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The shocking news led to an emotional phone call between a son and his proud mother.
It also led Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin to think again of his late father, the man who continues to shape his life and his faith.
And the widespread joy surrounding Pope Francis’ selection of Archbishop Tobin as one of 17 new cardinals on Oct. 9 also included an unexpected, fun moment.
As the 64-year-old archbishop walked into his Indianapolis gym for a workout less than 24 hours after the pope’s announcement from the Vatican, he was greeted with congratulations and hugs from his fellow weightlifters.
All those telling moments were shared during a conversation with The Criterion on Oct. 10. It’s a conversation that captures the special relationship that Cardinal-designate Tobin and Pope Francis have, and the deep connection that has grown between the cardinal-designate and the archdiocese he has led for almost four years.
It’s also a conversation that includes this striking comment from Cardinal-designate Tobin about being chosen by Pope Francis: “Perhaps yesterday’s news was an indication that God thinks I don’t love the Church enough. So he’s given me an even more profound way to love it more.” (Watch the entire interview here)
Here is an edited version of that conversation in which the archbishop shares his thoughts on his historic selection as the first cardinal to lead the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
Q. Who was the first person you thought of when Pope Francis named you as a cardinal?
A. “I suppose Pope Francis. ‘What are you thinking?’ I believe that Pope Francis is a grace for this time. And I thought, ‘You really have to choose your collaborators carefully because you can’t have everybody.’ So I was really humbled and, I’d say, a little embarrassed by the pope’s confidence in me.”
Q. Why embarrassed?
A. “I just have an awareness of how the Catholic Church is in this country—what great leaders they have. One of the people I identify with most in Scripture is Peter. He falls on his knees after seeing a miracle of Jesus and saying, ‘Go away from me. I am a sinful man’ [Lk 5:8]. In my mind’s eye, Jesus smiles as he replies, ‘Come follow me’ [Lk 5:10]. It’s like, ‘I know that, but come follow me.’ ”
Q. Take a look at the 17 new cardinals that Pope Francis has named. Some analysts have suggested that this group reflects the pope’s emphasis on the Church building bridges and being more welcoming. What do you see as a common thread among the 17 new cardinals?
A. “I think that there isn’t an internal job description for a cardinal, almost like there isn’t really one for the Holy Father. The Church prays as it elects a pope that he will be the one it needs now. And I’m quite convinced that Pope Francis is the pope we need now. I served closely with Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II, and they all responded to needs that were real in the Church and the world at that time.
“In the same way, cardinals are chosen for the needs the Church faces now. And so that’s why his first choice was an Italian who is the ambassador to Syria—which in the decree says, ‘Our beloved and martyred country of Syria,’—so that’s really on the pope’s mind.
“The second one is from a tiny country, the Central African Republic, which is one of the most violent areas of the world. And one that he visited earlier this year at great risk for his own safety. So I think he wants those voices present within the deliberations of the College of Cardinals because they’re important voices in the world today.”
Q. In your press conference, you talked about the archdiocese being your teacher in the last four years—that it’s helped to form you. When you look at these four years of your life in the archdiocese, leading up to the announcement by Pope Francis, what goes through your mind?
A. “The first thing that goes through my mind is gratitude. I’m grateful that Pope Benedict XVI sent me here. I often believe that the Apostle Paul makes reference, in his letters, to the faith of the people he’s writing to. I think that’s not just a courtesy or a literary form. It’s because their faith serves to strengthen his faith. And that’s certainly been my experience here—meeting faith-filled people whose faith and works challenge me and support me. So there’s gratitude.
“Secondly, one challenge I’ve articulated a lot recently is the challenge of a far-flung archdiocese—131 parishes in 39 counties, moving from resembling more of an archipelago to a network, a network of solidarity and support. That has demanded some painful decisions, and I know that people still suffer from some of the results of Connected in the Spirit.
“But I also think it’s a hope-filled process because its object wasn’t to close parishes but to ensure greater vitality. Certainly those four years were tinged with the responsibility of making some difficult decisions. And I hope and I pray that they ultimately contribute to the greater growth of the Church.”
Q. At the same time, you’ve developed a deep connection with the people of the archdiocese during these four years. How would you describe that connection?
A. “I was thinking of this last night. In 2007, I was in Argentina for a period, including the great city of Buenos Aires. At the time, the archbishop’s name was Jorge Bergoglio [now Pope Francis], who was a cardinal. And I think it was pretty common knowledge that in the conclave of 2005 that elected Benedict XVI that he was close and probably in second place. In an interview I read during my visit, a journalist asked him, ‘Are you sorry that you weren’t elected as pope?’ They said his immediate response was, ‘Absolutely not. I would die without my people.’
“I suppose what four years has done for me is that this wonderful Catholic community spread across 39 counties has gone from ‘the archdiocese’ to ‘my people.’ I don’t mean that in a proprietary way at all. They have a claim on me, and I have a claim on them.”
Q. You mentioned Pope Francis finishing second in 2005. In 2005, you participated in a synod with him. During that time together, you passed along to him that your mom said, ‘He should have won.’ What does your mom think about him now that he named you a cardinal?
A. “It’s funny. My mom can get a little emotional at times. She said, ‘I can’t believe that a child of mine is a prince of the Church.’ I said, ‘Mother, you don’t believe I’m a prince of the Church. I don’t believe I’m a prince of the Church. And Pope Francis doesn’t believe I’m a prince of the Church. So let’s never use that word again.’
“I reminded her that I had told him back in 2005—explaining why he was my mother’s candidate—I gestured with my hand up on my hairline and said, ‘She’s had it up to here with princes of the Church!’ She said, ‘You’re right. You’re right. I was a little taken away.’
“She’s pleased. She loves Pope Francis. She’s a little taken aback at the attention he’s given her. I told her, ‘I think he appointed me to this because he wants to get to you.’ Like a good pastor, he remembers things. Whenever I’ve seen him—and even in times he’s written to me—he always says, ‘How’s your mother, and does she still pray for me?’ I assured him she’s a good Catholic, and she prays for the Holy Father.”
Q. You’ve had the opportunity to know Pope Francis since 2005. At a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City in 2013, you received a pallium from him, symbolizing an archbishop’s role as the shepherd of his archdiocese. In that moment, he spent considerable time talking with you. How would you describe your relationship with him?
A. “I really do think, in all sincerity, that I’m an unworthy recipient of his affection. I don’t know why. Whatever began in 2005 has continued and deepened.
“I was struck when I received the pallium from him. First, we had a conversation and it was clear he knew the circumstances of my life in the last few years. And when he put the pallium on my shoulders, he switched from Italian into Spanish because that was the language of his heart. And he said something personal to me. And it was lovely. And I’ve always been grateful for that, but I never thought it would end with the news I got yesterday morning.”
Q. People see similarities between you and Pope Francis in terms of building bridges and being welcoming to refugees and immigrants. Talk about that connection between the two of you.
A. “I think it’s the connection of a teacher and his disciple. When I’ve seen him a handful of times over the last four years, I always thank him for teaching me how to be a bishop—knowing not only how he ministered in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, but also what he teaches and how he articulates his expectations for bishops and priests.
“I’ve been a priest 38 years and a bishop six years. I might know a little about being a priest, but I’m still learning a lot about being a bishop.”
Q. On Sept. 7 at a Mass for administrators in the archdiocese, you began your homily by asking people, ‘What would you name as the greatest moment of your summer?’ Then you made a connection to your one-on-one meeting with Pope Francis during the summer. I think you’ve already established the greatest moment of this fall. In terms of your life, is this the most memorable moment?
A. “That’s a difficult question to answer. I would tend to say no, only because I’m at the distance of 24 hours. Becoming a cardinal, as much as I understand it, is an additional invitation to serve. I don’t see it as much different beyond that. I think there have been other moments in my life as a priest, as a Redemptorist, as a man, as a human being, that would supersede it. Perhaps this is a doorway to other great moments of service.
“I was the superior general of the Redemptorists for 12 years. In my final, circular letter to the congregation, I reflected on why God called me to do this work.
“At the end, I said I think I was elected because God believed I didn’t love the congregation enough. So he gave me 12 years to love it more. And perhaps yesterday’s news was an indication that God thinks I don’t love the Church enough. So he’s given me an even more profound way to love it more.”
Q. You mentioned the first 24 hours have been a whirlwind. You had a number of phone calls and tweets. You confirmed young people at St. Paul Parish in Tell City that afternoon. You were hugged by fellow weightlifters when you were at the gym this morning. In the quiet moments when it was just you, what was going through your mind? Did you pray or ask any particular saints for intercession?
A. “I found it particularly hard to pray. And, once again, it leads me to an incident from the life of Peter that has always made sense to me. That’s when Peter is with the disciples in the boat, and he’s being tossed around. Suddenly, he sees Jesus walking on the water. And they think it’s a ghost. And Peter, for reasons that have never been clear to me, blurts out, ‘If it’s you, have me walk on the water’ [Mt 14:28]. Why didn’t he say, ‘If it’s you, calm the storm?’
“Maybe it was that visceral desire to follow him. And Jesus says, ‘Come’ [Mt 14:29]. And he gets out of the boat, and he begins to walk on the water. And when he’s more conscious of the waves and the wind, he begins to sink. He was OK as long as he maintained his eyes focused on Jesus. What I’ve tried to do in the last 24 hours is to think, ‘You invite me to get out of the boat. Help me to see you.’ And even when I begin to sink, it’s not too late to cry out. In the quiet moments, I’ve been looking for him.”
Q. During this time, have you thought back to when you first became a priest?
A. “I’ve thought of different moments early on from my first assignment as a priest which was a parish in Detroit, a very busy and poor parish—the people I met and what they taught me. I think of being with dying people, being invited into the homes of families that were having problems. All of that has crossed my mind.”
Q. Do you think at some point you’ll be able to see the joy in this moment, the joy that a lot of other people in the archdiocese are feeling for you?
A. “I’m sure of that. When I see my people happy, truly happy, that already is a great joy for me. One of the affirmations of Thomas Merton toward the end of his life has always fascinated me. He was asked, “If you knew then what you know now, would you do it all again?’ He said, ‘Absolutely not. But having done it, I would.’ It’s in the rearview mirror that he saw the grace. And I’ve found that over and over again.
“When I reflect on my life, it always leads me to gratitude. I think that’s why, strangely enough, I don’t think that this is a coincidence—that my episcopal motto [“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (Phil 4:4)], and the little saying on the holy card for my ordination as a priest all are from the Letter to the Philippians. It’s a letter that makes a lot of sense to me. It’s an Apostle and his people talking and discovering joy because they belong to Jesus and they’re in Christ Jesus.
“And even though one is a prisoner in chains and the other is this fragile little community on the edge of the world, Paul uses joy more often in that letter than in any other one. And that’s been the story of my life. In the fragility and, yes, even in the suffering, we find joy because our faith gives us a different perspective on it. And it’s the belonging in Christ. And this is part of my belonging. I hope it makes me a better pastor of Indianapolis.”
Q. In terms of that joy, there has been some initial discussion of a local celebration, at some point, of your selection as a cardinal. How much will you be looking forward to sharing this moment with the people of the archdiocese?
A. “My priority remains serving Jesus Christ in the people of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. That’s what has been entrusted to me. Secondly, I want to be able to say thank you to the people for helping make me who I am. Because who I am is why Pope Francis chose me. And thirdly, there’s the firm conviction we can do great things together. And in doing that, it’s going to take us out of ourselves.
“As Francis has said from the get-go, a Church that turns in on itself gets sick. I don’t think we’re sick. We’re always presented with an invitation to leave our securities, which I have been invited in the last 24 hours to do that yet again. But in responding to that—and kind of walking on the water fixed on Jesus—we find joy.”
Q. One of the great influences of your life is your dad. I would imagine your thoughts have turned to him in terms of this appointment. How do you think he would react to this news in terms of the son he hoped to raise, and the example he gave you as a life to follow?
A. “I think he would say to me, ‘Don’t get too full of yourself.’ But he wouldn’t have to say that because his example was such an opposite thing. My dad did well at what he did. He was a cost analyst for General Motors. He never shared this with me, but my mom sometimes has said that the real crucial promotions in his life never came—principally because he belonged to a division of General Motors that was absorbed by a larger one. But he said, ‘If this helps our kids, it’s all worth it.’
“In a sense, he doesn’t have the public recognition I have. But he was a teacher in an intimate way—because he had children—that I can never be. And I’m grateful for the communion of the saints which tells me he does know. And he helps me. I do pray to him for his intercession.” †