July 7, 2017

Cardinal Tobin reflects on his life since leaving archdiocese

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J., addresses the national conference of U.S. bishops during their annual spring assembly in Indianapolis on June 14. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J., addresses the national conference of U.S. bishops during their annual spring assembly in Indianapolis on June 14. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

(Editor’s note: During the national conference of U.S. bishops in Indianapolis in mid-June, The Criterion did one-on-one interviews with Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J., Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, and Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, Vt., prelates who all have strong ties to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The conversations with them are being featured, starting this week with Cardinal Tobin.)

By John Shaughnessy

The moment of joy and freedom came first for Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J.

It was followed shortly by a moment that surprised him—and almost left him in tears.

Both experiences occurred as the former archbishop of Indianapolis returned to Indiana’s capital for the spring general assembly of the U.S. bishops in mid-June.

The Detroit-born Cardinal Tobin often enjoyed the pleasure of driving when he led the Archdiocese of Indianapolis for four years—a pleasure that has been severely limited since he became the archbishop of Newark in January. There, he has a driver to handle the congested traffic of that northern New Jersey city. So returning to Indianapolis for the bishops’ conference gave him the joy and freedom of getting behind the wheel again.

“I was allowed to use my old car here, which I was grateful and delighted to be able to do,” he said.

That feeling led to an emotional moment after he parked the vehicle at the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Indianapolis where the conference was held.

“I got on the elevator with one of these car hops, these valet parkers—a young guy in his late teens,” Cardinal Tobin noted. “And he said, ‘Are you happy to be back home?’ I said, ‘Yeah, you know I actually used to work here.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘I know, you confirmed me.’

“I almost started crying.”

Cardinal Tobin shared those moments—and his thoughts on his life since becoming a cardinal and leaving the Archdiocese of Indianapolis—in a conversation with The Criterion.

Here is an edited version of that conversation.

Q. When you were named a cardinal in October, you said, “Perhaps the 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.” Talk about how you have tried to live out that challenge since then.

A. “The first thing was not simply to go slogging my way to Newark. But to say, ‘This is what God wants from me.’ I recall a conversation last summer I had with [Pope] Francis. Twice he said to me, ‘I don’t know why I’m here. The short version is that the Italians couldn’t agree on a candidate. But because this wasn’t my project, I accepted it as God’s will, and I’ll have what I need.’ He said that twice during this hour. And later on, I wondered if that was a little teaching moment he was preparing me for.

“So to love the Church means—at least in my vocation—to be available even when it hurts. It was a real wrenching experience to leave here.”

Q. What are some of the differences you’ve experienced between the two archdioceses?

A. “There are some real challenges that I didn’t have to face here. One is the concentration of people. I’m only responsible for four counties instead of 39 counties here. But there are 1.6 million Catholics there, and we celebrate the Eucharist on Sunday in 23 languages. So those are the differences.

“They’re wonderful people there, and the diversity I find interesting.”

Q. What have you found to be your additional duties as cardinal?

A. “I get a lot of invitations to speak or do something in different parts of the country. I’ve turned down most of them. I’ve tried to carry out what I promised to do when I was the Archbishop of Indianapolis, and then be really selective because I need to show I’m there for the people in Newark. They’re happy they have a cardinal for the first time, but they’re worried whether it means I’m going to be an absentee landlord. So I’ve been around most of the time in the archdiocese.”

Q. You mentioned being available. One of your most defining moments in the Archdiocese of Newark so far was when you stood by a Mexican immigrant—a 59-year-old grandfather—who was threatened with deportation. Your actions were in line with welcoming a Syrian refugee family to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Talk about the Church’s continuing commitment to refugees and immigrants at this point in American society, and your commitment to making it a priority in your ministry.

A. “Let me give you my favorite Francis story right now. I have this from two pretty good sources. Shortly after his election in 2013, he called up the [Vatican] secretary of state at the time—Cardinal [Tarcisio] Bertone—and said, ‘I want to go to Lampedusa,’ the island in the Mediterranean that’s part of the Italian territory, but it’s actually closer to North Africa.

“That’s where a lot of refugees strived to arrive when many of them, thousands actually, had died in shipwrecks. The cardinal tried to dissuade him, saying, ‘This is pretty quick for you to be making a trip like this, and this may not be the message you want to communicate, so why don’t you think about it.’

“A few days later, the cardinal got another phone call from the Holy Father. ‘I want to go to Lampedusa.’ The cardinal realized he was decided, so he said, ‘All right, but these trips can’t be planned overnight. It will take at least six months for us to put together the logistics, the media, the security and everything. Six months to a year, and then we’ll be ready to go.’

“Well, the following week, the cardinal got a call from a vice president of Alitalia [the Italian airline] who said, ‘I think you want to know that a passenger by the name of Jorge Bergolio [Pope Francis’ given name] has booked a seat on a flight from Rome to Lampedusa.’

“It’s consistent with the man I know. I was thinking about it. In Argentina, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, I don’t think he would have had any experience with refugees. And yet this has been so important to him after his election. I think it’s because he’s done what the [Second] Vatican Council asks the Church—and all of its disciples—to do: to read the signs of the times and places in the light of faith. From that standpoint, he realized, ‘I’ve got to address this. This is the great drama of our time.’ Because of subsequent events in our country, it’s become even more important for us.”

Q. During the USCCB meeting in Indianapolis, you and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia will lead a discussion on the 2018 Synod of Bishops with its focus on young people, faith and vocational discernment. Talk about the importance of the synod, and what you hope to accomplish during the meeting of the bishops.

A. “One is to ensure the bishops will engage in a consultative process so the real picture of young people, mission and vocation can be presented to the synod. Just as it is for any individual, self‑knowledge is important for spirituality. For the Church in this process of discernment, you have to face reality as reality is. For example, here in the United States, many bishops are concerned with the growth of unbelief among the youngest groups in the United States. How can we challenge them to listen to the God who speaks to them, who calls them?”

Q. What do you think the Church needs to do to reach young people?

A. “The first thing the Church can do is be with young people. Pope Francis uses the word ‘accompaniment.’ It’s sharing the road with young people, and having something to share with them.

“I think if you enter their world, they’re curious, at least about why you would even bother. I think young people today face challenges that I didn’t face when I was in my teens and 20s. There is incredible pressure, and the pressure is translating into some really bad things like substance abuse and suicide. And many of them are coming from parents who weren’t maybe catechized themselves, and they don’t have the spiritual resources to fall back on.”

Q. Here’s a question that many people in the archdiocese want to know: How is your mom doing?

A. “She’s doing fine. She turned 94 in March. I was able to go there the weekend before, and the clan gathered. We had Mass at the house. Thank God, she’s doing well.” †


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