June 4, 2021

Reflection / John Shaughnessy

Celebrating a life lived for God and family

John ShaughnessyThe moment took place inside the stunning St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, but even that setting didn’t compare to the beauty of what happened there between a mother and a son.

Within an hour on that November morning five years ago, then-Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis would kneel in front of Pope Francis and be installed as a cardinal in the Church, but in the moments before that ceremony, he was a son anxiously waiting for his then-93-year-old mother to arrive—wanting to know that she was there for him, wanting to make sure she was doing well after she had endured a trip across the ocean to share in this celebration of the oldest of her 13 children.

When he finally saw her arrive in her wheelchair, he moved quickly to her. And soon they were holding hands and sharing a laugh as he knelt beside her. For both of them, everything was suddenly right in the world again. The son was with his mother. The mother was there for her child.

Ceremony and prestige didn’t matter. Family and love did. So did the shared belief and knowledge that their lives had been touched and blessed in many ways by God’s grace, including the gift of each other.

That touching moment was the first one to come into my mind when I learned the news that Marie Tobin had died on May 23 at the age of 98—and that she was surrounded by all 13 of her children at the time of her death.

Like many mothers of all faiths, like many mothers of her generation—including my own mother and my mother-in-law—Mrs. Tobin lived her life as a celebration of God and family, and the two were so intertwined as to be indistinguishable.

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin spends time with his mother Marie on Nov. 19, 2016, the day he was installed into the College of Cardinals, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. (File photo by John Shaughnessy)

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin spends time with his mother Marie on Nov. 19, 2016, the day he was installed into the College of Cardinals, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. (File photo by John Shaughnessy)

On that momentous day in Rome, Mrs. Tobin focused on the extraordinary moments that occur in many families. She shared with me how she had been blessed to marry her late husband Joe, how they both wanted to create a large family, a family based on the foundations of faith and love.

“I was a teacher,” she recalled. “I wanted a whole roomful of kids. And he loved kids, too.”

They got their wish, 13 children. And when she recalled those days of the 15 of them together, she did so with a smile.

Her oldest son often smiled too when he recalled those days of growing up in their close-knit Irish family, sometimes humorously adding, “We learned to live with diversity because it’s hard to be selfish if you have one bathroom in the house and eight sisters.”

Yet it was also a family touched by tragedy when her husband died at 54 of a heart attack that he suffered after helping people stranded in a blizzard. Suddenly, she was a single mother of 13 children, one of them 5 and another one 6. Still, on that day in Rome, she didn’t talk about the heartbreak or the struggles she faced as a single mother. Instead, she shared her belief that her husband was there with her through it all.

“He’s here,” she said. “He’s residing in heaven. He’s looking down on us every day. He’s been taking care of us for 40 years since he’s been in heaven. I never felt I was raising the kids alone.

“An old Redemptorist priest told me when he died, ‘One of you had to be in heaven because your kids will be all over the world someday.’ And that’s been true. Their work has taken them all over.”

As much as she was proud of her oldest son that day, she was equally filled with joy that 12 of her 13 children were together in Rome—the only one missing had a scheduled surgery.

“I would go anywhere in the world to be where my children are,” she said.

Someone once remarked to her, “Mrs. Tobin, how wonderful—13 children and they all went to college!” She replied, “How wonderful—13 children and they all practice their faith!”

On the day of her death, all 13 of her children were with her, relying on the faith in God and family that she had helped nurture in them, relying on the faith in God and family that she lived every day.

She once described her life in this way, “I’ve led an ordinary life of a mother, and I just appreciate that God planted me here and wanted this gift for me. The Seven Sorrows of Mary have been so close to me. Mary didn’t lie down—she wasn’t prostrate—in front of the Cross. She stood there with her Son, and isn’t that what we all have to do?”

On a day in Rome five years ago—a day when her oldest son knelt next to her, a day when she smiled about the continuing presence of her husband, a day when so much of her family surrounded her—she offered another thought about her life: “Thank you, thank you. God is very good to me.”

Her words mark the celebration of a life lived for God and family.

(John Shaughnessy is assistant editor of The Criterion.)

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