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Pope Francis: The first six months
Bishop Tobin reflects on Pontiff’s impact

As Pope Francis marks his first six months as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, in an interview with Rhode Island Catholic Editor Rick Snizek, reflects on the pontiff’s impact so far on the faithful and the challenges he faces as the leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world.

Six months into Pope Francis’ pontificate interest continues to grow each day in both the words and actions of this humble servant from Argentina. Are you at all surprised by how much of an impact on the faithful around the world that this pope has made in such a short time?

Well I guess I’m somewhat surprised. Although the office of the pope is always a very high profile position and the Holy Father always has a great impact on the church and the world, certainly the reaction to the persona of Pope Francis has been extraordinary. He’s doing things and saying things that have been rather unpredictable, and I think he’s striking the right chord at the right time. So in that sense, I think it’s extraordinary what we’re seeing. And for the most part it’s been a very positive reaction.

What is your impression of this pope’s style of leadership compared to that of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II, both of whom you have had the opportunity to interact with personally?

Each pope obviously has his own history and his own personality. It strikes me that there’s room for all those personalities in the office and the chair of St. Peter. Blessed Pope John Paul was a great dramatic person and had an enormous impact on the church and the world, even in the political sphere. He was a bigger than life actor, a dramatic person, really a once-in-a-lifetime kind of historic figure. Pope Benedict, of course, was more the theologian, the great student. His personality more quiet, more reserved, but he gave us some wonderful documents and example in teaching and leading us into the clarity of the Catholic Faith, which is also a very important contribution. Pope Francis is certainly more of a charismatic figure and he’s reaching out to the Church and to the world and really challenging us by his words and his deeds in some very dramatic and positive ways.

People have been surprised by the level of access Pope Francis has granted to the faithful as he wades into crowds greeting individuals wherever he goes. Should this raise greater concerns for his safety?

It’s a two-edged sword. On the one hand it’s wonderful that the Holy Father is so personable and so accessible, and really wants to be in the midst of the flock. That has left a very strong and striking impression to be sure, and for many people it has been very refreshing. The other side of that, however, is that it does cause some confusion and concern over his own safety and certainly nobody wants anything bad to happen to the Holy Father.

One of the things we have to get used to is dealing with some of the unintended consequences of his freewheeling style. For example, when he chose not to live in the Apostolic Palace, but instead at Sanctae Marthae. That’s a very worthwhile gesture to be sure, but as I’ve commented to others, for the sake of simplicity and humility, he has now occupied two buildings instead of one. That has caused some security concerns around the Vatican I know. When he decided not to go out to Castel Gandolfo for the summer, which he has every right to decide, that’s had an impact on the local population at Castel Gandolfo, the shopkeepers and the people who own restaurants and tour buses and souvenir shops and so forth.

What was your reaction when you saw Pope Francis stop the Popemobile in the middle of St. Peter’s Square earlier this year, lifting up above the crowd young Dominic Gondreau, the disabled son of Providence College theology professor Dr. Paul Gondreau, so that he could pray over the child?

Obviously it was a very blessed moment for Dominic himself and for the whole Gondreau family, and through them for our whole diocesan church. We were truly blessed that day that the Holy Father reached out and touched and embraced a member of our flock. It was a great moment and a great blessing. The other thing I want to say though, is that I’m a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis that he hasn’t, at least that I’m aware of, said much about unborn children, about abortion, and many people have noticed that. I think it would be very helpful if Pope Francis would address more directly the evil of abortion and to encourage those who are involved in the pro-life movement. It’s one thing for him to reach out and embrace and kiss little children and infants as he has on many occasions. It strikes me that it would also be wonderful if in a spiritual way he would reach out and embrace and kiss unborn children.

What do you feel is Pope Francis’ greatest strength as leader of the worldwide Catholic Church?

He’s an evangelical. In this age of the New Evangelization he is showing us what that is all about. He’s been evangelizing not just with his words, which have been very effective, by the way, but also with his deeds, these little gestures and some of the things that he has said and done. He wants the Church to move beyond its own walls and to welcome people into the Church, to encourage them to be part of our Catholic family, but also he wants members of the Church to reach out to the world, into the community, take the Good News of Jesus, the compassion and caring, the love of Christ to the world. We’ve spoken so much about the New Evangelization in the last 20 or 30 years, Pope Francis is showing us in a very tangible way what that really means.

What would you characterize as the most significant contribution he has made so far to the faith in these last six months?

Certainly on a level of popular culture, he has really burst onto the scene as a very engaging and likable and positive personality. Almost everyone likes Pope Francis and that’s a good thing for the Church. It’s drawing people through his persona closer to Christ and to the Church. In that sense he’s really an instrument of evangelization and salvation. But again, I think his most positive contribution has been the way he is challenging us to be more direct and more engaged in the work of the Church and in evangelizing people. He’s challenged everybody. He’s challenged world leaders, he’s challenged members of the Vatican hierarchy, he’s challenged bishops, and priests and religious and the lay faithful. His challenge has been very clear and direct, and it’s hard to ignore him.

What do you view as the greatest challenges he faces in his papacy?

It’s very different being the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and the Roman Pontiff, to be the Vicar of Christ, shepherd of the universal church. I think he’s had to adjust to that, the expectations placed upon him. I think he has written and spoken about that, how hard it is for him to serve in his role as pope because he wants to continue to be present and accessible and wants to be in touch with people. That’s very hard to do from the See of Peter, as the pope. I think that’s been a challenge for him to adjust to that new role, maintaining his own personality and his own preferences. Sometimes you have to give way to those things. Certainly everything he’s done in the last few days, responding to the crisis in Syria, that’s something he would not have had the opportunity to do with as much impact if he were still in Argentina. But now he has the world stage and people are watching and listening.

What do you think about the way the pope is handling the reform of the Roman Curia and the Vatican Bank, something called for by the members of the College of Cardinals?

Apparently, it’s something the College of Cardinals was very clear about in electing and discerning a new pope. I think there’s a worldwide expectation that there will be significant reforms in the Curia, in the Vatican bureaucracy. I have to say that so far, it’s moved pretty slowly. Basically what he’s done so far is to appoint three committees, but it’s very early on in his pontificate, and so far all that’s happened is that he’s appointed three committees. Oftentimes that’s what we do in the Church – we appoint committees to study things and to try to change things. So, it’s too early to tell how dramatic the changes will be and if he’s really able to bring about a substantial reform of the central administration of the Church that many people are calling for and expecting.

On his way back to Rome from World Youth Day in Brazil, Pope Francis, in responding to reporters’ questions aboard the flight, seemed to astound many around the world when he commented, “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” How do you interpret the pontiff’s remarks, and do they represent a change in the church’s philosophy on homosexuality in the Church?

That question now which is famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, is probably one of the most misquoted phrases in the recent history of the Church. We’ve seen it in all sorts of contexts, “Who am I to judge?” Clearly, the pope did not change, or intend to change the Church about homosexual orientation or activity. The Holy Father refers to the Catechism of the Church about not judging people for their orientation. That is something that I have said here in Rhode Island over and over again. The Holy Father’s words are very engaging when he says those simple words “Who Am I to judge?” That’s been used a lot and it’s been abused a lot by those who want to further their own agendas, but it’s clear the Holy Father did not intend to change the teaching of the Church. I think everybody who studies it seriously knows what he meant by that, but it’s caused a lot of people, including bishops and cardinals a certain amount of angst in trying to explain what the Holy Father meant by his off-the-cuff-comments.

What is the most important issue facing Pope Francis and the Church at this point in history?

In the long run, the most important task he will have is to continue the process of evangelization. He has inherited the Year of Faith that Pope Benedict instituted and he has built upon that. But three popes now, John Paul, Benedict and Francis have all spoken about the need for the Church to evangelize, to move beyond our walls, to be proactive, to be present in the community, to be proud of our faith, to live our faith completely and to welcome people into our Church community. In the long run, that’s going to be his most significant challenge, because that’s a challenge that swings through generations of people. There are other very specific issues he will have to deal with – the reform of the Vatican bureaucracy and responding in a very proactive way to the sexual abuse crisis and encouraging vocations to the priesthood and religious life around the world, trying to re-establish the image of the Church where it has been tarnished in any way. These are all very specific tasks he will have going forward.

Are there any lessons that you would especially like to see your priests in the diocese take away from Pope Francis?

That sense of evangelization, of being very authentic in living out our vocation. That’s something that Pope Francis has encouraged in the Christian life – that sense of integrity for bishops and priests and the lay faithful of being true to who and what we are. And that sense of zeal, that it’s not just a game we are playing, that we really are called to be Disciples of Christ and Apostles of the Lord Jesus, and are really on fire with Christ in that desire to grow in personal holiness.

Without a doubt