By Elise Harris
In a sit-down interview with EWTN News Monday, Cardinal Joseph Tobin opened up about his appointment and his thoughts on the U.S. elections, as well as Pope Francis’ warning to cardinal’s against ‘polarization’ and his emphasis on mercy.
The new cardinal, who not only got his red hat Saturday, but was recently appointed Archbishop of Newark, admitted that all the changes he’s undergoing have “been difficult,” and, like Peter walking on the water, he’s had a few “sinking moments” in terms of getting distracted by everything, and is trying to keep his gaze fixed on the Lord.
He also spoke about the recent election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence as president and vice president of the United States, respectively, and how he sees the “polarization” Pope Francis spoke about in his homily to the new cardinals affecting the Church, particularly in the U.S.
As a remedy, Tobin suggested dialogue, saying Pope Francis’ insistence on mercy and stronger collaboration by talking things out is something “he didn’t just dream up,” but is in fact perfectly in tune with his predecessors, and is part of “a great movement of the Holy Spirit, which was the Second Vatican Council.”
Please read below for the full text of EWTN News’ conversation with Cardinal Tobin:
Q: A lot of people might have asked you this, but you were kind of the surprise pick in this year’s round of American cardinals. Why do you think the Pope chose you?
I think among those people you were talking about, there’s probably no one more surprised than I. I really don’t know why the Holy Father picked me. The best I can figure is because I’ve had a bit of international experience, for 20 years I worked outside of the United States, basically. And I have a couple of languages, but beyond that, you’d have to ask him.
Q: You’ve worked a lot in certain Vatican dicaseries, you’ve headed up a lot of investigations, and you seem to be the ‘go-to’ man on this point. Do you think he perhaps saw a competency there that prompted the decision?
Perhaps. I’ve had different experiences, which have given me maybe a greater sensitivity to some of the challenges facing the Church’s mission today. But I also have enough realism to know that my experience is limited, too. It’s a big world.
Q: You’ve had a lot of experience, and you’ve had a lot of changes recently, too. You were named cardinal, but also as the new Archbishop of Newark. How are you handling all these changes?
It’s really been difficult, because from a spiritual perspective I’ve been very distracted in prayer; it’s been hard to stay focused on Jesus and I consider that so important, because one of the scenes in Scripture that I identify so much with, because I like Peter, I’ve always kind of identified with Peter, and there’s a scene where Jesus is not in the boat with them and the storm is up and they’re really frightened and they think their lives are over and then they see this figure walking on the water, and they cry out in fear. And Peter yells something that I think is pretty silly. He says, ‘if it’s you, let me walk on the water.’ I would have said ‘calm things down,’ ‘get us home,’ ‘make it stop,’ but he said ‘if it’s you let me walk on water,’ and Jesus says ‘come.’ So he steps out of the boat and begins to walk. And the Gospel is pretty clear on this detail: as long as he can keep his eyes fixed on Jesus, he can walk, but when he’s more conscious of the wind and the waves, then he begins to sink. But Jesus pulls him up and says ‘oh man of little faith.’ So I think I’ve had a few of those ‘sinking moments,’ so I’ve been trying to get my eyes back fixed on him.
Q: As you are moving forward in this transition to Newark, they’ve never had a cardinal, so what are you hoping to do there, and what do you think the presence of a cardinal will do for the area?
Well I think that other than seeing somebody in red from time to time, what I hope to bring there is the possibility of being a good bishop for them. They may not have had a cardinal, but they’ve had a lot of good bishops and I think that that’s principally what I can bring, which is a pretty serious and daunting expectation. So I want to be a good bishop for the people of those four counties.
Q: I know you’ve probably been asked this a lot as well, but on the U.S. elections: I think many are anticipating that immigration is going to be a very big topic with this administration. You yourself have had conflicts with Pence about this in the past. Are you anticipating difficulty on this issue?
What I would say, and maybe this helps begin to answer your question, is that there were also a lot of things we cooperated on, and we worked very well together. We did have this disagreement about the question of barring Syrian immigrants from Indiana, and I think that probably in the aftermath, the courts have upheld the view that the archdiocese took, that we were actually following the law. But what I’m hoping is that the new administration will be interested in establishing a respectful dialogue with the bishops’ conference. We don’t govern the United States of America; there’s a government that does that, but I think the government, in reaching decisions aimed at the common good, should at least take into account the experience of the Catholic Church and its leadership. And I think on the other hand, we have to be respectful of the government and we have to pray for those who govern us while being conscious of what the Gospel calls us to be today.
Q: Given the fact that there are going to be things we’ll agree on and things we’ll disagree on, in your opinion, what do you think are the greatest opportunities that we already have for cooperation with this administration, and what are the areas you think might be problematic?
Let me use an example of where I’ve defended governor Pence, because I think it might illustrate a response to your question. The government was criticized very often in the media in Indiana for presenting itself as a Christian, American conservative. And the media or the people who disagreed with him said ‘you should present yourself only as an American.’ And I would say in his defense, to believing people, that sounds idolatrous. That you would put something else above your relationship with God. So what I would hope the administration would understand is that as believing people, nothing can come above our relationship with God. It’s a relationship that’s not just lived inside the walls of the Church, a synagogue or a mosque. It means that we live in a certain way and we hold certain values as part of it. Now for the longest time in the history of the United States, those values and the values of the government or as the society at large were not as contradictory as they can be, or at least as they feel in these recent decades. So I think because of that we owe it not simply to our life of faith to be authentic, we owe it because our faith is something good we can give to the people of the United States and the people of the world. So hopefully we’ll be able to cooperate with the new administration, and hopefully they will be open to listening to us and to the conclusions we’ve reached in our own life of faith.
Q: Turning to your appointment and the appointment of your brother cardinals, Cardinal Cupich and Cardinal Farrell, we were surprised to see that three Americans were named in this consistory. We expected one or two at most, but three was a surprise. Why do you think the Holy Father placed such an emphasis on Americans this time around?
Once again I’ll have to let myself off the hook, because it would be really interesting to ask him! I think it’s good for Americans to remember, as well established and as good as the Catholic Church is in the United States, in the global picture we’re only six percent of the Church, so we’re a really small little sliver and certainly I think, for better or for worse, we have a lot of opportunities to make a difference in the world and in the Church, but numerically, if that’s what you’re going by, we’re rather small. I don’t know why the Holy Father (did it). Maybe because some cardinals have retired in recent years – Cardinal McCarrick, Cardinal Mahoney, Cardinal Levada, and some have gone home to God, like my friend Cardinal Francis George. Perhaps he felt it was time to renew this particular ministry in the United States.
Q: I wanted to ask another follow-up question on the Pope’s homily. He spoke about the importance of staying united and not falling into polarized attitudes. The Holy Father is obviously bringing it up for a reason, so in your opinion, where do you see this polarization in the Church, and how can it be overcome?
I think he’s bringing it up because it’s a reality. It’s a reality because we live in a polarized world and there’s always a risk that (believers) uncritically adopt in the Church some of the tendencies, if you will, in the wider world. I’ve seen that in my work in other countries, for example in Eastern Europe. People there had little use for communism and had real reasons to oppose it and criticize it and finally make it fall. But some of the shadow side of communism affected the people living there. This sort of distrust that characterized people in a sort of Soviet-state, passed into the Church. I would visit communities say in Ukraine, or Belarus, where the priest did not want to talk to me inside the house for fear of being overheard. Well, that’s not the sort of confidence and trust we want to have in the body of Christ. I think coming back to the States after 20 years, I was a bit surprised at the degree to which the “red state, blue state” model has come into the Church, where we like to figure out a label we can put on somebody. So we’ll ask questions like ‘what do you read?’ or ‘what websites do you visit?’ That’s an important one for people. Because if I can figure it out, then I can put a label on you rather than saying ‘oh you’re a disciple of Jesus like me,’ or ‘I’m like you.’ But it’s rather ‘are you a real one or not? Because I figure I am.’ So I think that and the lack of dialogue at times in sort-of combative groups even within the Church, is another sign of this polarization the Holy Father was addressing. So I think the homily was beautiful because it was directed at real situations, and showing us just how important our work as cardinals would be, and addressing the polarization and providing an alternative to it.
Q: How do you think that can best be done?
The first encyclical Paul VI wrote during the Second Vatican Council was called Ecclesiam Suam, and among other things it proposed dialogue, not just as a nice way of talking with each other, but as a real way of loving each other and different characteristics of dialogue, of authentic dialogue, like meekness. I don’t believe that I have a corner around all the truth, but (that) I can learn something by listening to you. Confidence that God doesn’t want us to live in hermetically-sealed units. The ultimate mission is always the mission of Jesus from the heart of God. To do what? Well, to reconcile; we just heard it yesterday from the reading from Colossians. So I think that dialogue that is aimed at reconciliation is the greatest antidote to polarization.
Q: On the topic of dialogue, Pope Francis has been emphasizing the topic of dialogue and mercy a lot. In one of his interviews leading up to the close of the Jubilee, he spoke about how he sees it as the path of the Second Vatican Council moving forward, and that it takes a century to really unpack the fruits of it. Do you think that with this emphasis we’re starting to see on dialogue, on stronger collaboration to pull away from these polarizations and the emphasis on mercy, are we perhaps starting to see some of the fruits of the Council?
I think so. Certainly things coming out of the Council, once again referring to that encyclical, these are things Paul VI proposed, before you were born, in 1965, 1964. So it was out there, but I think it was always challenged too by these sort of centrifugal forces that fragment societies and threaten to fragment even the body of Christ. So you have a very good insight in that what the Holy Father is proposing, he didn’t just dream up. It’s part of, particularly, a great movement of the Holy Spirit, which was the Second Vatican Council. And if you look at the opening address of John XXIII, “Gaudet Mater Ecclesia,” “Mother Church Rejoices,” it’s astounding to see. You say, my God, Francis could have written that. But it means that he’s that much in tune with what’s happening.
Q: So What Francis is doing isn’t necessarily anything new?
No, no, no. It’s as old as the Gospel. And it’s as fresh as the challenges we face today.
Q: So do you think his emphasis on being open to the Holy Spirit is following the same path? That it’s perhaps what we’ve seen before? He talks about his predecessors a lot, so we see his predecessors doing the same things, but is Francis just doing it with a fresh gaze?
Absolutely. This openness, what you’re describing very well, is what goes by the fancy name of ‘discernment.’ I found it interesting in 2012, just the documents in preparing for the Synod on the New Evangelization, one of the preliminary documents mentioned the word discernment 24 times, so what it’s saying is that our mission today isn’t simply a recipe that we’ve had all along. What we have, we have to apply to the circumstances of today. And how do we do it? I think in that sense the Holy Father is following very closely to St. John Paul II and Benedict on the need for discernment, which is examining the signs and times and places in the light of faith.