(from Baltimore) Joseph Tobin, Cardinal of Newark, in the diocese of New Jersey, just across Manhattan, walks towards me with an outstretched hand and an open smile. We’re in Baltimore, where the annual meeting of the US Bishops’ Conference is taking place. It’s one of the many intervals between sessions; we meet in a corridor crowded with bishops and secretaries. We find a quiet area where we can talk. “I am Joseph”: that’s how he introduces himself most of the times, with simplicity and with no title, flooring his interlocutors, as he did past June when he welcomed a few hundred people from the LGBT community of his State and of the city of New York in his Cathedral. He introduced himself simply as “Joseph” even when a few months after his appointment he attended a hearing at the Immigration Agency in defence of a migrant of his diocese who risked deportation. For Cardinal Tobin an attitude of welcome always starts with a name, and also in this he fulfils the mandate assigned to him by Pope Francis, upon his appointment: to develop “a culture of encounter”, even when the soil is impervious and unfavourable to new seeding.
Which challenges is the US Church called to face at this moment in time?
In my opinion the fundamental challenge we need to address is to bridge the divide that is separating faith and everyday life. Here in the United States there is a growing tendency to convince people that they should devote a specific time to the faith and to the Church, while there is no room for religion during the rest of the week and in everyday life. The spiritual realm is confined to worship, to Sunday Mass, but true faith is excluded from daily life. Indeed, the challenges are many: young people, migrants, protecting unborn life, but I am concerned about this growing breach.
How are you addressing this challenge in your diocese?
My diocese counts 1.6 million Catholics, 40% of whom are Hispanics. The preparation of the V Encuentro nazionale (a process for reflection and mission of the US Church with Latin American communities and ministers) is a great grace, a gift that leads people to reflect on their own lives, to initiate a path of grace and see God’s presence in everyday life. It is one of the answers, but we are also present in the areopagus of modern times, such as the world of migrants and excluded people, as well as universities. In my diocese we decided to give priority to pastoral care at universities, since a lot needs to be done in this area.
The poor, the victims of natural disasters, are knocking on the doors of the Church and of the United States of America. Solidarity during the hurricanes was expressed with 21 million dollars collected in six weeks, but there are also controversial political decisions. What is your opinion in this respect?
I have shared a reflection with my community, starting with a question: which measures does this government consider a priority and to what extent are these measures distant from US ideals? There is a faithful from my archdiocese (the Irish sense of humour here is perceivable, Ed.’s note), that is famous worldwide, she’s green and she holds a torch in her right hand: it’s the Statue of Liberty that many link to New York, but it actually belongs to the diocese of Newark (we laugh over the known competition between the opposite shores of the Hudson River, Ed.’s note). For millions of people that statue was a gateway to freedom, and it constantly reminds us of the immigrants and the ideals of welcome and reception of this Country: also my grandparents were immigrants.
Today, closing the doors to migrants, with horrible language, is not only alien to Christian ideals, it’s also alien to the history of this Country. This should be borne in mind.
The same is true for environmental protection. The Holy Father gave a precious contribution, connecting environmental abuse to abuse of people, of poverty, and thus all decisions that run counter to these values should be debated.
Is the US Church listening to the poor?
Jesus teaches us to be as innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents. We made the first step that is to be doves, but our prophetic voice has grown muffled. Except for some themes, such as the defence of life, in other areas that involve the dignity of the human person we must act as the most courageous advocates.
Before this assembly of bishops, and the wide range of challenges that lie ahead, we observe the emergence of strengths and weaknesses. What are your reflections in this respect?
The opportunity of this gathering is certainly a strength, but unfortunately it happens only once a year. It should take place more often, the fact that it doesn’t is a critical aspect. Another positive aspect, which is also a typical feature of US culture, is evaluating the results, namely, being able to identify what went wrong in major projects. This helps us understand at what stage we’re at and how to proceed.
What are the critical aspects?
As previously mentioned, in my opinion the fact that this is the only opportunity to convene, to make plans and to debate, is a weakness, since our June meeting is centred on our spiritual formation.
For example, there is the need for more occasions to discuss the pastoral aspects linked to the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia. We have carried out a joint reflection on this issue; our people are victims of blogs and disinformation.
When I was in Rome I was told that 85% of all world news on the Exhortation comes from the United States where only 6% of the overall population are Catholic, and many of these news items are useless to formation, in fact only few are at the service of the Magisterium. We ought to carry out joint reflections on these issues, but we still need to identify the best structure that will further frequent reflections and address such complexities.
Is there widespread awareness of the fragility of families and of their problems, as the Exhortation points out several times?
The Church is fully aware of the challenges, the problem is how to address them: must we continue being firm in our position or should we do otherwise? In my opinion, before reaffirming the rules, we should return to Gospel proclamation, especially in peripheries, then we can start speaking of moral answers. But the Gospel is a priority.