide mandatory insurance coverage were certainly imposed without enough discussion, the notion that Dolan rushed to the defense of no contraception coverage despite knowing that 98% of Catholics use it leaves lots of room for head scratching.

There is also no question that when it comes to issues such as gay marriage, the church has its own problems acknowledging honestly and fairly widespread homosexuality in the church.

All these issues and more will be on Dolan’s lap for the foreseeable future, and one can only wish him well in his new position as a prince of the church.

How he fares will be the stuff of history some day. Suffice it to say there has probably never been a more complicated time to effectively be the public face and top Catholic official in America.

He will need all the prayers of the faithful he can muster.

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