SAN DIEGO — It was on the evening before Palm Sunday that Father John Dolan first learned that he would be the diocese’s next auxiliary bishop.
He had just sat down inside the confessional at St. John the Evangelist Church and was preparing to devote the next hour to hearing his parishioners’ confessions.
Just as he was turning off his cell phone, it rang. He looked down and saw that the caller was Archbishop Christophe Pierre, papal nuncio to the United States. But before he could accept the call, the other confessional door opened and the first penitent walked in, knelt down and began, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned …”
“Being the good priest I was, I turned off the phone,” said Bishop-Elect Dolan. “But it was the longest hour I ever had in the confessional — that’s the truth!”
The longtime pastor will be consecrated as a bishop on his 55th birthday, June 8, during a liturgy at St. Therese of Carmel Church in Carmel Valley.
The seventh of nine children born to Gerald and Catherine Dolan, he grew up in the Clairemont area in a neighborhood that was populated primarily by Catholics. Nestled between the School of the Madeleine and the University of San Diego High School, he said, the neighborhood was dubbed “Catholic Gulch” by one of its few Protestant residents. He attended and graduated from both of the neighboring schools.
During his childhood, the young John Dolan’s cuteness landed him dozens of print advertisements and TV spots.
In one vintage television commercial from the 1970s, which can still be found on YouTube, a proud Little League coach tells his winning team that he’s decided to treat them to fast food from Jack in the Box restaurant. His initial enthusiasm quickly fades as the young players begin shouting out a never-ending list of desired menu items, all but drowning out the voice of the order-taker. San Diegans might be amused to learn that the sandy-haired boy demanding onion rings is none other than their new auxiliary bishop.
The first stirrings of a priestly vocation came during his senior year of high school. One day, on his way to a youth group meeting at St. Mary Magdalene Parish, he ran into Msgr. Dennis Mikulanis, who was then the parish’s associate pastor.
Noticing the teenager’s attire, the priest quipped, “You know, you look good in black. Have you ever thought of becoming a priest?”
As it turned out, Dolan hadn’t. But, after two more priests encouraged him to consider the priesthood, he interpreted it as a sign and entered St. Francis Seminary.
“Before that time, I never had a thought of priesthood at all,” Bishop-Elect Dolan said. “My mom kind of had her eyes on my brother Matt, that he’d be the priest, but he had his eyes on Jean, his wife.”
Franciscan Sister Mary Kiely remembers Bishop-Elect Dolan as an active member of St. Mary Magdalene Parish’s youth group during her tenure as its director.
“He gave a very good talk at the spring retreat in 1981,” Sister Kiely recalled. “It was there that I came to see that his insight into people went beyond the surface, and I believe that this gift will help him in his ministry as bishop.”
She shared an entry that she made in her journal on Aug. 26, 1981: “Today, John Dolan entered the seminary, the first from our youth community. God grant him the grace to persevere and send us more like him.”
Dolan was ordained by Bishop Leo T. Maher on July 1, 1989, at San Rafael Parish in Rancho Bernardo. He served as associate pastor at St. Michael Parish in Paradise Hills and Santa Sophia Parish in Spring Valley, then as pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in Oceanside for five years, St. Rose of Lima in Chula Vista for 12 years, and St. Michael in Poway for two years.
Prior to his appointment as auxiliary bishop, he had been serving concurrently as diocesan vicar for clergy, a role that involved overseeing the assignments of priests throughout the diocese, and as pastor of St. John the Evangelist and St. Vincent de Paul parishes in San Diego.
Bishop-Elect Dolan spoke appreciatively of the rich cultural diversity present in the Diocese of San Diego, which according to a June 2016 report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) includes Hispanics (63 percent), whites (25 percent), Asians (8 percent), African Americans (3 percent) and Native Americans (0.5 percent).
“It’s been an absolute joy to be a member of various parishes that were multicultural, particularly parishes that had members of the Latino community,” Bishop-Elect Dolan said, referring to the single-largest cultural group in the diocese. “Parishes benefit greatly from a multicultural community; everybody feeds off each other.”
As auxiliary bishop, he will assist Bishop Robert W. McElroy in the operation and management of the diocese and in the celebration of confirmations and other sacramental duties. He will be leaving the pastorates of St. John the Evangelist and St. Vincent parishes, and will be taking on the role of vicar general for the diocese. He will continue in his role as vicar for clergy, and those duties are likely to expand.
“I’ll probably be connecting in a more robust way with the clergy” once relieved of parish assignments, he said. “It’ll be nice to kind of free myself up to spend more time with the clergy here. I think they deserve a lot of support and affirmation for what they do on a regular basis.”
His episcopal motto will be “Abide in My Love,” and the Sacred Heart of Jesus will be among the images depicted on his coat of arms. That image, he explained, is central to his theology.
“The heart of Christ pumps the blood not just to the bosom but to the extremities of the body of Christ,” he said. “When Jesus says, ‘Preach to all nations,’ He means it.”
“As far as my theology is concerned,” he added, “it’s really a heart that pumps to send the Gospel to the extremities, to the periphery as Pope Francis would say, and to invite them, accompany them back to the heart.”
Mark Sperrazzo, principal of St. Therese Academy, has known the auxiliary bishop-elect since they were classmates at the University of San Diego High School, where they co-starred in a student production of “Oklahoma!”
“John had a lead role and was really good in front of people,” Sperrazzo recalled. “He remains that way to date. John has a great personality, which reflects Christ and that is apparent when you encounter him.”
Sperrazzo immediately e-mailed his family when he heard the news of Dolan’s appointment.
“We couldn’t have been more pleased that such a fine pastoral priest and friend had been chosen as our auxiliary bishop,” he said.
Msgr. Mikulanis, who had first planted the seed of priestly vocation in the new auxiliary bishop’s mind, is just as pleased. He said he kept in touch with Bishop-Elect Dolan when the latter was a seminarian and, as brother priests, the two became good friends.
“There’s not a better candidate in this diocese to be our auxiliary bishop than John Dolan,” he said. “He’s insightful, innovative, imaginative, prayerful, pastoral and caring, with a good sense of humor — all of which he’ll need as he picks up the shepherd’s staff.”
“God bless him,” he added. “God has blessed us!”