Spreading the word
the tablet24 November 2016 | by Christopher Lamb | Comments: 0 Christopher Lamb talks to one of the men Francis has chosen to help build a more pastoral Church
Four years ago, I sat down to interview Archbishop Joseph Tobin in London. He was then number two at the Vatican’s department for religious but had just been told he was leaving Rome to be appointed Archbishop of Indianapolis, a move many judged as sending him into exile.
During the pontificate of Benedict XVI he was considered too conciliatory to the religious sisters in the United States that he had been asked to investigate. Powerful conservatives in the Vatican felt the supposedly errant nuns needed to be brought into line and that Tobin wasn’t doing so. How times have changed.
Last week we met again, this time in Rome, two days before he was made a cardinal by Pope Francis. As if being given a red hat was not a surprise enough for the 64-year-old Redemptorist priest, Francis produced a second bombshell, appointing Tobin as Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, home to 1.5 million Catholics. Both announcements took Tobin by surprise.
“I had no prior notice about the nomination as cardinal and then there was a simple declaration of sentence: the nuncio called me and said, ‘I’m calling because the Holy Father has appointed you the Archbishop of Newark,’” Tobin explains.
Being moved from Indianapolis has been difficult, he says, because he thought it sent a message to the people of the archdiocese that they were not really important. “But they don’t hear that,” he stresses. “What they say to me is that they’re tremendously sad but, ‘You must be needed elsewhere.’ I was feeling sorry myself, feeling sorry to have to leave Indiana, and someone said to me very simply: ‘What did you sign up for?’ And that kind of brought me back and I thought, ‘Yes that’s right, I did say I’m all in.’”
There is a reason for Tobin’s meteoric rise under Francis: he’s just the sort of bishop this Pope wants. The new cardinal is a warm, no-frills pastor who has made it clear he does not want to be known as a “Prince of the Church.” He is the kind of priest you’d feel happy to make your confession to – even if you hadn’t been to confession for many years.
“Our mother, when I called her after getting this shocking news, got a little emotional and she said: ‘I never thought a child of mine would be a Prince of the Church’,” he explains. “And I said, ‘Mother, you don’t believe I’m a Prince of the Church, and I don’t believe I’m a Prince of the Church and most importantly Francis doesn’t believe I’m a Prince of the Church, so we don’t have to ever use that word again.”
Nevertheless, his 93-year-old mother, Marie-Terese, was in Rome last weekend to witness her son receive his red hat, as were 11 of the cardinal’s siblings (he is the eldest of 13).
Tobin has also impressed the Pope with his approach to migrants. He faced down opposition from the then Governor of Indiana, and now Vice President-elect, Mike Pence, to welcome a family of Syrian refugees into his diocese. They have already integrated extremely well into life in the United States, he tells me.
Appropriately, our interview takes place near Rome’s Termini train station, a part of town which has become home to many migrants and is also the location of the Rome headquarters of the Redemptorists.
Following the election as the next US president of Donald Trump who ran on a divisive anti-migrant platform, Tobin believes that the Church’s primary mission must now be reconciliation. After living outside America for 20 years, owing to his role as Superior General of the Redemptorists and Secretary of the Congregation for Religious, he was dismayed by the divisions that he found back in his native country.
“I found a much greater degree of polarisation within American society and a polarisation that risks seeping into the Church as well. I found that shocking and distressing,” he says. I think [post-Trump] one of the principle missions of the Church in the United States is to be an agent of healing that promotes the common good and unity in diversity. That’s always been a hallmark of the American Church because American Catholics all came from some place else. If we forget that as American Catholics, on the day of judgment it will not be Jesus who condemns us, it will be our grandparents, because we forgot.”
He added: “This election enhanced the sense of polarisation – pitting groups against each other. In the wake of that election, I feel the mission of the Church is even more crucial, not simply to be faithful to the Gospel but to help our nation preserve the best of its traditions.”
Pope Francis also warned of divisions during the consistory Mass on Saturday, warning about a “virus of polarisation and animosity”, which risks infecting the Church. I ask Tobin whether he thinks the US hierarchy has been too politically partisan in the past – with many bishops effectively aligning themselves with the Republicans over abortion – and whether this needs to change.
“I don’t know if I’ve been around long enough to be able to justify that assumption,” the cardinal says, diplomatically. “I do know from other cultures in the world that the wider social ambience can unconsciously promote even within the Church values that are antithetical to the Gospel.”
What he does believe is that Trump tapped into the concerns of many who feel disenfranchised or excluded, such as blue-collar workers who lost their jobs due to cheap labour abroad. “Globalisation evokes a reaction, which is localisation, which is the re-creation of boundaries because the feeling is that without these boundaries I forget who I am. I cease to be who I am,” he explains.
Cardinal Tobin wants what Pope St John Paul II described as a “globalisation of solidarity”, which does not demonise immigrants but calls into question other aspects of globalisation, such as the “international currency trade, and futures and financial instruments”, which he says are to the “great benefit of a small number of people”.
Where more globalisation is needed, he points out, is in the College of Cardinals. It remains disproportionately European, which Francis is trying to remedy by giving red hats to prelates in far-flung corners of the world.
This is one of the easier reforms for the Pope to implement, as he alone picks cardinals. It is much harder for Francis to shape a more compassionate, merciful and outward-looking Church. This was seen last week when four cardinals publicly challenged the Pope’s landmark family document, Amoris Laetitia, saying it had generated widespread confusion. Written after two fiery synod of bishops gatherings, the text offers an opening for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
One of the four challengers, US Cardinal Raymond Burke, recently said that the Pope is “teaching error” and threatened to make a “formal act of correction” if Francis does not answer questions that he and the three other retired prelates have submitted. The queries are being presented as dubia - a Latin term - and require a yes or no answer.
Cardinal Tobin is critical of their approach. “Amoris Laetitia cannot simply be reduced to a question of ‘yes or no’ in a specific pastoral situation,” he says. “The Holy Father is capturing the work of two synods, so if four cardinals say that two synods were wrong, or that somehow the Holy Father didn’t reflect what was said in those synods, I think that should be questioned.” He adds: “Just to simply reduce it to a ‘dubium’, I think is at best naive.”
So, what is it “at worst”, I ask. He replies with a smile: “I always look for the best.”
Tobin says that Francis wants the Church to “go beyond itself”, and pointed to Francis’ 2013 pre-conclave speech to his fellow cardinals, warning of the sickness of the Church becoming too “self-referential.”
He said it was analogous to the Dead Sea. Despite it receiving water from the highlands of Galilee, the water does not go anywhere and becomes fetid.
“What Francis wants to make sure is that all the wonderful gifts that the Word of God and the Catholic tradition give to the Church go some place,” he explains.
“And where he wants it to go is to some of the deadest places on earth, which are the margins of society. It’s that vision of Ezekiel, ‘I saw water and it was flowing.’”
Francis, says Tobin, wants the water to flow and refresh those dead places. Clearly, the Pope’s dream will depend on people like Tobin.