Sisters say new cardinal Tobin has 'great respect for religious life'

When Pope Francis named Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin as one of three U.S. bishops to be elevated to cardinal next month, Catholic sisters around the country rejoiced -- especially the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Monroe, Michigan.

As Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sharon Holland put it, calling Global Sisters Report from Monroe, "There's a lot of happiness in this big house of IHMs."

In many ways Tobin is the spiritual son of the sisters in Monroe. He had aunts and cousins who were members of the congregation, and, as a child, he was taught by the sisters at their Holy Redeemer elementary school in his hometown of Detroit. After Tobin was ordained as a Redemptorist priest in 1978 (the Monroe congregation was co-founded by a Redemptorist priest) he returned to Holy Redeemer parish where he served on the pastoral staff for two decades, working alongside the sisters.

Sr. Elizabeth Fleckenstein, whose time as principal of Holy Redeemer elementary school overlapped with Tobin's time as associate pastor -- and later pastor -- of Holy Redeemer parish, remembers Tobin as a champion of inclusiveness. In particular, she notes that when Holy Redeemer saw an influx of Hispanic parishioners, it was Tobin who brought the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking communities together.

"When they first came, we had two churches: the Hispanic [congregation] had their Masses in the basement and everybody else was in the upper church," she said. "Joe put an end to that. The [Hispanic] families were then absorbed in a very inclusive way so that we were no longer two separate communities celebrating liturgy but were celebrating together."

For Fleckenstein, Tobin embodies the Alphonsian spirituality shared by the Redemptorists and the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. And that's part of why she is so proud of his elevation to cardinal.

"In all my years of knowing Joe as a priest, as a bishop -- as a friend too -- I think he has always exemplified the qualities of a true shepherd," she said. "The kind of shepherd the church needs so badly right now, and the kind of shepherd that Pope Francis models and exhorts his priests and bishops to be. So I'm very proud, and I certainly was not a bit surprised."

Many people believe Tobin additionally proved what kind of shepherd he is by his apparent concern for U.S. sisters after the Vatican launched a controversial investigation of their congregations in 2008.

Tobin was appointed to the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life from which the investigation stemmed in 2010. "I've preached at women's retreats and listened a lot to them over the years," he said in an interview at the time. "Maybe I can offer a different picture of American women religious than the one that has been presented in Rome. My own impression is extremely positive." 

Although Tobin was only at the Vatican for two years, some observers point out that his time there coincided with a seeming shift in the Vatican's rhetoric toward the sisters -- Tobin himself saying the process before his tenure "didn't really" favor dialogue. Whether or not Tobin was responsible for the shift in tone, his brief time at the Vatican garnered him the moniker of "friend to the sisters."

Fleckenstein, for one, believes Tobin earned the name.

"I think he is very much a friend to the sisters," she said, "which he showed in Rome when he went to bat during the apostolic visitation."

And indeed, many U.S. sisters outside of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Monroe have a positive impression of Tobin, in large part because of his time at the Vatican during the apostolic visitation.

In an email to GSR, Leadership Conference of Women Religious president Mary Pellegrino, a Sister of St. Joseph, said that in his position at the Vatican, Tobin "was a significant support to the communities of women religious in the United States."

Ellen Maroney, president of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Scranton, Pennsylvania also told GSR that Tobin's actions at the Vatican garnered him much goodwill with sisters nationwide.

"His efforts on behalf of the sisters -- to meet with them, to dialogue with them — he was always forthright in that. And I think he won our respect," she said, calling Tobin "Christ-like" and "complete."

Sharon Holland is less enthusiastic about crowning Tobin "friend to the sisters," noting that the term was used frequently in a derogatory sense during the Vatican's investigation, with some even saying he was forced out of the Vatican for being too friendly to the sisters. She retired from the office of CICISAL the year before Tobin was appointed.

Nonetheless, Holland agrees that Tobin has had a positive relationship with U.S. sisters. Especially "his" sisters in Monroe.

"I think he understands religious life, and he has a great respect for religious life," Holland, who first met Tobin when he would come to Monroe to visit those of his relatives who were sisters in Monroe. "So in that sense, he could be called a friend of religious. He was a friend to us. I think he was a friend to anybody who he came to meet and who knew him."

Holland also agrees with Fleckenstein that Tobin is the kind of pastor Francis has been extolling in the first two years of his pontificate.

"I think -- I mean I haven't discussed it with him -- but I think he has very much the same approach to church as Pope Francis," she said. "I think Archbishop Tobin will be one more voice in moving toward a more positive, merciful and, for lack of a better word, loving church that's going out to the peripheries, to the poor, to people in need."

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is Global Sisters Report staff writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @dawn_cherie]

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