Last chance saloon for the US bishops

This week the US Catholic bishops are making a retreat together in a centre outside Chicago. It is an unusual occurrence. At the request of Pope Francis, they have gathered for a silent retreat to discern God’s will for the church in the United States.

The retreat is in response to the terrible year that Catholics in America have suffered. Revelations about the appalling actions of former Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (and their cover up) as well as the fall out from state-level investigations into clerical sexual abuse have had a devastating impact. Many in America thought that, after the crisis had first blown up in Boston in 2002, the bishops had got a handle on it. The fact that someone like McCarrick could have been promoted afterwards, and that many of his colleagues turned a blind eye, has shattered trust between people and their bishops.

And so the US bishops were asked by Pope Francis to go on retreat together to pray and prepare to take action to deepen their commitment to keeping young people safe.

Bishops from around the world will then gather in Rome with Pope Francis from February 21-24 to discuss abuse and child protection. A lot is expected from this February summit. If nothing decisive comes out of it, if it is back to business as usual for bishops’ conferences and individual bishops throughout the world, if the Vatican itself does not act more decisively, then those who have remained loyal to the church through the trauma of the last 25 years will feel utterly betrayed.

This is last chance saloon time for the church to get it right. We can only hope the US bishops’ retreat and the prayers of the rest of us will move those in church authority to do what they should have done all along.

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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.