ROME – I’ve often said that one of the best ways to know you’re getting old in the Catholic Church is when guys you used to pal around with in Roman bars and restaurants start getting named bishops. By that standard, I suppose, the test of getting really old is when those same guys become cardinals.
Such was my experience on Saturday, watching Joseph Tobin become a member of the Church’s most exclusive club.
I first met then-Father Tobin back in the 1990s, when he was the superior general of the worldwide Redemptorist order, and we were still friends over a decade later when he went to work for the Vatican as the number two official in the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, better known around town as the “Congregation for Religious.”
I was always impressed with the balance, intelligence, and cultural adaptability Tobin displayed, and presumably those are some of the same reasons Pope Francis surprised pretty much everyone – Tobin very much included – by naming him a cardinal.
In conventional political terms Tobin is generally seen as a center-left figure, in many ways cut from the same cloth as the pope. During his tenure in the Vatican, he became known for his open questioning of two separate investigations of American nuns – comments that some observers believe helped cost him his job, and help explain why friends see the red hat he picked up on Saturday as a karmic balancing of the scales.
Tobin sat down with me and my Crux colleague Inés San Martín on Monday in Rome for an interview for our “Crux of the Matter” radio show on the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM 129, among other things talking about whether the U.S. bishops are on the same page with Francis, and recent suggestions that the pope needs to deliver some sort of clarification of his recent document on the family and its provisions regarding Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
On that front, Tobin was characteristically blunt – rather than demanding the pope respond to every question put to him, Tobin, said, maybe the bishops of the country should “suck it up” and do their jobs of figuring out together how to implement the pope’s design.
The following are excerpts from our conversation.
I think we first met when you were the superior of the Redemptorists, right?
Exactly, yes. It’s been a good 10 or 15 years.
The last month has been, to say the very least, an interesting time in your life. First you’re named a cardinal, and then you learn you’re moving from Indianapolis to Newark, and in the middle of all that was the USCCB meeting. Fair to say this has been one of the most action-packed times in your life?
I’d probably use a word less benevolent than ‘action-packed,’ but that’s mainly because I was a Teamster before I was a priest!
This is a family show…I’m not sure we can start using Teamster vocabulary.
Exactly…ask me off-mike, and I’ll tell you how I would really describe the last month!
I won’t mislead you, because it’s been very difficult, even spiritually. It’s interesting, because after the cardinals announcement, we read from the Book of Exodus about when Amalek comes out to fight Israel and Moses is lifting up his arms over the battle and eventually has to be supported by Aaron and Hur.
It was the first time I’d ever really had this insight, but the lifting up of hands is generally an attitude of prayer, of supplication. I realized there are times for all of us, I think, when you’re facing certain circumstances in your life and you find it difficult to pray, if not impossible. There were times in these last few weeks when I found that, but the Church kind of held up my arms.
It did that in the Liturgy of the Hours, things where I wasn’t left to my own spiritual devices, and it gave me an appreciation of just how important the community and the traditions of our Church are.
That helped get me through, along with my understanding of my vocation in life, my way of living out my baptism, which is as a missionary. What attracted me to the Redemptorists initially was being a missionary. Certainly the uncertainty, mobility, and detachment that’s been asked of me, and which I anticipate will be part of the next weeks, is somewhat characteristic of missionaries.
Forgive me for being the one to tell you this, but it won’t just be the next few weeks…it’s the rest of your life!
Maybe my small brain can only capture those small chunks of time, but yeah…
I think the other part is that I’ve believed, as a result of accompanying people for many years, is that faith is many things, but one thing it isn’t is a narcotic. It doesn’t numb us to suffering, and part of leaving Indianapolis is an incredible suffering, for myself and I believe for the people as well. God’s established tremendous bonds of affection and cooperation among us, and to have that sort of ripped apart is difficult.
When the pope announced you were to be created a cardinal, was that a surprise?
Did you get any kind of heads-up about the transfer to Newark?
I was given the declarative sentence. It wasn’t a question! The nuncio, who’s a very nice man, called me up and said, ‘Archbishop Tobin?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ as my knees began to shake. I mean, the nuncio generally doesn’t call just to see if you’re having a nice day. He said, ‘I’m calling because the Holy Father has appointed you the Archbishop of Newark. I’ll inform Archbishop [John] Myers, and then the two of you should talk about the transition.’
You didn’t even get the standard question about whether you’re willing to accept the appointment?
No, and maybe that’s the way it should be. I’ve found obedience to be a very freeing thing in my life, generally, that I don’t have the final word about everything I do. I will say this is probably one of the more difficult of these invitations, if you will.
Let me ask you about the bishops’ meeting, before we get to Newark. There’s been some suggestion that the American bishops aren’t on the same page with Pope Francis. How do you read that?
I think that I’d be disingenuous to say there aren’t people who experience some confusion with the Holy Father and his way of proposing things, and maybe the content as well. I think probably that sort of tension can be creative, or destructive.
I like to say that I don’t want to live a life without tension…
I think the pope solved that problem for you!
Yes, he certainly did. But what I do want, as much as I have any say in the matter, is that the tension in my life is creative. For instance, you can’t play a piano if you don’t have tension in the strings, and you can’t speak or sing if you don’t have tension in your vocal cords. On the other hand, buildings fall down because of the tension an earthquake creates.
I think what is emerging, at least in the mind of Mother Tobin’s oldest son, is that Pope Francis is promoting a greater emphasis on synodality among bishops. The primary relationship is not simply the local bishops and the Bishop of Rome, but there’s this sort of regional locus for the work of the Holy Spirit among the bishops of that area. It sounds risky, and it is, because it risks a sort of chauvinism or a nationalism that at times has hurt the Church, but in other moments has been very useful. Look at the first provincial councils, or chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles.
Apart from the issues that maybe give bishops cause, or cause discussion, or the narrative that likes to pit people against each other, I think what we’re trying to find is a way of talking with each other as bishops – not simply to find the least common denominator, but rather to exercise discernment, which is to take in fidelity the authentic statements of magisterium and say, ‘Okay, how do we live that in this area?’
You used the word ‘confusion’ a moment ago, and four of your brother cardinals recently wrote to Pope Francis to ask him to clear up what they see as confusion related to Amoris Laetita and its provisions on Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. Do you think there’s any confusion there, or are you satisfied it’s clear?
I’ve not been able to study the statement of the four cardinals, because that happened during the bishops’ conference, and as you pointed out earlier, I’ve had a couple of other things to do. I think it would be disrespectful to comment on things I haven’t really studied.
I’m not asking you to comment on the letter so much as Amoris: Are you satisfied that its language on the divorced and civilly remarried is sufficiently clear?
I think, and I’ve said this recently in other instances, is that what would really be helpful is that rather than each individual bishop or cardinal demanding that the pope pronounce on every concrete application of the magisterium, that we as bishops suck it up and do what we’re supposed to do. That means get together, have a process, and if that group needs greater light from the Holy Father, then I’m betting that he’d be willing to give it.
You think the proper forum for that is the bishops’ conference?
Yes, I do. Of course, for the conference to work well, you can’t have 300 members sit down and say, ‘What do you want to do?’ We need to develop a process within us. We sort of have it there, because we do meet as regions at least for a few moments within the course of a meeting.
Maybe we need to think of a business meeting that doesn’t happen just once a year. You know, I’m not one who believes in the aesthetical principle of, ‘To Jesus through meetings!’ But I do think, especially in the flux that we’re experiencing in the whole world, that we need to speak with each other and listen to each other.
You mentioned your mom a moment ago. You brought her with you to this consistory, didn’t you?
I tried to talk her out of it. She’s 93 years old, she’s raised 13 rather large children, and I wasn’t sure that a transatlantic voyage and all the predictable chaos of a Roman celebration like this would be the best thing for her. But, she wanted to be there, so she’s here and 11 of my 12 siblings are here.
Did she get a chance to meet the Holy Father?
No, and I regret that, because I kid my mother by saying, ‘I think he wants to get to you through me!’ Since we’ve first met, he’s always asked how my mother is doing, and he asks, ‘Does she pray for me?’ I’ve always told him, ‘Yes.’
I remember when I was superior general being able to get into the little informal reception after St. Pope John Paul II’s daily Mass with my mom. The pope very graciously received a small group of people and I introduced her and said some things, but strangely she was at a loss for words and didn’t say anything. When we got outside I asked, ‘What happened?’
She said, ‘Joe, all my life the pope has been a picture on my wall, or a little picture in my prayer book. But he was sitting in front of me…what did you expect me to say?’
You spent 18 years in Rome with the Redemptorists, and then more time in the Vatican in the Congregation for Religious. Has this week felt like a homecoming to you?
For me, Rome isn’t simply the monuments or the great places of religious pilgrimage, but it’s my friends, including my Italian friends, and it’s been great to be able to share all that with my family. We had a great night here at the Redemptorist church here in Rome, where the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is revered. There were lots of folks I’ve known, some people whose marriages I’ve done and who now have babies and children, and to share this with them has meant a lot.
What are you looking forward to in Newark?
I am learning, and will be learning, about the archdiocese for a while. One of the most attractive features for me is that the Eucharist is celebrated in 22 languages in Newark, and there’s a great presence of immigrants and refugees. I’ve enjoyed that sort of thing since I was a little kid growing up in southwest Detroit…other cultures, other languages, other ways of thinking have always fascinated me.
Also, it teaches me to be rather humble, because I know you have to take off your shoes when you’re walking the culture of another. That’s holy ground. I find that very attractive, to give my best efforts in this very multi-cultural archdiocese.