My friend, the new Cardinal

Yesterday a man I know was appointed to the most exclusive clerical club in the world. He was made a cardinal of the Catholic Church by Pope Francis. It was a surprise appointment. No one expected his name to be on the list, least of all the man himself.

I have known Joe Tobin, Archbishop of Indianapolis, for more than 25 years. He was a member the Redemptorist general government in Rome when I first met him. One of his responsibilities was for youth ministry, with which I also was involved.

I remember a large gathering in Durham in 1994 – a Redemptorist mini world youth day event – when he gave up his comfortable bed to sleep on the ground in a marquee full of young southern Europeans who were frightened of the frogs that had sought sanctuary there after a day of constant rain. I remember the many football/soccer games he refereed even after he was elected head of the Redemptorists. Though some of his on field decisions were questionable to say the least, it was hard even for the most hot headed player to mouth off at the man who was the head Redemptorist. I remember how he preferred jeans and sweats to the formal clerical attire of his office. I remember his wonderful storytelling ability, his extraordinary capacity to remember names, and how grounded in the ordinary he always appeared even as he attained high office.

Once finished his two-term spell as Redemptorist Superior General, Joe went on a study break to England. Then came his surprise appointment to the Vatican as secretary for religious. It was a challenging post at a challenging time. The newly ordained archbishop found himself thrust into the middle of the doctrinal investigation of US women religious by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an investigation he strongly opposed. He lost that battle, being considered too sympathetic to the sisters, and was hustled far outside Vatican walls to be installed as Archbishop of Indianapolis in 2012.

Indianapolis is a vibrant, sports-mad city that is only about 10 percent Catholic, but the new archbishop quickly made his mark as an approachable, compassionate, eloquent pastor, who had, what Francis calls, the “smell of the sheep.”

He wasn’t typical of the US Catholic hierarchy which was full of John Paul II and Benedict XVI appointees, who tended to be politically and ecclesiastically right of centre culture warriors, constantly at loggerheads with the modern world rather than engaging with it. Joe Tobin is not a culture warrior, and nor does he favour lace over grace. He is one of the few bishops who goes to the Catholic Worker dinner held during the annual US Conference of Bishops meetings in November, rather than the formal grand banquet held in a plush hotel.

Last year he clashed with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, now Donald Trump’s running mate, over the politically sensitive issue of resettling Syrian refugees. Pence had announced that Syrian refugees would not be welcome in his state, citing concerns about terrorism.

The Catholic Charities agency in Indianapolis had been working to resettle a Syrian family at the time of the announcement, and Pence asked that they put those plans on hold. After a meeting between the two men, Archbishop Tobin announced that the diocese would continue with its plans to resettle the family, and did so.

Archbishop Tobin is also on record as supporting the idea of women serving as deacons in the Catholic Church. Needless to say, this idea, broached by Francis himself, is controversial, so it’s wonderful to have another strong voice for greater equality for women from within the college of cardinals.

Two years ago, when I was planning my sabbatical after 23 years in Redemptorist Communications, I asked Joe if he could accommodate me in his diocese for a couple of months, where I could lend a hand in a parish while at the same time having plenty of opportunity to read, write and unwind. He could not have been more helpful. I met and ate with him several times during my six weeks in Indianapolis, a time cut short due to my developing back pain. I was grateful for his kindness and generosity. As a cardinal and still only in his mid 60s, Joe is a man I will happily trust with helping to choose the next pope, though I hope that won’t be anytime soon.

The fact that Francis has chosen as cardinals pastoral men, moderate progressives, who know the smell of the sheep, is good news indeed. He wants men (wouldn’t it be great if there were women among them before long!) who share his vision for the church and the world. In choosing Joe Tobin, alongside others like Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, Francis has chosen well.

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Feeling broken on my second anniversary of chronic pain 

Exactly two years ago, life as I knew it came to an end. I went to bed on May 9, 2014 tired but excited about my sabbatical in America which was due to begin three days later.
But I noticed a pain in my lower back when I awoke on May 10. I wasn’t worried about it. I worked on my homily for the next day, which would be the last time for eight months at least, that I would be preaching in Rathgar. Then I went for my customary walk, which I was sure would iron out the pain that continued to nag at me, but by the time I got home the pain had intensified.

I cursed my luck. Imagine damaging my back right before heading off to America. It was the last thing I needed.

I got to see a doctor, a parishioner, and he filled out a prescription for me. Some anti-inflammatory medication, and I would be fine. And so off I went to Indianapolis, where I would spend the first weeks of my break, before then going to Boston College and finally to a retreat centre in the Arizona desert.

I had it all planned for months in advance. And I had worked so hard to get ready for it. I had written Mass commentaries for a whole year ahead; I had written our Christmas special in March! I had tried to make everything as smooth as I could for the guest editors who would be filling in for me in my absence. After 22 years, I would be able to enjoy time without the pressure of deadlines and budgets and keeping a small publishing house on the road.

It was going to be fun.

I flew to America on May 12, excited and as relaxed as I could be given the persistent pain in my lower back. But I was sure the pills would kick in and the pain would go away.

I was helping out in a lovely parish in downtown Indianapolis. There was so much to do and see and so many short trips out of town I had planned on making, but the pain would not go away. Instead it got worse. There are few things worse than falling ill in a country where you know few people and have no medical contacts. Eventually I found a chiropractor I could reach by bus, and after taking some x-rays, which indicated considerable wear and tear in the lower back, he promised to have me pain-free in three weeks. It would cost quite a bit, however.

I didn’t care about the money, I just wanted rid of the pain. I went to him three or four days a week. He put me on various machines and performed all sorts of manipulations, but nothing changed. The pain didn’t ease. It was getting worse, and I began to get increasingly concerned.

Finally, with the date of my Boston course drawing ever nearer, I made the decision to abandon the sabbatical and go home.

I was devastated, but I was sure that once home, my back would be swiftly repaired and I might even be able to return for the final leg of the sabbatical.

I remember the tremendous disappointment I felt back home in Dublin. I remember getting up in the middle of the night and wandering around the house, the pain preventing sleep, and shaking my head in disbelief. How could this be happening to me? And why had it to be now? I was in denial.

But denial quickly turned to frustration and then to self-pity, as every effort to treat the pain came to naught. I had four epidurals, and extensive physiotherapy. I tried acupuncture and ‘cupping.’ I went from one specialist to another, and none could help.

I remember receiving a whole series of injections into the muscles from one very prominent medic. At the end of the session, he asked me, “Do you feel better?” I shook my head and then he shook his. “There’s nothing more I can do for you,” he said, sadly. After I left his room, his nurse rushed to hold me. I was shaking and ashen and broken. “Can I get you water or something?” she asked. “A gun, if you have one,” I replied. I cried all the way home in the car that night.

And then I found hope. My doctor referred me to the man considered to be the top spinal specialist in the country. I was told that he only sees those he thinks he can help, based on his analysis of their MRI scans. So when he agreed to see me I was thrilled. Clearly, he thought he could help me. There was light at the end of the tunnel. The surgery was scheduled for May 20, 2015. The three weeks leading up to it were full of hope. I couldn’t wait to go under the knife. I couldn’t wait to be pain free after one whole year of agony.

I had the surgery. Four screws and a titanium bolt were placed in my back at L4/S1. The doc pronounced it a success. I should begin to feel better within a few weeks.

But it never happened. If anything, I felt worse, and the disappointment was tremendous. I was on more medication than ever before, I was spending longer in bed, I felt capable of doing nothing.

I began to see a counselor, and to try to practice mindfulness. I read several books on healing back pain and to read testimonies of people who had recovered from chronic pain. But nothing seemed to help me. Nothing worked.

And then a new scan showed that the screws inserted during my surgery were loose. The fusion had not healed. The surgeon recommended we do it again. And so I was full of hope once more. No wonder I still had pain with all those loose screws rattling around in my back.

The second surgery took place on November 2nd. The doc reported that no healing had taken place at all from the first op, that the bone was very brittle, and that he’d like to support the fusion by going in from the front via the abdomen. And so I had a second op on November 18th. It was tough. My blood pressure collapsed and they spent the night trying to get it back up.

I was just out of hospital when my father died unexpectedly, increasing my emotional turmoil.

Even worse, these surgeries were no more successful than the first, except that now I had seven screws instead of four. So bad was the pain that they took me back into hospital for two weeks before Christmas for pain management.

All the hope I had for the back surgeries turned to intense regret that I had them at all. So much pain, so much trauma to my body and for nothing.

The constant chronic pain has left me broken in mind and spirit as well as in body. So many days I have wept bitter tears. So many days I have given into hopelessness and despair. People have encouraged me to unite my sufferings with the sufferings of Christ and thus participate in the great mystery of salvation. But I must confess that this doesn’t help me much.

Many times in the last few months, as disappointment followed disappointment, I have considered ending it all. I cannot imagine going on for another year, not to mind the rest of my life, with this kind of pain. I am not able to endure it. I try to keep going for the sake of my mother and my family. Every day I make it through alive is one less day of pain that they would have to face.