ROME — Pope Francis’s surprise pick for cardinal, American Archbishop Joseph Tobin, said Thursday the U.S. church has four difficult years ahead as it insists on providing welcome to migrants and refugees during a Donald Trump administration.
Tobin knows well what lies ahead: As archbishop of Indianapolis, Tobin publicly challenged Trump’s vice president-elect, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, over his order to prevent aid groups from helping resettle Syrian refugees in the state.
Tobin refused, and last year the archdiocese settled the Syrian family — followed by 52 other refugees.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Tobin said the U.S. church has been helping resettle migrants for over a century. He said that priority “is going to be challenging in the next four years and hopefully we will meet the challenge.”
“The ethical reflection of a nation isn’t reduced to the government,” he added, saying what counts is its people. “I have a lot of faith in the American people.”
Tobin was in Rome for the ceremony Saturday during which Pope Francis will formally make him a member of the College of Cardinals, the churchmen who will one day elect his successor. Tobin is one of 17 new cardinals, three of them Americans, who will get their red hats.
His nomination was a surprise, given that Indianapolis has never had a cardinal and that the U.S. church had been passed over in Francis’s previous consistories. Francis compounded the shock by recently appointing Tobin to take over in Newark, New Jersey, which has been roiled by the leadership of its retiring archbishop, John Myers.
Tobin, the oldest of 13 children raised largely by a single mother after his father died young, confesses he doesn’t know what exactly Francis saw in him to entrust such weighty responsibilities.
Others, however, know why.
“He’s not pompous and he cares about the peripheries,” said John Carr, who headed the justice and peace section of the U.S. bishops’ conference for more than two decades before founding a program at Georgetown University on Catholic social thought. “He’s a pastor, not a prince.”
In that way, Tobin is very much a Francis-style bishop. In addition to pressing the pope’s top concern for the plight of refugees, Tobin was nearly alone at a recent meeting of American bishops in urging the U.S. church hierarchy to focus on prioritizing Francis’s environmental message.
Francis has made the plight of refugees one of the hallmarks of his papacy, even bringing a dozen Syrian refugees home with him from Lesbos, Greece. He has asserted that anyone who wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out migrants — as President-elect Trump has proposed — is “not Christian.”
Pence had been among dozens of governors from mostly Republican states who attempted to block Syrian refugees following the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris, saying there were questions about the federal government’s refugee screening process.
During the confrontation, Tobin brought an Iraqi refugee with him to a meeting with the governor to explain the church’s position.
Tobin said Pence received his Iraqi friend “with great respect” and said he thought Pence’s position was more political strategy than personal conviction.
“I’d like to believe that the governor himself felt caught, because I think that there was an overarching political interest in this thing, the governors banding together against the administration,” Tobin said.
“And I think Gov. Pence, who takes his Christianity seriously, felt conflicted by it.”
Tobin considers Francis a teacher, and says he has styled his ministry on what he observed in visiting the Argentine members of his Redemptorist religious order while he was superior general. His priests liked Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, and so did his mother.
Tobin tells the story of how he and Bergoglio, the future pope, first met during a 2005 bishops meeting at the Vatican just a few months after Pope Benedict XVI was elected. During a coffee break, Tobin told Bergoglio that his mother had actually been rooting for Bergoglio to be elected pope instead since she had read that he picked up after himself, cooked his own food and did the dishes.
“I said ‘Frankly, she’s had it up to here with the princes of the church,'” Tobin recalled telling the future pope. “He’s never forgotten that. And I’m hoping because she’s here, perhaps on Saturday or Sunday, they’ll get a chance to meet.”