“I will give you shepherds after my own heart.” Jer 3:15
In 1992, three months before I was ordained a priest, Saint Pope John Paul II offered an Apostolic Exhortation concerning formation for the priesthood. He began that exhortation, “Pastores dabo vobis,” by quoting and reflecting upon the words of Jeremiah. In his lengthy letter, the Sainted Holy Father reflected on the beauty and importance of the priesthood in the life of the Church. The primary purpose of the document was to propose a comprehensive renewal of priestly formation.
The document is rich with biblical and theological insight and focuses from the start on the call to trust and faithfulness. Saint Pope John Paul’s own priestly formation took place in extraordinary circumstances under the daily threat of arrest and death under Nazi tyranny. Of course, that formation proved an essential foundation for the same threats under the communist tyranny that succeeded Nazi rule in Poland. The Holy Father’s appeal to trust and self-abandonment to Divine Providence was deeply personal as well as biblical. He called upon all priests, and those in formation, to trust in the promises of God. It is there, in the faithful response to the call of the Good Shepherd that any shepherd finds his foundation, his model, and the grace to live the call.
Just as Saint John Paul had impacted my vocation as a high school student, his love of the priesthood and his exhortation to holiness and authentic shepherding in “Pastores dabo vobis” shaped my priestly ministry and my later work in formation as a seminary professor. As the new bishop of Providence, I continue to share his devotion to priests and priesthood. I have made it a priority to get to know our priests and to hear their counsel. I know that our own commitment to Christ-like ministry is key to the life of the parish and the proclamation of the Gospel.
In that same year of the Apostolic Exhortation, Bishop Thomas Tobin was ordained a bishop of the Catholic Church. Already ordained a priest for 19 years, Bishop Tobin went on to serve as an auxiliary bishop in Pittsburgh and a diocesan bishop in Youngtown, Ohio, and then here in Providence. As I considered his 50th anniversary of priestly ordination and his recent retirement as our chief shepherd, Saint Pope John Paul’s exhortation came to my mind. In particular, I am struck by the way in which Bishop Tobin has lived that call of trust and self-abandonment.
As coadjutor of Providence, I had privileged months to learn from Bishop Tobin and I continue to seek his sage advice. It has been clear to me from the start of our friendship that Bishop Tobin is a man of faith, integrity, unselfish service and courage. His faithfulness to the Lord and his Church has been exemplary. In the face of challenges, he acts and lives with confidence in the Lord and trust in God’s word. I find myself uplifted and strengthened by his example and encouragement. We have been so blessed by this man’s faithful priestly witness of 50 years, his 31 years of episcopal shepherding, and his lifetime of Christian discipleship.
Near the conclusion of “Pastores dabo vobis,” Saint Pope John Paul II addressed priests with words of personal gratitude: “Dear brother priests, you do this because our Lord himself, with the strength of his Spirit, has called you to incarnate in the earthen vessels of your simple lives the priceless treasure of his good shepherd’s love. (82)” Those words, written in the year that the faithful priest, Father Thomas Tobin, was ordained a bishop, sum up his 50 years of faithful service of God and devotion to God’s people. In Bishop Thomas Tobin, the Lord has indeed given us a shepherd after his own heart. Ad multos annos!