November 25, 2016

On an extraordinary day, an extraordinary man became a cardinal

Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin arrives for the consistory in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Nov. 19. Also shown is Msgr. William F. Stumpf, archdiocesan moderator of the curia. Cardinal Tobin was among 17 new cardinals created by Pope Francis at the consistory. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin arrives for the consistory in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Nov. 19. Also shown is Msgr. William F. Stumpf, archdiocesan moderator of the curia. Cardinal Tobin was among 17 new cardinals created by Pope Francis at the consistory. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

By John Shaughnessy

VATICAN CITY—In an extraordinary moment like this one, the temptation is to focus just on the honor.

Sometimes, it’s especially tempting for the person receiving the honor.

Within minutes—at 11 a.m. Rome time on Nov. 19—Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin will stand near the central altar at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. There, in a ceremony called a consistory, he will soon be installed by Pope Francis as one of 17 new cardinals in the Church.

At 64, he will become the youngest of the 18 American-born cardinals.

He will also become one of the 120 cardinals from around the world who are eligible to vote, when the time comes in the future, to elect a new pope—or even become a new pope.

Let all of that sink in for a moment—the rareness, the possibility, the honor. Then listen to the answer that Cardinal-designate Tobin gave to a question he was asked on Oct. 10, the day after Pope Francis announced him as one of the new cardinals. Responding to the question, “In terms of your life, is this the most memorable moment?,” Cardinal-designate Tobin said:

“I would tend to say no. … Becoming a cardinal, as much as I understand it, is an additional invitation to serve. I think there have been other moments in my life as a priest, as a Redemptorist, as a human being, that would supersede it. Perhaps this is a doorway to other great moments of service.”

He then shared a thought that was as unexpected as his selection as a cardinal was to him: “Perhaps yesterday’s news was an indication that God thinks I don’t love the Church enough. So he’s given me an even more profound way to love it more.”

Now consider this story from Loral Tansy, who has assisted Cardinal-designate Tobin as master of ceremonies the past four years when the archbishop has celebrated Masses across the Archdiocese of Indianapolis: “I was with him on the Sunday he found out he was a cardinal. He was so shell-shocked. He said, ‘I am so not deserving of this.’ And I said, ‘That’s why you are deserving of this.’

“I believe he exemplifies the best virtues a cardinal should have—dedication, compassion. From the very soul of his being, he really cares about people.”

‘He understands the struggles’

His easy, sincere connection with people shines through in the moments before the beginning of the prayer service in which he will be installed as a cardinal. He heads into a section filled with family and friends, hugging them, reaching out to them, smiling with them.

When he walks to another section of the basilica, he flashes a smile of surprise when he recognizes a man he met long ago during the 20 years he served the Church in Rome. They embrace and laugh together, remembering the time that Cardinal-designate Tobin‘s car had a minor fender-bender with the other man’s car—Cardinal-designate Tobin smiling again as he admitted the accident was his fault, just as he did then.

During this time, he also asks a friend to take a photo of him and the other two Americans who will become cardinals today—Cardinal-designates Blase J. Cupich of Chicago and Kevin J. Farrell, prefect of the new Vatican office for laity, family and life.

And he searches for his 93-year-old mother, Marie Tobin, putting his arms around her when he finds her. And she beams for the oldest of her 13 children.

It’s also telling that 11 of his 12 siblings are here, the exception being a brother who has to undergo surgery and couldn’t make the trip. And numerous other family members—the Tobin clan—have made the journey. So has Duncan MacDonald, a friend since their grade-school days in Detroit. And there are about 20 priests from the Redemptorist order, the order for which he served as superior general from 1997 to 2009.

Then there is the strong contingent from the Church in central and southern Indiana—priests he has ordained, priests he has served with, priests he has come to view as brothers. The archdiocesan contingent also includes colleagues that he regards as friends, and members of the faithful that he has always viewed as extended family.

Surrounded by all parts of his extended family, he looks relaxed, joyful, at peace.

Greg Otolski takes in the entire scene. The director of communications for the archdiocese knows there’s also another important quality of Cardinal-designate Tobin’s approach to people: his compassion. It’s a compassion that Otolski believes has been shaped from Cardinal-designate Tobin’s background: he comes from a large family, his father died at a young age, his mother had to raise their children by herself, and he has served as a pastor “in some really poor areas” in Detroit and Chicago.

“He understands the struggles a lot of people go through just to make it to the end of the day,” Otolski says. “I think that’s what’s so important about him being a cardinal.”

The bond of blood

At 11 a.m., Pope Francis and the 17 new cardinals approach the central altar at St. Peter’s Basilica.

As Cardinal-designate Tobin sits by the altar waiting his turn to be installed by Pope Francis, less than 3 1/2 years have passed since the two men shared another special moment in this same basilica. On June 29, 2012, Cardinal-designate Tobin knelt in front of Pope Francis to receive his pallium—a circular band made from lamb’s wool that symbolized his role as the shepherd of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and his communion with the pope.

In becoming a cardinal, the connection between him and Pope Francis reaches an even deeper level for the two men who first became friends when they met during a meeting of the Synod of Bishops in Rome in 2005. That deeper bond is reflected in the cardinal’s red cassock that Cardinal-designate Tobin already wears on this morning—the color representing a cardinal’s desire to stay faithful to Christ and the Church, even to the extent of shedding his blood for them.

It’s the kind of bond—being there for another person completely, putting the other person first—that has marked Cardinal-designate Tobin’s life.

It’s also the kind of bond that Pope Francis talks about in his homily during the prayer service, moments before installing the 17 new cardinals. Pope Francis refers to the Gospel of St. Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,” a call that Christ gave the Apostles.

“Instead of keeping the Apostles at the top of the mountain, their being chosen leads them to the heart of the crowd.” Pope Francis says. “It sets them in the midst of those who are troubled, on the ‘plain’ of their daily lives.”

Pope Francis says it’s a call that all Christians must embrace, offering mercy and hope to everyone, even our enemies. At the end of his homily, he tells the newest cardinals waiting to be installed that they must lead this effort.

“My dear brothers, newly-created cardinals, the journey toward heaven begins in the plains, in a daily life broken and shared, spent and given—in the quiet daily gift of all that we are. Our mountaintop is this quality of love. Our goal and our inspiration is to strive, on life’s plain, together with the people of God, to become persons capable of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

An unbelievable moment

That call resounds in Cardinal-designate Tobin’s mind as he walks up the steps of the central altar of St. Peter’s to be greeted by Pope Francis—to be installed as a cardinal. In that moment, people throughout St. Peter’s strain for a closer look at their son, brother, friend and family member.

As he kneels before the pope, the pontiff embraces him in a long hug. Pope Francis then places the red biretta on now-Cardinal Tobin’s head, an exchange that the cardinal’s mother gets to see up-close from her seat to the right of the altar.

Pope Francis also gives him his cardinal’s ring, declaring, “Receive the ring from the hands of Peter and know your love for the Church is strengthened by the love of the Prince of the Apostles.”

Walking down the steps of the altar, Cardinal Tobin moves toward the area where the other members of the College of Cardinals are waiting for him. One by one, he smiles and embraces them, receiving their smiles and embraces in return.

His mother savors every moment, every scene, describing it as “unbelievable.”

The extended Tobin family

As the prayers, wishes, smiles and tears flow toward and for newly-installed Cardinal Tobin, there’s also the memory of the telling words he shared in a conversation on the evening before he became a cardinal.

It was a conversation in which he talked about the importance of having his “extended family” here in Rome—all the people who have shared the journey of his life, all the people he has come to know and love, all the people who know and love him. Among that “extended family” he especially remembered the people of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis—those who came to Rome and those who are back home.

“Election night helped me understand,” he said about this gift of extended family. “I saw Indiana governor-elect Eric Holcomb’s acceptance speech. What really struck me was he said, ‘All through the campaign, people said Holcomb can’t do this, and Holcomb can’t do that.’ He said, ‘They’re right, but we can.’ And that’s what this experience is, too.

“It’s the experience of being able to do things because it’s a we. It’s not an I. I feel and treasure as part of my family my extended family of Hoosiers who have accepted me. And it makes me think I can do this.”

He also talked about how the biggest struggle of the past six weeks has been his reassignment to the Archdiocese of Newark—and how he plans to confront that struggle.

“I was belly-aching one day to someone back in Indiana,” he said. “He listened and looked at me in great sympathy. And then he said, ‘What did you sign up for?’ I’ve thought about that. On the day of my profession, when I professed my vows, I gave it all. I really didn’t have that much to give as a 21-year-old. Now, it’s a little different. At the end of the day, I want to be true to what I vowed. So I say, ‘OK, it’s all yours, even if it hurts.’ ”

Drew and Wilma Young of St. Mary Parish in Greensburg are part of that “extended family” from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis that has come to Rome to celebrate the man that has been their spiritual leader for the past four years.

They remember how he shared in the grief and sorrow of their community when four local people were killed in a small plane crash shortly after he was installed as archbishop. They also recall the joy he shared when the parish dedicated its new church last August.

“I have the strongest positive feelings for him,” Drew Young says. “He’s kind. He’s honest. You know he has the love of God straight through him. You can’t help but believe him and trust him. He’s a real ambassador for God.”

On an extraordinary day, an extraordinary man became a cardinal.

(For more stories and photos of the consistory and other events in Rome, go to

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