January 11, 2013

2013 Religious Vocations Supplement

'The mystery of love': Archbishop Tobin follows God’s call on long and winding vocational path

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, center, speaks during a Mass on Oct. 18 at Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis. Later that day, he was introduced as the sixth archbishop of Indianapolis. Assisting Archbishop Tobin are, left, seminarians Timothy DeCrane, a member of Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove, and Anthony Stange, a member of St. Lawrence Parish in Lawrenceburg. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, center, speaks during a Mass on Oct. 18 at Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis. Later that day, he was introduced as the sixth archbishop of Indianapolis. Assisting Archbishop Tobin are, left, seminarians Timothy DeCrane, a member of Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove, and Anthony Stange, a member of St. Lawrence Parish in Lawrenceburg. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

The path that Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin has followed in his journey to respond to God’s call has been long and winding.

It began in his family home in Detroit and later took him to Wisconsin, Missouri, New York, back to his home parish, then far away to Rome and various locales around the world.

It has now brought him to Indianapolis, where he serves as the shepherd of the Church in central and southern Indiana.

At times, the path was level with a beautiful horizon in front of him. At other times, it was a steep climb in a shadowy forest.

But through it all, Archbishop Tobin kept to that path, even when he felt like it was impossible to follow. In those instances, he followed the example of St. Peter, who was able to walk on the stormy Sea of Galilee as long as he focused on Christ.

“That image of keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus allows you to walk where you think you couldn’t,” Archbishop Tobin said in an interview with The Criterion on the day after his Dec. 3 installation Mass at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis.

Not only did he think he couldn’t walk on the path laid before him, at times he also didn’t want to be on that path in the first place.

“Fairly early on, I made a connection between these wonderful experiences that God had given me and the vow of obedience—because I never would have chosen those paths,” Archbishop Tobin said. “Sometimes I’m just consumed with gratitude as I sit before the Lord.”

The path starts at home

The roots of Archbishop Tobin’s positive embrace of God’s call in his life began through the marriage of his parents, Joseph and Marie Tobin.

“I wasn’t running from anything in responding to this vocation,” Archbishop Tobin said. “I knew the beauty of married life. And I knew the wonder of watching my father be a husband and father with great sacrifice.”

Growing up in a home with 12 other siblings also prepared him to embrace with joy both the crosses and blessings of religious and priestly life.

“It teaches you that you don’t have the final word in the sense that what I want doesn’t dictate the course of the family. It can’t,” said Archbishop Tobin, the oldest of 13 children. “You learn to share. You learn to support each other. You learn to ask forgiveness. You learn to reform your life at times.”

He also learned to pray, especially for vocations.

“After Sunday Mass, our most common prayer experience was the family rosary,” Archbishop Tobin said. “We always ended with a prayer for vocations. So I think it taught all of us that we were praying for something good. It was also a witness to us kids that this was something that our parents, if God was calling us, would support.”

And they supported Archbishop Tobin in his discernment without putting pressure on him one way or another.

“My dad said, ‘If you believe it’s God’s plan for you to be a religious and a priest, you do it. But you don’t do it to please me. I’ll love you and I’ll support you in any way that you think you’re doing God’s will,’ ” Archbishop Tobin recalled.

The call to the Redemptorists

Archbishop Tobin in part discerned a call to life as a member of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, commonly known as the Redemptorists, because members of that order staffed Most Holy Redeemer Parish, his home parish in Detroit.

Redemptorist Father Joseph Flanagan in particular was a good model of the charism of that order while he served as Archbishop Tobin’s boyhood pastor.

“He was a real people priest—he could relate [to people]—and he was a scholar,” Archbishop Tobin said. “He was a fellow that read five or six languages fluently. He taught me the first declension in Latin when I caddied for him.”

Archbishop Tobin entered a Redemptorist high school seminary in Wisconsin, and became a novice in the order after his second year in college.

During that novitiate year, he was faced with the challenge of learning how to enter into contemplative prayer.

“In my younger days, I always thought of myself as a man of action,” Archbishop Tobin said. “I always think that the novitiate is one of the most difficult journeys anybody makes because it’s a journey within yourself, looking at yourself.”

Archbishop Tobin also looks back on his time as a novice and concludes that his conviction that God was truly calling him to the Redemptorists emerged then.

“The work the novice master did with us and the bond that formed among us as novices made it very wonderful to take my first vows [in 1973],” Archbishop Tobin said. “I thought that this was what it is. Then that certainty sort of grew, especially in the pastoral work that I did after profession.”

His pastoral work, largely carried out in an African-American parish in the inner city of St. Louis, was part of his preparation for ministry as a priest, which he began after being ordained in 1978.

Returning to Detroit

During his years of religious and priestly formation, Archbishop Tobin entered more and more into the missionary spirit of his order.

He had novitiate classmates who were assigned to minister in Brazil. And the order was spread across dozens of developing countries—prime mission territory.

But when Archbishop Tobin received his assignment at the time of his ordination, he saw that it was to his home parish, Most Holy Redeemer in Detroit, to minister to its growing Hispanic community.

“I went back to my room and cried because after all of those years—13 years of formation—it was like, ‘Go to jail. Do not pass “Go,” do not collect $200. Go back to where you started from,’ ” Archbishop Tobin said. “I had the notion of being a missionary. In my horizon at that time, being a missionary didn’t mean going back to where you started.

“I should have known that Jesus went back to Nazareth and talked to his own.”

Looking back nearly 35 years after returning to Holy Redeemer, Archbishop Tobin is able to describe it as “an absolutely fabulous experience of poverty.”

The neighborhood around the parish in which he grew up had changed greatly. While he knew Spanish, he did not know the culture of his Hispanic parishioners that makes one truly fluent in the language.

“If I could paint a picture while preaching in English with little nuances and colors, in Spanish I just took a bucket of paint and threw it on the wall,” Archbishop Tobin said. “I hoped something would stick. It was humiliating to make so many [linguistic] mistakes.”

Called to Rome … and to be a bishop

Several years later when Archbishop Tobin was ministering in a largely Hispanic parish in Chicago, he learned that he might be sent to Rome to serve in leadership in his order.

“When they called me, … I had a hot dog in one hand, a Spanish Bible in the other and I was thinking that I was going to be playing hockey that night,” Archbishop Tobin recalled. “So all I said to the provincial was, ‘If you can guarantee in Rome that I can play hockey, eat hot dogs and teach Spanish Bible circles, then I’m your guy.’ I figured that wasn’t possible.”

It wasn’t possible, but he was sent to Rome anyway.

“I went there in a really bad humor,” said Archbishop Tobin of his move to Italy in 1991. “The [superior] general then really helped me. He said that I had to see what we did [in Rome] as missionary. If I was going to think that we were administrators, I was going to go crazy and drive him crazy.”

Archbishop Tobin took that advice to heart and, like a missionary, traveled to serve his order and the Church in dozens of countries around the world, including for 12 years as his order’s superior general.

That willingness to follow God’s call around the world and the pastoral leadership he showed over the years, in part, led to Pope Benedict XVI appointing Archbishop Tobin in 2010 as secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which helps guide the life and ministry of more than 1 million men and women religious in the Church.

That appointment resulted in him being ordained an archbishop on Oct. 9, 2010, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

“Probably of all the stages of my vocation story, the one that was the most difficult was the episcopal one,” Archbishop Tobin said. “I was a missionary. … I was absolutely convinced that [religious life] was my vocation.”

Then, as he laid prostrate on the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica during his episcopal ordination, he was given a broader perspective on this new stage in his vocational journey.

“There was this awareness that, in the litany of the saints, it’s the whole Church praying,” Archbishop Tobin said. “It’s the Church on Earth. It’s the Church in heaven. I suppose the really ecclesial dimension of the episcopal vocation came through to me.

“ … Even though you’re called and you answer as an individual, you live it ecclesially. You’re standing on the shoulders of giants. You’re enlivened by new generations.” †

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