Dennis Poust’s first week as executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference was well-timed and productive. He took over on Monday, June 7, and by early Friday morning of the same week the state Legislature had wrapped up its session.
Even better, for Poust and for the conference, which represents New York state’s Catholic bishops on public policy matters, “It was a successful close to the session for us.”
“We weren’t hit with anything harmful” as the session wound down, Poust said.
The conference also counted as victories legislative priorities such as the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which limited solitary confinement in New York prisons, and the Nourish New York program, partnering the state’s farms and regional food banks to address food insecurity. Both passed during the session.
Poust came into his new job with 20 years of related experience as the conference’s director of communications. He was tabbed as interim director in January after the conference’s longtime executive director, Richard E. Barnes, resigned late last year to take a position with the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation.
Cardinal Dolan, as conference president, made Poust’s appointment permanent last week. The cardinal said he and the other New York bishops were “grateful” Poust accepted the position.
“He has brought welcome continuity as the staff navigated the 2021 Legislative session in Albany,” the cardinal said. “At the same time, we bishops have been impressed with his vision for the conference going forward, with a focus on further engaging the Catholic people of our state toward faithful citizenship.”
Poust, in an expansive phone interview with Catholic New York just hours after the close of the Legislative session June 11, said Cardinal Dolan and he speak frequently and agree completely on the need to “engage the laity more in faithful citizenship,” a vision Poust has also addressed with the other bishops of New York.
“I feel very blessed to be working under (Cardinal Dolan),” Poust said. “He’s the best evangelizer I think I’ve ever encountered. It makes my job a little easier in increasing our communication to the faithful.”
Even so, Poust says, the days when a bishop could pick up the phone and halt a piece of legislation “are long gone.”
His media background makes Poust “hyper aware” of the need to “always be communicating with our people.”
“My goal is to evangelize and catechize our people more,” Poust said.
The plan is to explain to Catholics why the Church takes the positions it does, and why it’s important for Catholics to be active and engage in the public square, he added.
Working with dioceses and parishes, Poust said he would like to create public policy committees “to get down to the grassroots levels to be more engaged.”
Toward that end, his first hire was Gillian Murphy, as assistant director for digital media and advocacy. She has already launched the conference’s presence on Instagram and will be working to beef up other social media channels.
Poust said the ability to create content and “get it out there” was a big part of his pitch for the conference. It starts by hearing directly from the bishops themselves, Poust believes, especially on hot-button issues like why they oppose assisted suicide or why they support the rights of parents to choose the best schools for their children.
“The best way to do that,” Poust said, “is to put the bishops front and center, talking directly to the people” on video, both in social media platforms and parish settings.
Poust, who got his own professional start as a reporter at Catholic New York, said there is a need for the conference to consistently promote its message to the press, whether that be with secular publications, or “more importantly” through the Catholic press, which has been “instrumental in successes historically and will only continue to be more important as we go forward.”
Poust said he has “big shoes to fill” at the conference, where he said he learned much by working closely with Barnes, whom he called “a great director.”
He’s also happy to be able to rely on the conference’s two longtime principal lobbyists, Kathleen M. Gallagher, director for pro-life activities, and James Cultrara, director for education. He said both are “national leaders in their respective fields” who are well versed in the nitty-gritty of legislation and regulation as well as the “game of politics.”
“When you have that kind of knowledge base and instincts of political thinking, you can get a lot done,” Poust said. “If you are able at times to think a few moves ahead, and anticipate what (others are) going to do, you’re going to be in a lot better shape.”
With both houses of the state Legislature and the Governor’s Office now controlled by Democrats, Poust said that “makes for challenges and opportunities, probably more challenges.”
Still, he is open and hopeful about “building bridges” with younger members of the Assembly and Senate on issues that many people do not naturally associate with the Church, but where the conference has long been active. Examples Poust gave included immigration reform, criminal justice reform as well as care for the poor and vulnerable, which are all issues “we as Catholics are familiar with.”
He said the conference intends to pursue those avenues without giving any ground on respect life and other family issues.
Of his interactions with politicians, Poust said he believes there is “respect for our role, if not always our position.”
Speaking about his seven years at Catholic New York, which began after his graduation from New York University with a degree in politics in 1988, Poust said it was a formative time, both careerwise and for renewing his own Catholic faith.
As a Catholic journalist, he was thrust into an exciting beat during the concurrent tenures of Pope St. John Paul II and Cardinal John O’Connor.
“The admiration I had for the consistency of Cardinal O’Connor in the entire spectrum of Catholic social teaching can’t be overstated in my personal faith or where I ended up in my career,” said Poust, who at times held an editing position and coordinated CNY’s nascent desktop publishing operations.
Poust also met his future wife, Mary DeTurris Poust, then also on the editorial staff. The couple, now married for 26 years, have three children. Ms. DeTurris Poust, a longtime Catholic New York columnist, is director of communications for the Diocese of Albany.
(His mother, Mary Ann Poust, also was a longtime reporter and editor at CNY.)
His time at Catholic New York, Poust said, “really prepared me as a professional but also increased my knowledge and love for the Church.
“My life would have been so completely different without Catholic New York. I don’t even want to think about it.”