November 11, 2016

Reflection / John Shaughnessy

Archbishop Tobin’s legacy: Sharing his best ‘gift’

Leave it to a mother to give perspective—and even a touch of comfort.

In preparing for The Criterion’s coverage of Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin being installed as a cardinal by Pope Francis on Nov. 19 in Rome, I began reviewing stories that our staff has written about him in the four years he has served as the spiritual leader of the archdiocese.

That research led me to a story about Marie Tobin, the now-93-year-old mother of 13 children, including her oldest child whom she calls “Joe.”

The story—written at the time her son was appointed as archbishop in 2012—mentioned the special devotion she has to Jesus, Mary, St. Joseph and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who is also known as the “Little Flower.” It also included this quote from Mrs. Tobin, “My favorite saying of the Little Flower is, ‘Everything is a gift.’ ”

Then in a recent interview about her son being named a cardinal on Oct. 9, she noted, “He so loves Indiana. I would be afraid that he wouldn’t have heart left [if he had to leave.] I couldn’t imagine how sad he would be. I can’t imagine.”

She then added: “I gave him to God a long time ago when he was ordained. And I know the Lord loves a cheerful giver. So I would be happy wherever he is, because I can’t go back on that.”

Her words reveal a great deal about her deep faith—and the strength of all mothers. A woman gives life to a child, and then spends years nurturing, caring, agonizing, comforting and praying for that child—all the time knowing that one day the child will leave her to start a new path in life.

And what are the words this mother lives by? “Everything is a gift.”

I’ve tried to embrace that sentiment during the recent weeks since Pope Francis announced that Archbishop Tobin—our archbishop!—would become a cardinal.

The joy that was felt for him throughout the archdiocese—and the hope that he would be the first cardinal to lead the archdiocese—was as profound and palpable as his reaction was humble and shocked. Then came the second shock, that Cardinal-designate Tobin was being reassigned to lead the Archdiocese of Newark.

In between those bookends of stunning news were two moments that showed the amazing impact that Archbishop Tobin has had on many people in the archdiocese, moments that also revealed the tremendous impact that the people of the archdiocese have had on him.

The first moment occurred a day after Archbishop Tobin learned that Pope Francis had named him as one of 17 new cardinals.

In a press conference on Oct. 10, Archbishop Tobin talked about the archdiocese being his teacher in the last four years, and how it’s helped to form him. But the most telling moment came in a one-on-one interview following the press conference when he was asked, “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?”

At a time that most people would consider a great personal moment, Archbishop Tobin instinctively turned his thoughts to the people in the archdiocese who “still suffer from some of the results of Connected in the Spirit”—the planning process that has led to closings and mergers of parishes. The pain of his people still weighed heavily upon him even in this moment.

The second moment unfolded in a recent exchange of e-mails I had with Father Anthony Hollowell, who was ordained a priest by Archbishop Tobin earlier this year. Father Hollowell recalled the wonderful, telling story of the first time he met the archbishop.

The scene happened in Rome where Father Hollowell was studying at the Pontifical North American College (NAC) in 2012 when it was announced that Archbishop Tobin had been appointed as the spiritual leader of the Church in central and southern Indiana. At the time of the announcement, the archbishop was serving in a high-ranking role in the Vatican.

“So we invited him over to the NAC,” recalled Father Hollowell, who is still studying in Rome. “He parked his car in the parking lot, and because it was raining, he pulled out an umbrella. Two seconds after opening it, a strong gust came and completely destroyed the umbrella.

“He just kept walking, oblivious to the pellets of water pummeling him. Some Vatican top brass would be dismayed and flustered by such an experience, but his disregard for inconvenience in this moment commanded my immediate respect and admiration.”

So did what happened next. 

“It was the first time I had met him. And he gave us his cell phone number afterward and told us to call him if we needed anything. From day one, he treated us like his sons.”

It’s an emphasis that bonds Archbishop Tobin with Pope Francis, according to Father Hollowell.

“One trait that intimately connects them and stands above all others is the primacy of relationship. They respect the mysterious uniqueness of each individual, regardless of where they come from.”

That focus shined through in nearly every encounter that Archbishop Tobin has had at an archdiocesan event or a visit to a parish. People have lined up to meet him and talk with him, and he has often stayed late, taking the time with them because they mean that much to him.

It also shined through in his approach to leading the archdiocese’s efforts to make a difference in people’s lives. Speaking for so many people who worked with him and became friends with him, chancellor Annette “Mickey” Lentz once noted, “I feel I work alongside him, not for him. You don’t always get those kinds of relationships. It’s very special.”

And it shined through during a pilgrimage to Italy in 2013 as he led a group of pilgrims from the archdiocese up the steep inclines of Siena on the way to the town’s cathedral for Sunday Mass. When he passed an older Italian woman struggling to make it up one of the hills, the archbishop stopped to talk with her. Then he picked her up and carried her up the hill.

While “everything is a gift” is a way of life for Marie Tobin, her oldest son’s approach to life has always seemed to offer an extended version of that motto: “Everything is a gift of time, always with the goal of leading people closer to each other and ultimately closer to God.”

In terms of time, Archbishop Tobin’s four years in the archdiocese are far too short for many of us.

The gift is that we have had the great blessing of sharing these four years together.

(John Shaughnessy is assistant editor of The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.)

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