Tobin, Thomas J. Seraphina Press, Minneapolis, 2009. $13.95 ISBN 978-0979824692
Taking the pastoral and pedagogical role of being a bishop to a new level, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island has published the pick of his weekly columns in an accessible book. Well-known for his recent media appearance as he caught flack for warning Rep. Patrick Kennedy of the dichotomy between being a pro-abortion Catholic in the public sphere, Bishop Tobin has also been quietly publishing a weekly column, “Without a Doubt,” in his diocesan newspaper for over a decade. The column, perhaps, has proven to be an even more effective way of shepherding his flock.
“Effective Faith” isn’t a bombshell to the faithful, or even to the once-faithful or the not-so-faithful. Instead, it’s a nuts and bolts approach to being a Catholic. Bishop Tobin isn’t trying to scare his readers into going back to church. He’s not leaving a trail of cake crumbs leading towards heaven either. What each of his columns does is give a basic explanation of the Church’s teaching on a particular issue or a personal insight into daily life from the eyes of a real, live Catholic bishop.
The book is arranged into a series of logical categories pertaining to faith: Everyday Faith, Faith and My Life, Faith through the Season, and Faith through the Life of the Church. For those used to reading the prose of a very direct and doctrinal writer such as Archbishop of Denver Charles Chaput, Bishop Tobin’s prose, as well as the categories in his book, are neither so blunt nor so involved. That is not to say however, that he doesn’t know his faith, his doctrine, or what it means to be a human being facing very real human choices.
Bishop Tobin also adds a spot of humor as he brings the faith to the daily life. In a column on racism, for example, he recounts being at a gas station when a car pumping the bass pulled up behind him. He immediately thought, “Why are these young black guys always so arrogant? Why do they have to inflict their obnoxious music on everyone else?” Then, the good bishop turned around to see a skinny white kid with blond hair and blue eyes get out of the car.
However, humor isn’t the only means Bishop Tobin employs to make his point. His columns are filled with personal anecdotes, common Catholic experiences, reactions to problems people have presented to him, and direct advice when necessary. For example, if you are faced with a dilemma where faith and work collide, “Quit your job and save your soul,” he advises.
While the frequency with which quotes from statements by the USCCB appear in the columns is rather overwhelming, (one would really rather Tobin, who, as a bishop, is an authority himself, use his own phrasing), the doctrinal value of each column is sound. And for today’s church, which unfortunately hosts some of the most poorly catechized generations in living memory, the book is a great guide to what day to day faith looks like.
Don’t read the whole book at once. It’s not a novel. It’s a compilation of life experiences. Life isn’t lived; faith isn’t lived, all at once. It’s lived in the day-to-day. So read slowly and meaningfully as Bishop Tobin reflects on the role of a pastor and whether or not yours is really tearing your parish apart; on gay marriage and whether or not two consenting adults means the same thing as a sacramental bond with eternal aspirations; on abortion and whether your right to live your faith ends in the voting booth; and what the Dalai Lama needs most for Christmas.