On a cool Roman morning in November of 1998, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin arrived at the Apostolic Palace for his ad limina audience with the pope. John Paul II named the now 50-year-old Tobin a bishop six years ago, but after seeing the youthful man in front of him, the Holy Father exclaimed, “You’re very young to be a bishop!” With a big smile, a brave Tobin responded without pretense, “With all due respect, Holy Father, that’s your fault!” The pope clearly appreciated the good humor and candor of the young bishop. John Paul II would raise Tobin to further dignity in the Church, naming him to the most Catholic state in the Union as eighth bishop of Providence.
As the Church of Providence honors his retirement as diocesan bishop and celebrates his golden jubilee of priestly ordination, we do well to recall Bishop Tobin’s amusing encounter with the Vicar of Christ on earth. Certainly, it demonstrates the integrity of a man who eschewed sycophancy and self-promotion, and whose inner joy meant he never took himself too seriously. But it also provides a window into a disciple who followed the Lord’s call wherever the Master led him. This attitude also characterized his ministry as bishop.
As successor to the apostles, Bishop Tobin referred to himself as an earthen vessel: a human instrument with strengths and weaknesses who marveled not at his own greatness, but God’s. Humility like this allowed Bishop Tobin to preach the truth without fear of reprisal. The episcopal motto he chose, following the injunction of St. Paul, reminded Bishop Tobin to be “strong” in a culture which often laughs at the Church’s ostensible irrelevance in the public square. Inner strength allowed this shepherd to focus on his flock in spite of the wolves. Bishop Tobin often defended the most vulnerable among us, from the infant in the womb to the immigrant at the border. No ideology or political party could inhibit the strength of his voice, which won him admirable fans, but also formidable foes. Such is the life of a disciple. No servant is greater than his Master.
Those who had the privilege of knowing Bishop Tobin personally saw that for all his strength, he also daily lived the last two virtues of his episcopal motto — characteristics which made him “loving” and “wise.” Astute observers witnessed this priest of Jesus Christ reach out personally to families battling the rising costs of heat during a rough winter. When I traveled with the bishop to Emmanuel House, the diocesan homeless shelter he founded, I noticed how easily he could crack a joke about his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers with a resident and avid Patriots fan. The two men interacted as if they had known each other for years. I came to learn that they had. The bishop knew his flock, and he loved them. When he celebrated the closing Mass for our diocesan sesquicentennial, Bishop Tobin’s eyes welled up with tears before the flock entrusted to him by Pope Saint John Paul II. As much as he remains a son of Pittsburgh, Providence won his heart in the end.
I would hazard to guess that Bishop Tobin loved his priests most of all — especially those tempted by discouragement in challenging times. At priest gatherings, he shared with us wisdom gained from years of experience as a priest and bishop. He recalled a lesson he learned from Pope Saint John XXIII, who would visit the Blessed Sacrament every night, and say to the Lord Jesus, “Well, I did my best today. It’s your Church, Lord. I’m going to bed.” Bishop Tobin did not mean to invoke a cavalier attitude among his priests, but chose to remind us that ultimately, the Lord is in charge. In the final analysis, that means everything will be okay.
When I first met Bishop Tobin as a freshman at Bishop Hendricken High School in 2005, I sensed the strength of a man whose presence commands respect. As a seminarian, I came to admire that strength lived publicly. As I worked on his staff, I observed a dutiful administrator whose kindness knew no limits. But as a priest, I came to witness the tangible love of a bishop who really did care about his people, who suffered when they suffered, and rejoiced when they found joy; of a bishop who knelt before the tomb of his predecessor seeking that holy man’s heavenly intercession for the People of God.
I noticed a bishop who saw in his brother priests good men who really were trying their best, and whom he would defend as much as he defended his bride. I saw the wisdom of a shepherd who did not disdain the tiring work of protecting the flock, but also rested each day knowing that the Good Shepherd would always keep watch when he couldn’t. I think, in the end, that’s why Bishop Tobin could joke so easily with the pope in 1998. He knew that, ultimately, in the designs of Providence, it was “God’s fault” he was a priest and bishop, even a Christian man. It’s God’s “fault” any of us are here at all. Grace is everything. With the faith that comes only from God, who made him strong, loving, and wise, Bishop Tobin placed his ministry and life in the hands of the Lord Jesus, knowing the Church belongs to God, and everything will be okay. We do well to follow that sage advice as we thank Bishop Tobin for serving the Church so faithfully these past 50 years.
Rev. Nathan J. Ricci, J.C.L., is the Vice Chancellor of the Diocese of Providence, Administrative Assistant to the Bishop, and Theological Adviser to the Rhode Island Catholic.