Cardinal-designate Tobin, Newark's new leader, has always had a missionary heart

Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis discusses being named a cardinal by Pope Francis during an Oct. 10 news conference at Archbishop Edward T. O'Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis. (CNS photo/Natalie Hoefer, The Criterion)

Newark, N.J. — Perhaps no one is more surprised with the new episcopal choice to head the Newark Archdiocese than the man himself. Only 18 hours in the city when he met the press and hundreds of clergy and archdiocesan staff, Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis apologized for feeling shock waves set off in his central nervous system by the recent announcements from his friend Pope Francis.

But the new prelate — a Redemptorist priest — was hardly tongue-tied or timid in front of dozens of reporters and TV cameras. He was able to display "joy" — what he hopes will be a hallmark of his time in Newark — to the media in both English and Spanish. The cardinal-elect, 64, said he also wanted to bring a spirit of transparency and freedom to Catholics in Newark.

The mild-mannered man from the Midwest — oldest of 13 Tobin children raised in an Irish household in southwest Detroit — said he is "most comfortable in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual environment." He said he'd envied his classmates who spoke a different language at home. Tobin knows Newark offers great cultural diversity and said he was "overjoyed" to learn there are Sunday Masses said in more than two dozen languages in the archdiocese.

Besides English and Spanish, Tobin is fluent in Portuguese, Italian and French. Newark has a large Brazilian population in its famous Ironbound district, and Tobin said that other than Newark Airport, he was most familiar with St. James parish in Ironbound.

Tobin learned many of his languages while serving as his global community's provincial consultor, later its general consultor in Rome and its superior general from 1997-2009 in Rome. "I have always had a missionary heart," he told NCR, in answer to a question about how his congregation's charism would translate into his episcopal office in Newark.

"God has graced me with health and energy, and I hope to use them to preach the Gospel in Newark," he said, noting that many had translated the Redemptorists' initials, CSSR, to "carefully selected sermons repeated." That was not his style, he said, but added that humor was essential to his priestly life. "We should never take ourselves too seriously."

He hoped to communicate effectively with people in the archdiocese, in Newark and in the state, noting that, too, is part of his style. He welcomed the role of the press in seeing that a bishop "preaches by his actions" ... and "walks the talk."

Being a religious order priest has lent Tobin experience in being up and down in his career. In 2010 Pope Benedict made him secretary in the Curia's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. But two years later, Tobin was sent to Indianapolis as its sixth bishop. Some Vatican watchers saw this as a kind of exile because, they said, Tobin had baulked at the idea of investigating American nuns — following a Vatican initiative. Tobin, however, took to his new post with gusto, using his consultative practice to re-invigorate the presbyterate and also to attract more Catholics back to the church.

In Newark, as in Indianapolis, the new prelate said his most important role will be to listen — not to assume anything, but to find out what people mean when they say they are "leaving the church." Noting that the church and what it represents is huge, Tobin wanted to know if those who are leaving are abandoning the Word of God forever — are they departing from all the sacraments? The church cannot minister to these baptized Catholics unless it listens to them and learns what has distanced them from their faith, he added, suggesting that all clergy needed to do more listening.

In Indianapolis where 230,000 Catholics live in 39 counties, Tobin said he was used to driving wherever he wanted to go. But Newark, whose Catholic population is six times that of Indianapolis and squeezed into four urban counties, may require more than a GPS or a chauffeur. Tobin is not so sure how he will arrange his behind-the-wheel ministry. One thing he is certain of is the need to spend the first months, after his Jan. 6 installation, getting to know his priests and parishioners in a visible way.

Asked how he would handle the sex-abuse issues that have plagued retiring Archbishop John Myers, Tobin said he would first have to study the local issues. However, he noted that "the scourge of sex abuse was more than a physical violation," it was a violation of trust. "When we violate the kids that parents have entrusted in our care, the abuse is unspeakable," Tobin said.

As excited as Tobin is about coming to Newark next year, he appeared less thrilled about being named a cardinal on Nov. 19 in Rome. He has warned his mother — and whoever else will listen — never to call him "a prince of the church." He said both he and Francis are "fed up to here (pointing above his forehead) with princes." Instead Tobin hopes he can live simply and show others that "we don't really need as much as we think we do ... All I really need is my cup of coffee each morning," he added.

The remark sounded poignant in the midst of ongoing criticism of Myers, who has spent $500,000 on the expansion of his retirement home in western New Jersey. For two years Newark Catholics had also seen their coadjutor archbishop Bernard Hebda choose a room in a dormitory at Seton Hall University as his domicile. Hebda was appointed to lead the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese earlier this year.

Besides their interest in preaching and in moral theology, the Redemptorists have had more than a 250-year relation with the world's poor. Tobin has visited and met with many of these families in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Those aware of his background were not surprised when he disagreed with the efforts of Indiana Governor Mike Pence — Donald Trump's running mate — to ban Syrian refugees. Instead Tobin's efforts on their behalf have lead to some 150 Syrians finding homes in Indiana.

Tobin, whose press conference took place in Newark's Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, on the day before the presidential election, gave no advice on how New Jersey Catholics should cast their vote. But he warned them against taking on the "red state/blue state" divide so prominent in much of the nation. "That mentality is a danger to our church," he said.

To avoid the continued polarization of the right and the left, of progressives against conservatives, Catholics should instead bring their concerns forward, recognize their shared values and "realize we like one another" despite our differences. That would require real listening on everyone's part, he said.

Tobin said he had no idea what the pope was trying to say by appointing him to one of the largest sees in the country. "Sometimes I think that Pope Francis sees a lot more in me than I see in myself." Francis and Tobin met in Rome during the Synod of Bishops in 2005, and Tobin visited then-Archbishop Jorge Bergolio in Buenos Aires when Tobin's work took him to Argentina.

[Patricia Lefevere is a longtime contributor to NCR.]

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