February 15, 2013

Archbishop Tobin’s ministry with pope provides unique perspective on resignation

Pope Benedict XVI greets then-Redemptorist Father Joseph Tobin during a Feb. 2, 2008, liturgy at St. Peterís Basilica at the Vatican to mark the World Day for Consecrated Life. At the time, then-Father Joseph was superior general of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, also known as the Redemptorists. (Submitted photo)

Pope Benedict XVI greets then-Redemptorist Father Joseph Tobin during a Feb. 2, 2008, liturgy at St. Peterís Basilica at the Vatican to mark the World Day for Consecrated Life. At the time, then-Father Joseph was superior general of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, also known as the Redemptorists. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

Few bishops serving in dioceses in the United States have as much experience working as closely with Pope Benedict XVI as Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, who was installed as the shepherd of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis on Dec. 3, 2012.

From 1997 to 2009, he served as the superior general of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, more commonly known as the Redemptorists. In that ministry, he frequently consulted with Pope Benedict both before and after the pontiff’s 2005 papal election regarding the theological research of various members of the worldwide order.

In 2010, Pope Benedict appointed then-Father Tobin as the secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. By virtue of this appointment, he was ordained a bishop.

He served as the second in charge of this congregation that helps oversee the life and ministry of more than 1 million religious around the world, and worked with the pope on a regular basis until his appointment to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis last October.

On Feb. 11, Archbishop Tobin held a press conference to discuss Pope Benedict’s announcement of his upcoming Feb. 28 resignation and described how he learned of it. (Related: More coverage of the papal transition)

“I was in prayer this morning, and the phone rang and I got up to answer it,” said Archbishop Tobin, who noted that he received the call about a minute after the pope made the announcement. “It was somebody calling from Rome to inform me that the Holy Father had announced this decision. I think it’s rather remarkable because the Vatican is a small village, and tip-top secrets aren’t always kept. But, in this case, they were.”

Archbishop Tobin reflected on his observations of the pope’s diminishing health.

“I saw a fellow in his mid-80s who was finding it much more difficult to walk and to stand,” said Archbishop Tobin. “And I think he had a great anxiety about falling, which is not unusual for people of his age.

“I would stress that his mental faculties were not impaired in the least, as far as I could tell. And I had a lot of occasion to reach that opinion.”

This observed physical deterioration, combined with his knowledge of the pope’s previous statements regarding the theoretical possibility of a papal resignation allowed him to be “surprised … but not shocked” when he learned of the announcement.

When asked why Pope Benedict chose to resign in the face of declining strength whereas his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, remained steadfast in his office despite his great physical challenges due to Parkinson’s disease, Archbishop Tobin pointed to the two pontiff’s contrasting spiritualities.

“I think, for John Paul II, the spirituality of the cross and faithfulness was really important,” said Archbishop Tobin. “ … I think part of Benedict’s spirituality is [focused on] a very strong sense of duty.”

That sense of duty, Archbishop Tobin said, led then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to accept his papal election in 2005 even though he would have preferred to retire to his native Bavaria.

“But he wasn’t asked to do that. He was asked to step into this very difficult service. And he did,” said Archbishop Tobin. “And so that sense of duty that had him accept it, I think, also led him to realize that, in great humility, he couldn’t do it any longer, so somebody else should.”

Regarding Pope Benedict’s legacy, Archbishop Tobin reflected on his efforts to build bridges between the Church and political and cultural leaders in Western Europe who promote its continued secularization.

“I think in his speeches during his visits to France and Germany … [and] especially his talk in Parliament in London in September 2010 will go down as one of the great speeches of the modern papacy, where he talked about the role between faith and reason in the public square,” Archbishop Tobin said.

He also noted that the pope’s writings that have a “crystalline clarity that very few people have reached” will have a lasting effect long after his resignation.

“Basically, he was a teacher,” Archbishop Tobin said. “When I saw him most at home was when he was with a small group of people talking about ideas. He was never afraid of ideas.”

Archbishop Tobin recalled how he met with then-Cardinal Ratzinger on many occasions to discuss the work of Redemptorist moral theologians who “push[ed] the envelope a little bit.”

“I got to know Cardinal Ratzinger up close and personal over the years,” he said. “And, when I thought I was leaving Rome the first time in 2009, I was at Mass with the Holy Father and he said to me, ‘Ah Pater Tobin, you and I have talked about many difficult things. But we always found a solution.’

“I never felt disrespected by him. If we were talking about difficult matters, it wasn’t a sort of ‘my way or the highway’ [attitude]. He would make a strong intellectual argument for his position. And if you wanted to hang in there, you’d better have the creds to be able to engage him on that.”

Archbishop Tobin also spoke of his admiration for Pope Benedict’s simplicity.

“When he would greet you in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he would simply wear a black cassock with a simple cross,” Archbishop Tobin said. “There was nothing ostentatious about him. … I’m sure he’s not taking a lot with him … except for his books and notes.”

When asked about whom the voting members of the College of Cardinals might choose as Pope Benedict’s successor, Archbishop Tobin looked to the countries of the developing world.

“There’s talk of the next pope coming from Latin America or from Africa,” Archbishop Tobin said. “And knowing some of those people who would be candidates, there are some very good men.

“It would probably be another surprise for the Catholic Church to wake up and have an African pope, although there have been connections to Africa from the beginning of Christianity.”

He also noted that he believed that discussion among the cardinals “is happening even as we speak.”

Whoever is chosen, though, will have many challenges to face, Archbishop Tobin said.

In the West, he said, is the “movement from belief to unbelief.”

“The Church has recently talked about a new way to proclaim the Gospel,” Archbishop Tobin said. “The Gospel in the West often becomes like a movie that everybody has seen. They know the ending. They don’t have to think about it again.”

In other areas of the world, such as Asia, he said that the next pope has to discern “what it means to be a Catholic when you’re a minority among great world religions.”

In the weeks leading up to papal election, Archbishop Tobin said that the Catholics of central and southern Indiana would keep Pope Benedict and the cardinals in their prayers.

“I’m inviting the archdiocese and all people of goodwill to join us in prayer, not only for the successor, but also for our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI,” he said. “We express gratitude for his eight years of papal service and for his decades of service to the Catholic Church. We promise to pray for him as he commits himself to a life now totally dedicated to prayer.”†


Related: Watch a video of Archbishop Tobin’s Feb. 11 press conference

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