October 9, 2015

Archbishop Tobin is energized, challenged and thankful after Pope Francis’ visit to America

Participants in the archdiocesan pilgrimage to the World Meeting of Families pose for a group photo outside St. John the Evangelist Church in Philadelphia on Sept. 26. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Participants in the archdiocesan pilgrimage to the World Meeting of Families pose for a group photo outside St. John the Evangelist Church in Philadelphia on Sept. 26. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By John Shaughnessy

Like nearly everyone who followed Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States, Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin has his own list of memorable highlights.

The pope’s historic speech to the U.S. Congress amazed and surprised the archbishop.

And the pope’s two meetings with the bishops of the United States left Archbishop Tobin feeling energized, challenged and thankful. (More coverage of the pope's visit here)

During an interview with The Criterion about the pope’s visit, the archbishop also smiled in admiration when he talked about how hard the primarily Spanish-speaking Pope Francis worked so he could speak English during his Sept. 22-27 trip to Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

The archbishop also shared his appreciation when he discussed how Pope Francis’ approach to people—“the culture of encounter”—not only had a positive effect on Americans, it also had a definite impact on how the pope views Americans.

“It was a very memorable experience,” said Archbishop Tobin, one of many bishops from around the country and the world who concelebrated with Pope Francis at the pontiff’s Mass with nearly 1 million people in Philadelphia to close the World Meeting of Families on Sept. 27.

Here is an edited version of The Criterion’s interview with the archbishop.

Q. What were some of your favorite moments during Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, and why?

A. “The two meetings he had with the bishops. We prayed midday prayer at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington [on Sept. 23], and then he had a particular talk for us. He spoke quite frankly to the bishops about what he was expecting. He challenged us to be pastors, to not be content with the status quo.

“In the second meeting at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary [in Philadelphia on Sept. 27], he took the example of the establishment of the deacons in Acts. He said, ‘Why did the Apostles invent the deacons? Because the Apostles had to be dedicated to prayer and preaching.’ He said, ‘That’s your priorities as bishops—praying for your people, praying for the Church, and preaching.’ He said the other stuff you can do if you have time, but those are your priorities. I think those two experiences were very memorable for me.

“Another memorable experience was watching with the brother bishops his address to Congress in Washington. And I celebrated Mass for our Hoosier contingent [to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia] and lots of other people at St. John the Evangelist Church in downtown Philadelphia.”

Q. Why was the pope’s address to Congress a defining moment for you?

A. “First, I was amazed by the evident interest and enthusiasm that the Congress showed. I didn’t expect that. I thought it would be much more detached, and they would listen politely. Before the pope arrived, I believe that [Rep. John Boehner, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives] told the Congress that there would be no clapping. But that didn’t last very long.

“There was an obvious interest in what Pope Francis had to say. I think he tried to restore the political vocation by reminding them that politicians are people who work for the common good. Certainly, the speaker was moved to tears. I think a lot of people were quite touched by the pope.”

Q. Going back to Pope Francis’ meetings with the bishops, how will his advice guide you as the spiritual leader of the archdiocese?

A. “His clear emphasis on prayer and preaching—and I would say with preaching, teaching—helps me decide how I ought to spend my time. I can’t say every day I follow it rightly. I sometimes get sidetracked with other things. His interest in people on the margins, and his closeness to people are all things I learned from him earlier, and they have been reaffirmed.

“Hopefully, we as a bishops’ conference will have picked up some new insights on how you deal with conflictual issues. In our meeting at St. Matthew’s, he was quite strong about the language a bishop uses. It wasn’t to be blanket condemnations and harsh language. He said it might be momentarily satisfying for a bishop, but it doesn’t belong in their mouths.”

Q. What are some of the main points that you would encourage Catholics from the archdiocese to take away from the pope’s visit as they continue their faith journeys?

A. “Francis didn’t say this, but I’ll use a formula that I think might capture part of his message: If my faith is principally— even exclusively—me and Jesus, it’s probably mainly me. Our love for Christ necessarily translates into a love for our brothers and sisters, and especially those who at first glance would not be loveable, either because we don’t see them—and those are the people on the margins that Francis not only talks about, but sought out while he was in the United States—or other people that we do see, but we just don’t like.

“Francis encourages us to re-think the areas of exclusion in our lives. I like to think Francis was asking the country the same thing that the bishops asked here in Indiana—to see the poor, to see the excluded, to see the young. To keep our eyes open. From the very beginning of his pontificate, he said a Church that has its eyes focused inside on itself becomes sick. I think every parish might ask, ‘Who don’t we see when we gather for the Eucharist or we have a celebration? Who is right under our noses that we’re missing?’ ”

Q. During his six days in the United States, Pope Francis created a huge wave of interest, respect and enthusiasm among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, always backing up his words with his actions. What other advice would you give to parishes to help continue that wave of interest, respect, enthusiasm and outreach?

A. “Do what he did. He would stop his motorcade because he saw somebody. A parish needs to stop its life to drop by or meet people.

“Pope Francis was very struck by his meeting with survivors of clerical sexual abuse. We met him right after he had that meeting in Philadelphia, and you could see he was very solemn and very sorrowful about what he had heard. He said to us, ‘Those are crimes.’ And he said it twice looking at the bishops. ‘Those are crimes that cause God to weep.’ He was meeting people who weren’t always telling him the most pleasant things, but it was important that he did.

“And something that impacted me happened on Monday morning when I was packing. I was listening to the local news [in Philadelphia], and they were talking about a news conference the pope gave on the plane, returning to Rome. An American reporter said, ‘How do you feel now that you’re practically a rock star?’

“He got very serious. He said that’s a very dangerous place to be. He said, ‘I have to ensure that I’m doing what I do for the right reasons.’ He said, ‘Stars are beautiful, but they fade. My mission is to be the servant of the servants of God’—which is the ancient title of the pope. I think he realizes this sort of enthusiasm could be a drug, and he’s aware enough and spiritually mature enough to realize that’s a danger and not to go there.”

Q. During the visit, Pope Francis showed three qualities that seem to mark his papacy: his love for people, especially the vulnerable; his joy and reverence in sharing the faith; and his willingness to hold people in power accountable while encouraging them to pursue a higher purpose that improves people’s lives. What are your thoughts about his efforts to weave those qualities together during his visit and his time as pope?

A. “My own personal reaction, having known him a bit over 10 years, is that he hasn’t changed. His interest in people, especially the marginalized, is consistent. When he was archbishop in Buenos Aires, he was telling the priests to get out of the office and be with the people. So there’s his consistency.

“And then I think of how the Congress listened to him. Whether it has a lasting effect or not, I don’t know. But the important thing is that he enunciated the message. He called people in power and powerful nations to accountability, but he did it in a way that was a dialogue. He wasn’t wagging his finger. He told Congress, ‘I’m not her to preach at you, but I want to enter this dialogue.’ Which I think was a more respectful way that got him a more open hearing,

“In our American culture, we’re always looking at the next new thing. So I don’t expect overall that there is going to be a sea change in American culture. However, the people who feel what Francis believes will feel strengthened in what they do. They won’t feel alone. I’ve always said the greatest thing about being a Catholic is the sense of being connected—not just here in the archdiocese, but across space and time. And Francis renewed his connection as the pastor of the Church.”

Q. You mentioned the importance of dialogue. In nearly every speech during his visit in the U.S., Pope Francis talked about the need for dialogue and encounter. Talk about how that approach can help the Church respond to the challenges of our times.

A. “Dialogue has probably gotten a bad name, especially because of folks who have a different notion of power—a worldly sense of power: You don’t have to talk. It’s my way or the highway. What Francis is saying is, ‘No, dialogue literally means a mutual search for the truth. The truth exists, but I can’t find it completely on my own. I have to have your help to discover it.’

“I was very pleased because it’s something I held for and struggled with, and it’s not easy to do—especially when you realize how wide the chasm is, whether it’s political realities or dialogues with other religions. The challenges are there, but Francis was encouraging us to have the heart to do that.”

Q. You’ve known Pope Francis a long time. For a lot of people, his energy through those six days was amazing, especially in how he fed off people. What did you think as you watched him?

A. “I was wincing a little bit seeing him limp, especially toward the end of the day. People who are close to him told me his sciatica [pain radiating along the sciatic nerve, which runs down one or both legs from the lower back] really bothers him. And when he’s standing up for a long time, which of course he had to do in the popemobile or wherever, I felt for him.

“Also, I had never heard him speak English before. I was kind of amazed at the progress he made. I was told he worked hard on it all summer.”

Q. The archdiocese had a large contingent of people from different family backgrounds who attended the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, and you were there for part of it. How do you hope that involvement has an impact on families and the archdiocese’s continued support of families?

A. “First, those families made incredible sacrifices to go. It was not an easy bus ride, and some of the families had members who had particular physical challenges. And yet the impression I had when meeting with them in Philadelphia is that they were quite enthusiastic about the experience. I think their own contact with families from other parts of the country and other parts of the world had to be enriching—as was the interest that Pope Francis showed in them.

“We deliberately strove to make the delegation as diverse as possible so the diversity of the archdiocese would be represented in Philadelphia. My hope is that we’re going to get together with them in the next month or two to consider, ‘What does this mean for us?’

“The support for married couples is an ongoing challenge for us. I think we do relatively well in offering some preparation to young, engaged couples who are going to marry in the Church, but it’s afterward when couples may probably need support even more. So a challenge for us is ministry to married couples. We have to do a better job in offering support for couples who have already entered married life.”

Q. Any other thoughts on the pope’s visit that you would like to share?

A. “There are clearly a lot of stereotypes of the United States that our films and our music give other countries. It’s different when people come and meet Americans. Even the Holy Father said he was surprised by the affection of the Americans. He might have had the idea that we were something else. When he talks about his culture of encounter, it means that even a pope changes in the culture of encounter—which he clearly did in his estimation of Americans.”

(For more coverage of the archdiocesan pilgrimage to the World Meeting of Families, including photo galleries and links to blog posts, visit www.archindy.org/wmof.)

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