November 30, 2012

Archbishop Tobin served the poor and mended hearts in Rome

Then-Redemptorist Father Joseph Tobin washes dishes during a May 8, 2010, visit to a home in Hargrave, England. The people who lived there were relatives of Patricia Merrikin, the wife of John Heineman, an American friend of Archbishop Tobin who lives in Rome. (Submitted photo)

Then-Redemptorist Father Joseph Tobin washes dishes during a May 8, 2010, visit to a home in Hargrave, England. The people who lived there were relatives of Patricia Merrikin, the wife of John Heineman, an American friend of Archbishop Tobin who lives in Rome. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

During the past two years, Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin’s office was in the heart of Rome and the very nerve center of the universal Church.

He was second in charge of the Vatican’s Congregation of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, helping to guide the life and ministry of 1 million men and women religious around the world.

Nevertheless, Archbishop Tobin regularly made his way to the Primavalle neighborhood on the outskirts of the Eternal City to worship with and show the redeeming love of Christ to people on the fringes of society.

He often celebrated Sunday Mass at a chapel where members of the Sant’Egidio community, a Catholic lay movement founded in 1968, cared for elderly poor people and people with disabilities.

During the 21 years that Archbishop Tobin spent in Rome—nearly half of his adult life—he was at home within the halls of Church authority and consecrated life, rubbing shoulders with cardinals as well as men and women religious who lead worldwide orders.

But he also remained true to the spirit of the Redemptorist order that he joined in 1972 to be present with people in places where, in Archbishop Tobin’s words, “the Church can’t go or won’t go.”

During his two decades in Rome, those places included Primavalle.

It also included a friendship with John Heineman, an American ex-patriot, avant-garde musician and composer who, when Archbishop Tobin met him in 1992, was grieving the tragic death of his wife, Maura, in an accident in 1989 and holding onto longtime grudges against the Church.

“I didn’t know he was a priest when I first met him,” Heineman said. “I thought more along the lines that he might have been an ex-professional football linebacker. It took a while to get to know him, but … he showed a lot of empathy and helped me to feel at ease in talking about what I was feeling.”

Heineman may have felt at ease with Archbishop Tobin because his new friend was so unassuming—something he saw when they traveled to England together for a gathering with the family of Patricia Merrikin, the woman Heineman married after Maura’s death.

“We’ve had dinner and lots of people are standing around talking and laughing,” Heineman said. “Very quietly, someone starts doing the dishes—it’s Father Tobin.”

Archbishop Tobin’s empathy and humility helped Heineman cope with his grief, and also overcome long-held grudges formed during many difficult experiences while he was educated in the 1950s by members of the Christian Brothers order from Ireland.

“I hated it,” Heineman said. “I developed very strong resentments toward the Brothers, the Church and the Irish. I thought I would never forgive or forget.

“Then I met Joseph William Tobin. And standing next to this man—I’m not sure when—but somehow all these resentments vanished.”

While Archbishop Tobin felt enough at home in the world of John Heineman to help his friend cope with shadows in his life, he still was very much involved with religious life in the Church—the reason he came to Rome in the first place.

For the last two years, Archbishop Tobin served as the secretary—second in authority—in the Vatican’s Congregation for Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

He worked closely in the congregation with another person who came to Rome from far away—Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, the congregation’s prefect.

“Archbishop Tobin brought to this congregation a wealth of experience and knowledge of contemporary consecrated life, which he generously shared with all and thus will be truly missed,” Cardinal de Aviz said in a statement. “The faithful of Indianapolis have truly received a great gift in their new archbishop, a servant of the Church who truly has a shepherd’s heart.”

Sister Mary Maher, superior general of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, regularly dealt with Archbishop Tobin in his ministry at the Vatican and came to appreciate the same attentiveness in him that Heineman so valued.

“I admire Archbishop Tobin and believe that the people of [the Archdiocese of] Indianapolis are indeed extremely fortunate to have him as their pastor,” said Sister Mary, an American religious sister ministering in Rome. “He is a good listener and a strong leader who is not afraid to witness clearly—in word and deed—his fidelity to the Gospel, to the mission of Christ among the people of today, especially those who are poor or marginalized.”

Sister Mary met with Archbishop Tobin in the Vatican. But he often went to the outskirts of the Eternal City to show Christ’s redeeming love to the poor.

Paola Carcaterra saw this as a leader of the Sant’Egidio Community.

He spent time with the people who came to Sunday Mass and regularly attended other major Sant’Egidio events, such as its annual commemoration of the deportation of Roman Jews during World War II and an honoring of contemporary martyrs during Holy Week.

“I was a little embarrassed at the beginning that a bishop would choose [to minister in] our community, especially one in a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city,” Carcaterra said. “But from my very first encounter with him, I saw that my fears were baseless. From the very beginning, Archbishop Tobin bent over backward to put us at ease, creating around himself an atmosphere of familiarity and kindness, which the elderly and disabled returned amply.”

Just as in his relationship with others in Rome in very different contexts, Archbishop Tobin sought to make personal connections in his ministry to the poor and disabled.

“Father Joseph contributed greatly to creating this sense of family of which he himself is a part,” Carcaterra said. “This struck me profoundly. For him, friendship and faith cannot be anonymous.

“Friendship is always personal just as were his concerns for his friends at Primavalle whenever someone fell ill or was in difficulty,” she said. “He taught me a beautiful lesson, one which the poor, who have a special intuition, understood right away and who reciprocated his affection with theirs.”

The poor of Primavalle share that affection for Archbishop Tobin with Carcaterra, Heineman, Cardinal de Aviz and Sister Mary. Each person in his or her own way is sad to see their friend leave Rome for his new home in central and southern Indiana.

“I cannot deny that my first reaction [to learning of his appointment] was one of sadness,” Carcaterra said. “But then I thought I had to put aside my selfish thoughts, and accept the fact that he is needed elsewhere and that a bishop like him can do many good things in his archdiocese and in the United States in general.”

“I will feel that something essential is missing from my life when Joe leaves Rome,” Heineman said. “But [the Archdiocese of] Indianapolis is very fortunate to have him as their new archbishop. I’m sure he’ll be able to bring new life and energy to everyone he meets.” †

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