PROVIDENCE — Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, a veteran of five “ad limina apostolorum” visits through the years to join brother bishops in reporting to the Vatican on the state of their dioceses, says his visit last week “to the threshold of the apostles,” and to Greater Rome itself was most likely his last.
It was a weeklong journey filled with nostalgia for Bishop Tobin, who made his first ad limina visit as an auxiliary bishop in Pittsburgh in 1993. He next made two visits as a diocesan bishop in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1998 and 2004, and the final two as Bishop of Providence, in 2011 and in 2019.
He was joined in Rome for this visit by Auxiliary Bishop Robert C. Evans and Administrative Secretary Father Jeremy Rodrigues and about two dozen other bishops and members of their local delegations representing the New England Region, during which the bishops had an unforgettable, two-hour meeting with Pope Francis at his papal office in the Apostolic Palace.
“I was very impressed by his humility and humanity. He could not have been more welcoming or more gracious,” Bishop Tobin said of the Holy Father.
Although Bishop Tobin was in the pope’s presence while celebrating a Mass in Washington, D.C., in 2015, during the Holy Father’s visit to the United States, this was the first time that he has met face-to-face with him.
In his meeting with the New England bishops, in which all sat in a semi-circle around Pope Francis in his office, just feet from the window in which the Holy Father appears each Sunday to deliver his Angelus address, the pope encouraged them to speak their minds about any topic they chose, even if what they had to say could be construed as critical of him.
“It was a conversation among brother bishops,” Bishop Tobin said.
“He did not want to set the agenda, but he encouraged the bishops to ask any questions they wanted to ask or to share any thoughts or insights, or even to criticize the pope if they wanted because he said we can learn when people criticize us,” the bishop noted.
“So he was very open, very candid and very humble, and he was just very warm and very genuine. I’m very impressed by the meetings with the Holy Father.”
When it was his turn to ask a question, Bishop Tobin took a more personal approach to some of the more serious questions asked earlier by other bishops. He asked Pope Francis to reflect on his own experiences as a bishop when he took part in ad limina visits himself not all that long ago.
“The pope would give very pretty complete reflections on the questions that were asked,” Bishop Tobin said.
Speaking in general terms, Bishop Tobin described the topics addressed the wide-ranging dialogue Pope Francis engaged in at the meeting as involving issues such as immigration, the role of women in the Church, evangelization, reaching out to people falling away from the church, as well as a follow-up on the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy year that the pope proclaimed beginning in late 2015.
The bishop said that Pope Francis also spoke about the liturgy, especially as interest grows in celebrating Mass in the Extraordinary Form, and how to accommodate the different needs of priests and people while keeping a sense of unity about the liturgy.
“His basic thrust was that we have to approach it in a very sensitive and pastoral way — especially with our priests — and that we should do our best to accommodate those who have various preferences or spiritual needs regarding the Mass, while at the same time maintaining the basic sense of unity in the liturgy and in the church,” Bishop Tobin said.
Near the end of their time with him, the Holy Father leaned forward and asked the bishops, “Now is there anything else you want to talk about?”
During the meeting, Pope Francis presented each bishop with a gold medallion of the Blessed Mother and Jesus.
Father Rodrigues, who, along with other priests visiting with the delegations, received a rosary from the Holy Father, thanked Pope Francis for inviting all to greet him.
“He was very gracious,” Father Rodrigues said of the Holy Father.
“Accompanying Bishop Tobin on this visit was certainly a very humbling and beautiful experience, especially on the part of the Diocese of Providence, we have so much to be proud of,” he added.
Because they stayed at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the simple, hotel-style accommodations on the Vatican grounds where Pope Francis has chosen to live because he did not want to live in the more isolated Apostolic Palace, members of the delegation also got to see the pope in his life behind the scenes.
Father Rodrigues said he saw Pope Francis on several occasions entering or leaving the dining hall where those staying or residing at Domus Sanctae Marthae would take their meals.
And he found it very interesting one day when he was held back for a while when he wanted to go for a walk in the Vatican Gardens after being told that the Holy Father was walking there.
Father Rodrigues noted that he had just seen Pope Francis in the residence, but the Swiss Guards told him that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was the one out for his daily walk there at the time.
Father Rodrigues, who also studied for the priesthood at Pontifical North American College, said he will never forget the experience of concelebrating Mass with the bishops at all the very important basilicas in Rome, as well as at the Tombs of SS. Peter and Paul.
“For me, as a priest, it brought me a connectedness with the universal church,” Father Rodrigues said. “It was a beautiful experience as a priest to do that. It was very moving to me as a priest to be able to be so close to the places of the church of spiritual importance, while also being able to have that freedom to pray at those places.”
Bishop Tobin said he found the interactions he had with his brother bishops to be excellent.
“At times it was very affirming and funny; it was very fraternal,” he said.
“Generally speaking, all of the bishops of our region have the same challenges in their diocese: The increasing sense of secularization and disaffiliation from the church, the need for evangelization — the need for reaching out to those who’ve fallen away through various pastoral programs, and also the same financial problems, questions about the closing of churches and merging parishes.
Much of the week was centered on attending an array of meetings with officials from the Roman Curia and Vatican dicasteries, including Father Christopher Mahar, of the Diocese of Providence, who is now serving with the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. He is serving at the request of Cardinal Peter Turkson, of Ghana, prefect for the relatively new dicastery, which is involved in the study on behalf of the Vatican of issues of concern in a variety of areas, including health care, immigration and refugees and the environment.
“It’s a very large and broad dicastery and Father Mahar is a key component of it. He is very highly regarded and respected among his peers, so it was good to visit that dicastery and have a good conversation about these issues,” Bishop Tobin said.
The bishop also praised the hospitality and willingness to be of service of the various officials of the Roman Curia that he and his fellow bishops met.
“I found, perhaps more so than the other times, the members of the congregations, the offices, were welcoming and very gracious and each one of them expressed the desire to be of service to the Church of the United States, to be of service to our diocese. That was true before as well, but this time it was a little more pronounced,” he said.
The bishops also concelebrated Masses at the four major basilicas of Rome and attended a reception at Pontifical North American College, where Bishop Tobin studied for the priesthood. The bishop returned later in the week to meet with Diocese of Providence Seminarian Patrick Ryan.
Bishop Tobin also visited San Onofrio Church, located not far from the college, where his late parents celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary while visiting him in April, 1972, as he was being ordained to the transitional diaconate on the road to the priesthood.
“Every time that I’ve been back in Rome I stop there to say a prayer for my mom and dad,” he said whistfully.
Bishop Tobin commended Bishop Evans for the tremendous work he did in organizing the trip on behalf of the New England bishops.
“The people of the diocese should be very proud of Bishop Evans,” Bishop Tobin said. “He was the one responsible for organizing this whole trip on behalf of the bishops of Region 1, and he did a spectacular job. It was up to Bishop Evans to arrange for the accommodations, transportation, the liturgies, the personal contacts, stipends, all the details involved in the very complicated, complex trip. All the bishops of New England, and the priests too, were very impressed by and grateful for Bishop Evans. No one knows Rome better than Bishop Evans. He was very impressive and we’re very grateful.”
Although Bishop Tobin playfully decried the “holy chaos” of Rome — it’s mind-numbing traffic, crowds, graffiti, and yes, hordes of tourists — he did find a strong upside to life in the Eternal City.
“You have a very strong connection to the faith there, with the historic and beautiful buildings, the churches, the Christian history in Rome and the devotion of all the pilgrims,” he said of Rome’s almost 2,000-year history as the foundation of the Catholic faith.
“I went back to places that were very important for me,” Bishop Tobin said. “I went to some of the shops that I had been to before. I went to some of my favorite restaurants, because for me, this was my last trip to Rome; I never expect to go back again,” said Bishop Tobin, who will retire in about three –and-a-half years and not be in office in the five- to eight-year span when the next ad limina visit will be required. Nor does he expect to make another personal pilgrimage to the Eternal City.
“This was my farewell tour of Rome,” he said. “It was a time of great emotion for me and great nostalgia. It was an important trip for me because I really don’t think I’ll ever go back again.”