November 30, 2012

Archbishop Tobin was a ‘kitchen priest’ with fellow Redemptorists

Then-Redemptorist Father Joseph Tobin, right, has fun in Rome with fellow members of his order on Nov. 9, 2007, the 277th anniversary of the founding of the Redemptorists. The other Redemptorists are, from left, Father Vimal Tirimanna, a native of Sri Lanka; Father Felix Catala, a native of Puerto Rico; and Father Gary Ziuraitis, an American. (Submitted photo)

Then-Redemptorist Father Joseph Tobin, right, has fun in Rome with fellow members of his order on Nov. 9, 2007, the 277th anniversary of the founding of the Redemptorists. The other Redemptorists are, from left, Father Vimal Tirimanna, a native of Sri Lanka; Father Felix Catala, a native of Puerto Rico; and Father Gary Ziuraitis, an American. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

In the early 1970s, Redemptorist Father Gary Ziuraitis and Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin were some of the lowliest members of their worldwide religious order.

They were students at Holy Redeemer College in Waterford, Wis., discerning possible calls to the religious life and priesthood.

One semester, they were assigned to take the college’s trash each week to a local landfill.

“This gritty task led to some very interesting adventures through the Wisconsin countryside,” Father Gary said, “with Archbishop Tobin at the wheel of our seminary truck and me riding shotgun.”

Fast forward about 40 years and Archbishop Tobin and Father Gary find themselves again sharing adventures behind the wheel.

This time, though, it’s not in Wisconsin, but in the heart of Rome.

Archbishop Tobin had risen to be the superior general of the approximately 5,300 Redemptorists around the world. And he had called Father Gary to Rome to minister as the order’s communications director.

“Archbishop Tobin and I have had the occasion to re-enact our seminary trash truck run in the very crazy traffic of Rome,” Father Gary said.

At the same time, although both Redemptorists had risen to high places in their order, they never lost their humility—something that Father Gary said is at the heart of the Redemptorists’ spirit.

“Although it is a special gift to work in Rome and to have participated in the universality of the Church that Rome exudes,” he said, “we are at our basic selves Midwesterners and kitchen priests.”

“Kitchen priests” is a term that Redemptorists often use to describe themselves. Instead of just wanting to visit people in the nice rooms in their homes, they mix with them in their kitchens, often literally getting their hands dirty. But it can also more indirectly suggest their willingness to be present with people in the troubled and often messy parts of their lives.

Archbishop Tobin took the literal part of that term to heart early on in his days among the Redemptorists while attending St. Joseph Preparatory School, operated by the order in Edgerton, Wis.

There, according to Redemptorist Father Tony Judge, Archbishop Tobin sought to hone his quickly growing Spanish skills and show his appreciation for the work that Passionist sisters from Mexico were doing in the school’s kitchen by spending time with them there conversing in their native language.

“He was one of some students who could actually carry on a conversation with them,” said Father Tony, a novitiate classmate of Archbishop Tobin. “We could say, “Hi. How are you?” or “I need bread” or “I need milk.” But it was obvious that he learned quickly.”

Archbishop Tobin’s natural linguistic skills and his openness to different cultures may have been sprouting in his high school and college days in Wisconsin in the 1970s.

But from the perspective of Redemptorist Father Kingsley Onyekuru, these qualities were in full bloom when Archbishop Tobin served as the Redemptorists’ general consultor and then superior general from 1991 to 2009.

Father Kingsley is from Nigeria, a country where the Redemptorists were established only in 1987. He joined the order in 1991 and met Archbishop Tobin that same year.

Archbishop Tobin helped the fledgling community there place itself fully within the multicultural and multilingual context of the West African nation.

Father Kingsley said that Archbishop Tobin drew on his experience of working with Redemptorists in India, a country of many cultures and languages, to help him and his confreres in Nigeria.

“It’s a challenge when you’re [in a] multilingual [country],” Father Kingsley said. “It’s the same challenge that the Redemptorists in India have faced. He encouraged us to go through those boundaries, and over those challenges and overcome them. He has a wealth of experience.”

But when Archbishop Tobin came to Nigeria, it wasn’t just in the role of an expert. He wanted to show himself as a true brother to some of the newest members of his worldwide order.

Father Kingsley saw that firsthand when, as a young Redemptorist college student, he had to pick up Archbishop Tobin at an airport in Nigeria.

“I was just a student and this was the superior general coming,” Father Kingsley said. “This was a big man coming from Rome. … But you couldn’t tell that he was the superior general. He sat with us and played with us.

“ … He’s a very gentle giant and down-to-earth. He’s a gentle giant. A giant in so many ways—in experience and in his size. But he’s also very gentle.”

Redemptorist Father Donald Miniscalco saw those same qualities in Archbishop Tobin when he was his professor at the former Mount St. Alphonsus Seminary in Esopus, N.Y., in the mid-1970s.

As a professor, Father Donald was pleased to see that Archbishop Tobin was embracing an important message that he was trying to impart to his students—that openness to various cultures is critical to proclaiming the Gospel.

“That’s very important for missionary people because they’re going to go to different places even within our own country,” Father Donald said. “They’ve got to be able to ask themselves, ‘How are these people understanding the Gospel? How can I get it across to them? How can I help them in the way that they relate to the Gospel?’ ”

But the first time that Father Donald met him, though, the professor didn’t expect Archbishop Tobin to be the quick-witted student that he proved himself to be. Father Donald first saw him working on a car in a garage at the seminary.

“Joe Tobin combines a lot of facets,” Father Donald said. “He was a very good automobile mechanic. He was also very quick to grasp something—exceedingly quick—and had very insightful questions.”

Father Gary, who has known Archbishop Tobin for more than 40 years, also recognized his friend’s intellectual and leadership skills, and so wasn’t surprised when he was chosen for leadership positions, first by his brother Redemptorists and later by Pope Benedict XVI.

“It was clear from his earliest days in the seminary that he had the raw talent—intellectual, spiritual and emotional—to be a leader,” Father Gary said. “And through the years, he just kept honing those gifts in various roles of service to people and to his Redemptorist congregation.”

Father Tony, though, said that Archbishop Tobin’s leadership is expressed as much through his personal example of love for ministry as it is through his intellectual and administrative gifts.

“He just knew that … we are called in our charism to preach the word, especially to the abandoned and the poor who need us,” said Father Tony, who helped preach a parish mission in 2011 at St. Lawrence Parish in Indianapolis. “That dedication of his and that enthusiasm of his has always impressed me and has helped me, too. And it continues.”

Redemptorist Father Michael Brehl, a native of Canada, is the current superior general of his order. He has known Archbishop Tobin for about 25 years. He said that he and all Redemptorists are proud that their former confrere has been chosen to be the sixth archbishop of Indianapolis.

“We Redemptorists have been very proud of Archbishop Tobin for many years,” Father Michael said. “I think that this appointment is a significant one. This is a sign of the trust that the Holy Father has in him.”

Father Michael also pointed out that Archbishop Tobin is following in the footsteps of two holy Redemptorists who ministered in the United States in the 19th century—St. John Neumann, who served as bishop of Philadelphia from 1854 until his death in 1860, and Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos.

“Archbishop Tobin has a great love and devotion for both of these men, our Redemptorist brothers,” Father Michael said. “I am sure that their zeal has rubbed off on him.

“Like them, he speaks a variety of languages so that he can more effectively minister to immigrants of diverse countries and cultures. Like them both, he has already exercised leadership in both administrative and pastoral positions.

“Like them, he has a deep love for Jesus our Redeemer. And he is a man of prayer. In his ministry, I expect that you will find Archbishop Tobin—like these two great Redemptorist saints—reaching out to welcome all to the Church of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, and serving their needs with generosity and compassion.” †

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