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Profile: The American 'CEO' of the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious
By Alan Holdren, Rome Correspondent
Archbishop Joseph Tobin
Archbishop Joseph Tobin

.- Archbishop Joseph Tobin, the American who serves as secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, is no stranger to community life.

He grew up with 12 brothers and sisters. He made his vows to religious life through the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, or Redemptorists, almost 40 years ago.

He is the son of a father who played in the Orange Bowl as a freshman at Boston College and a mother who courageously provided for the 13 kids after his early death.

The robust 58-year old archbishop is an athlete himself. He last took to the ice for a hockey game at Christmas.

Archbishop Tobin's vocation to the Redemptorists came in Detroit where his dad worked at the General Motors plant and the family went to a parish run by the order. "I think growing up I knew these fellas and I wanted to be like them," he recalled.

The missionary order carries on the work of 18th-century founder St. Alphonsus of Liguori, reaching out to poorest and most abandoned. Much of their work is down in schools, parishes and missions.

He began his priestly ministry with Hispanics in the late-1970s which eventually led him to Chicago. It was there, in 1991, when he first got the call that his order was considering him for a position in Rome.

"I received that phone call with a Bible under my one arm — a Spanish Bible — a hot dog in my hand and thinking of playing hockey that night," the archbishop recounted with a laugh. He told his superiors at the time, "you tell them that in Rome if I can teach Spanish Bible circles, eat hot dogs and play ice hockey, I'm your guy."

Archbishop Tobin has been based out of the city for nearly all of the 20 years since that day. He began as general consultor for the order's international operations and, in 1997, was elected to serve as the superior general.

The election put him at the head of what are now 5,500 international consecrated members working in 77 countries.

Through the position, he said, he came in contact with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when a Redemptorist got "a little off track" in his moral theology.

He remembers the future Pope Benedict XVI as "tremendously spiritual, very intelligent, and very simple ... deep without being complicated, which is interesting."

As superior general, he made it to every corner of the earth where the Redemptorists have communities and after two six-year terms, he thought he had moved on from Rome for good.

"I left Rome in November of 2009 thinking I had said goodbye to the Eternal City and then in July of 2010 I got the call to come back."

This time, the call came while he was on a sabbatical year, studying at Oxford University in England after a stay at the Trappist Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. There was word that the order's mission in Cuba might be in his future.

"I guess there was a different plan," he said.

The Pope appointed then-Father Tobin to his current position as secretary of the congregation for religious last August. And he was in Rome to start work a month later.

"There's a whole lot to learn," he said, still less than six months into the job.

The work, he said, is a lot like that of his previous position as leader of the Redemptorists, but with some major differences.

Learning the realities of monastic life and women's religious orders have been new for him. Getting used to his role as a bishop and living outside of community for the first time in his life have also made for changes.

The Vatican department was not completely unfamiliar ground. In Rome, in addition to being his order's superior, he was vice president of the international men's religious Union of Superiors General and served as a member of the Council of 16, a group of international men's and women's congregation leaders. These positions put him in periodic contact with the officials from the congregation for religious.

He described his position as "CEO," whereas the head or prefect of the congregation is like the "chairman of the board.” He works to coordinate the 40 men and women working in the office and corresponds with other Vatican departments. He sees that the prefect has more responsibility for the general policy and reports directly to the Pope.

As secretary, his new job is "day-to-day service ... to the million or so men and women of consecrated life around the world," he said.

While that job description awaited him when he walked in the door, he has learned that the scope of his position is "just about anything" to do with Catholic religious life on the globe.

He described the role of the department as one of helping communities in times of need or discernment and assisting them in dealing with other circumstances that may arise. They promote mutual awareness between orders and local bishops when there are misunderstandings, for example.

As he begins to settle into his duties, another new arrival will be forthcoming. Pope Benedict XVI appointed a new prefect, Archbishop Joao Braz de Aviz of Brasilia, to take the reigns from the 76-year old Vincentian Cardinal Rode, his now former superior.

Archbishop Braz de Aviz was appointed on Jan. 4 and due to arrive in the Vatican soon.

The two archbishops have not yet met, but the secretary said he has written his new superior to welcome him.


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