New York (AP) - Archbishop Timothy Dolan was installed Wednesday as the leader of Roman Catholic New York, taking the most prominent American pulpit in the church during an elaborate ceremony that drew thousands of parishioners and civic leaders to St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Known for his wit and warmth, Dolan beamed as he walked down the aisle toward the altar, waving to the crowd, hugging well-wishers and stopping to shake hands in a front pew with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson, among others who attended.
At a news conference hours earlier, Dolan said he would challenge efforts to legalize gay marriage in New York state. Gov. David Paterson is expected Thursday to introduce such a bill; gays and lesbians can already marry across the border in Connecticut, Massachusetts and, later this year, Vermont.
In his sermon, Dolan lamented that the church was "ridiculed for her teaching on the sanctity of marriage." He said his goal was to revive observance in the church and protect human life, "from the tiny baby in the womb to the last moment of natural passing."
"The church is a loving mother who has a zest for life and serves life everywhere, but she can become a protective 'mama bear' when the life of her innocent, helpless cubs is threatened," he said, sparking a standing ovation. "Everyone in this mega-community is a somebody with an extraordinary destiny. Everybody is a somebody in whom God has invested infinite love."
Dolan, 59, the former Milwaukee archbishop, succeeded Cardinal Edward Egan, 77, who retired after nine years in the job. Dolan is expected to eventually be named a cardinal.
The Archdiocese of New York is the nation's second-largest diocese after Los Angeles, yet it is the most visible Catholic post in the country.
Among Dolan's predecessors was Cardinal Francis Spellman, who was so influential that his residence was dubbed "the powerhouse." Cardinal John O'Connor was the most forceful Catholic voice in the national debates of his era, especially on abortion. Dolan said in the news conference that his new job "does have an enhanced prominence that might take getting used to on my part."
Yet he appeared to revel in the spotlight of the two-day installation, which began with an evening prayer service in the cathedral Tuesday night. At Wednesday's Mass, about 150 bishops, archbishops and cardinals took part in the procession inside St. Patrick's, accompanied by hundreds of priests and other representatives of the archdiocese.
As Dolan awaited his entrance, he shook hands with police officers who were guarding the church and waved to the hundreds of onlookers kept behind barriers across the street.
"I need to see my shepherd," said Merle Paisley, a hospital worker from the Bronx who joined the crowd outside. "I need to pray for him."
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican ambassador to the U.S., read a letter from Pope Benedict XVI naming Dolan to the job. After the document was notarized, Dolan formally became New York's archbishop. When he was handed the golden crosier, or bishop's staff, a symbol of his office, he joked, "Do I keep this?"
The archdiocese covers a region with 2.5 million parishioners in nearly 400 churches and an annual budget estimated to be at least half a billion dollars.
Its vast Catholic service network includes 10 colleges and universities, hundreds of schools and aid agencies, and nine hospitals that treat about a million people annually.
Dolan faces challenges identical to those for bishops nationwide: strengthening the finances of Catholic schools and parishes as Catholics move from urban areas to the suburbs; boosting the low rate of Mass attendance and serving a growing number of Latinos and other immigrants.
He read a small part of his sermon in Spanish, calling the strong faith of Hispanic Catholics "a light for us all." He said he hoped immigrants would find the church to be the "spiritual counterpart" of the Statue of Liberty, welcoming and embracing them.
He noted the "deep wounds" of the clergy sex abuse scandal that erupted in 2002 and has cost American dioceses more than $2.6 billion in settlements with victims and other expenses in the past five decades, and pledged to continue "reform, renewal and outreach" to victims.
Dolan is a St. Louis native and the oldest of five children. He holds a doctorate from The Catholic University of America and is a former rector of the North American College in Rome, considered the West Point for U.S. priests.
Associated Press writer Deepti Hajela contributed to this report.