Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 3, 1985
Archbishop Donnellan Is 1984 Man Of The Year
By Msgr. Noel C. Burtenshaw
It caused uneasiness, discomfort, even anger.
The Catholic bombshell of the calendar year 1984 was the draft of the bishops Pastoral Letter on the Economy. It was never suspected by anyone that the precise, always proper, and almost thoroughly, conservative U.S. Bishops Conference would author a document of this kind. And its publication was the highlight of the year, the event of the year.
Heck, said one editorial, we knew Reagan would be reelected before the millions were spent. That was a non-event. But this letter, coming from American prelates, that was THE event.
The letter was the product of the American bishops, but it was authored by five or their number. One of those five was Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, who is Atlantas archbishop.
For that outstanding moment in this year, we of the Catholic press in north Georgia have proclaimed him Man of the Year.
This first draft of the letter was published at the November meeting of the bishops in Washington, D.C. Those who attended the meeting continue to describe the bedlam which descended on the meeting. The authors became instant media stars. Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, chairman of the drafting committee, finally announced that he would not be available for talk shows and television appointments during the Washington meeting. I cant get my work done, he said in frustration.
It was the same with the others. So hot were these men who dared take a critical look at the mighty American economy, that every interviewer from the Today Show to the PTL Club wanted their comment. Archbishop Donnellan was the prime time guest of Money-Line, a daily stocks and bonds show which is produced nationally by Cable News Network (CNN.)
The bishops were safe in Washington where together they could protect each other. However, the meeting ended and each one returned home. They found that their phones never stopped ringing. The cameras, microphones and pens were all on ready.
Archbishop Donnellan accepted all invitations and fielded all questions, attempting to deal with all criticisms. It was hard to answer them, said well known talk show host Tom Houck. How can you deal with the fact that the letter says if you make a lot of profit, then you may be responsible to give some away. That really incensed people. we could not get them to stop calling.
The Archbishop was asked to be with Houck for an hour on his afternoon radio show. The hour had to be extended. The calls were too many.
The portion of the letter with which Archbishop Donnellan was involved was the section on Employment. It is not known (by us) whether this assignment was given to him or chosen by him. We just know that his background as the son of immigrant Irish working-class parents, fitted Donnellan for the role. Not only is the ecclesiastically conservative prelate knowledgeable on the subject of jobs, throughout his life he has been outspoken on the needs of the working class family. That is because he is the product of one.
Thomas Andrew Donnellan was a New York City kid. His fathers name was Andrew and his mother was Margaret Egan. They were both from Ireland. However, they met in New York at the turn of the century and married. They had two children, Thomas and Nancy.
Thomas was born in 1914. Money was by no means plentiful in the Bronx home of the Donnellans. Often, those who worked closely with the Archbishop down the years would hear him comment on the situation of his early and growing years. The Donnellan family was a Depression time family. The good times were times when Andrew Donnellan had a job. There were times when no job was available. It was a trade union home. Injustice was seen and felt. It would not be forgotten.
Growing up on the sidewalks of New York was a close happy time for this Irish family. They were close to others who had settled from the old country and while money was scarce, education was considered a must.
After graduating from Cathedral College in 1933, Thomas entered the seminary for the New York Archdiocese - St. Josephs in Yonkers. Unlike many who found the seminary life severe and difficult, Thomas enjoyed his years at St. Josephs. He still speaks most fondly of those years and is close to all of his living classmates. It is interesting that almost 30 years later in 1962 he would become Rector of St. Josephs. It is also interesting that Cardinal Francis Spellman was known to appoint the man he considered his best priest to hold that position.
Donnellan was ordained a priest in 1939 and was immediately sent for a doctorate degree to Catholic University in Washington - usually a sign that big plans were being laid for the individual. So it was to be for the new Father Donnellan.
Over the years the ladder to high places was climbed in the New York Chancery under the watchful eye of Donnellans mentor, Cardinal Spellman. He became Spellmans secretary in 1956 and Chancellor in 1958. For a priest in those years these positions were powerful ones and sometimes those who held them were held in suspicion, even fear, by other priests. However, in the case of Monsignor Thomas Donnellan, this was not so. Generally speaking, the priests who worked in New York in the late fifties and sixties (we spoke to some who were not his classmates said that Tom Donnellan was the most popular priest in the Archdiocese. If elective posts had been in existence in those days (and they were not) he could have been elected to any one of them.
In St. Patricks Cathedral, Monsignor Donnellan was ordained bishop on April 9, 1964. That same month he was installed as the bishop of the snowy, most northernly Diocese of Ogdensburg in New York State. He remained there until 1968 when he became the second Archbishop of Atlanta.
Archbishop Donnellan has held many positions in the United States Bishops Conference including treasurer. However, the authorship of the Letter on the Economy has undoubtedly been the most important. According to the Archbishop, most critics of this letter point to the supposed wealth of the Catholic Church, especially in the United States, when voicing there objections. Archbishop Donnellan admits that more can be done, but points to the Campaign for Human Development, Catholic Social Services, the work of St. Vincent de Paul and other charities in answer to criticisms.
The entire Bishops Conference has made the point that no matter how well or ill any individual group has done, enough has not been accomplished on behalf of the needy in this country. There are still 35 million people in this nation that live below the poverty level, says Archbishop Weakland. That means we must all listen to the words of this letter.
It has been a production and no doubt about it. Perhaps it has been the one document written by a group of bishops that has been read by more people in the history of the Church in the United States. And since it is merely a draft, the debate will go on.
For his part in this historic moment we believe that Thomas Andrew Donnellan, Archbishop of Atlanta, is 1984 Man of the Year.