Archbishop Tobin Reflects on the Church as Communion

by Allison R. Shely


On Monday, March 24, the Church in the 21st Century Center hosted Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis in the Heights Room as part of its “Our Episcopal Visitor” series. This lecture series seeks to invite one or two bishops to campus each year for Boston College to share its way of living out its Jesuit mission and to learn from the bishops how it can be of greater service to the Church.


Archbishop Tobin, whose father played on the BC football team in the 1940s while a student here, met with Father Leahy and members of the theology department. His day concluded with this talk, entitled “Church-Communion: Roles in Relationship,” in keeping with C21’s spring theme of “Intimacy and Relationships.”

Archbishop Tobin, a Redemptorist, was ordained in 1978. In 1997 and 2003, he was elected Superior General of his order. In 2010, he was made Secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. He lived overseas for nearly 20 years as part of these roles, returning to the United States following his appointment as Archbishop of Indianapolis in 2012. Upon his return, he discovered a “sea change” in American Catholicism, a “drumbeat of discontent” found also in Ireland.


Drawing on his travels in Chile and Eastern Europe, where the clergy’s opposition to oppressive regimes inadvertently transformed into hostile opposition to each other, Archbishop Tobin believes the polarization and incivility of American politics has passed without challenge “into the heart of American Catholicism.” He cautioned against oversimplifying issues to facilitate placing blame. Finger pointing, he said, will only lead to defensiveness, which prevents one from examining the gap between one’s ideals and one’s conduct, which is the basis of a life of “continuing conversion.”


The image of a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage, is one that the Church has used to describe herself since Vatican II. Archbishop Tobin believes the Church has rightfully moved away from calling herself “a perfect society” or a “City of God” here on earth. Before his tenure, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis had been rocked by mismanagement of the sexual abuse scandal. The Church reaches her perfection only in Heaven. Yet, the destination is not the only important part of this pilgrimage: the communio between fellow travelers on a pilgrimage is what distinguishes them from tourists.


Communio requires diversity. In a world where more boundaries are being drawn, the Church must not exclude anyone in order to present herself as perfectly, pristinely beautiful. Pilgrimage is “not neat, tidy, or restricted to the spiritually superior.” Jesus himself broke down the boundaries of his day’s Judaism to eat with those considered sinners. Archbishop Tobin, referring to a 2005 synod on the Eucharist, regretted that despite all the Scriptural citations made, never were discussed the many references to Jesus eating with sinners. Asked what the conversation may have been had those references been introduced, Archbishop Tobin said he could not speculate.


He advocated dialogue as another way of showing love, for now “we talk about, not to, each other.” Dialogue can even be viewed as a “paradigm” of humanity’s relationship with God. Upon his return to the United States, one thing that shocked Archbishop Tobin was the prevalence of violent, battlefield imagery used in discourse, even by clergy. During the question and answer session following the talk, referring to the controversy surrounding the Health and Human Services contraception mandate, which he called “a little heavy-handed” on the part of the Obama Administration, he looked askance at those predicting martyrdom for bishops in the near future and said, “I don’t feel, personally, that sort of anxiety.”


Archbishop Tobin closed his talk by conveying two pieces of advice on dialogue he had learned from a fellow Redemptorist, one who worked, successfully, for peace in Ireland between the Nationalists and Unionists. The first was to bring everyone to the table, because “the group excluded will throw the bombs”. The second was to include women, whose presence and contributions changed the whole discourse. On that note, Archbishop Tobin called for an examination of “women’s particular gifts” and their place in the Church.


After finishing, he was greeted with enthusiastic applause.


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