Religious Praise Vatican Appointment

Aug 20, 2010 | All, CMSM, Giles Hayes

Saying he hopes to offer Rome a “different picture” of women religious in the United States, the Vatican’s new No. 2 official for religious life says he suspects the choice of an American for that job, and one known to be sympathetic to women religious, may reflect awareness of “just how badly” a Vatican investigation of women’s orders has been received in the trenches.

Redemptorist Fr. Joseph Tobin spoke with NCR shortly after his early August appointment by Pope Benedict XVI as secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, colloquially known as the “Congregation for Religious.” It oversees affairs involving some 190,000 religious priests and brothers and roughly 750,000 sisters worldwide.

Tobin, 58, is a native of Detroit who served from 1997 to 2009 as superior general of the Redemptorists in Rome. He will become an archbishop by virtue of the appointment to the Vatican congregation.

Just days after the appointment was announced, Tobin made his debut as a soon-to-be Vatican official at the annual convention of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, held in Long Beach, Calif., where he had previously been scheduled to deliver a keynote address. More than 100 superiors of men’s orders in the United States were “enamored” with Tobin’s “personal presence,” according to Conventual Franciscan Fr. Paul Lininger, executive director of the conference.

“He’s a very human, ordinary guy,” said Benedictine Abbot Giles Hayes of St. Mary’s Abbey in Morristown, N.J., who was chosen as president-elect of the major superiors conference at Long Beach:

“He knows dozens and dozens of us personally, which is a very good thing for the American church,” said Hayes, only the second member of a monastic community elected to lead the conference since its inception in 1956.

Traditionally, the secretary of a Vatican congregation is the official who coordinates its day-to-day work, while the cardinal-prefect provides broad overall direction. Tobin’s role is likely to be all the more important in the Congregation for Religious given that its current prefect, Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rode, is already past the usual retirement age of 75 and is widely expected to be replaced soon.

Though Tobin will have broad responsibility for matters involving religious life all over the world, one hot-button challenge he inherits right away is the apostolic visitation of women’s religious orders in the United States.

“There’s a great deal of misunderstanding among American religious about the decisions of the Holy See, and in particular the visitation of women religious,” Tobin said.

“Maybe I can offer a different picture of American women religious than the one that sometimes has been presented in Rome,” he said. “My own impression is extremely positive.”

At present, the visitation is in what organizers refer to as “phase three,” meaning a series of on-site visits to women’s orders in America. It follows phase one, constituted by personal exchanges between the superiors of women’s orders and Sacred Heart of Jesus Sr. Mary Clare Millea, the coordinator of the visitation, and phase two, formed by written responses to questionnaires mailed to every congregation in the country.

The final phase will consist of preparing detailed reports on all 420 “units” of women’s religious life in America, meaning orders as well as their individual provinces, to be sent to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life during 2011.

In terms of what Rome does with that input, Tobin said he hopes to bring a fresh perspective.

“I feel I can bring something to that, because I’ve worked all my life with women’s religious,” Tobin said. “They taught me when I was a kid, and my mother’s family was very close to the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters. I’ve preached women’s retreats and listened a lot to them over the years.”

Tobin speculated that perhaps the choice of an American for the secretary’s role in the Congregation for Religious could “suggest some awareness of just how badly this thing [the visitation] has gone down.”

Tobin said his main aim will be to find a way to “bring life” out of the apostolic visitation, meaning to convert it into a positive experience.

Leaders in women’s religious life seem bullish about the appointment.

“Fr. Joe Tobin is held in high regard by U.S. men and women religious,” said an Aug. 3 statement from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

“He brings a breadth of knowledge of matters impacting religious life and has a wide range of experience and expertise. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious looks forward to working with him in his new position.”

Tobin said he anticipates being back in Rome to take up his new post sometime in early September.

Aside from Tobin, the other lead speakers at the major superiors convention were Passionist Fr. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union and a noted expert on scripture, as well as Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, himself a former superior with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

According to participants, George emphasized that religious life plays an essential role in the church, and led an informal discussion about the relationship between bishops and religious superiors. Hayes said that while George did not offer much new in terms of content, his “spirit of collaboration and openness” was encouraging.

Religious praise Vatican appointment.(Joseph Tobin)
National Catholic Reporter
August 20, 2010
John L. Allen