A bishop reflects on 45 years of priestly ministry

“I like to say that I was not ordained to be irrelevant,” says Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island. “The Church, and bishops in particular, have a prophetic role.”

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island.

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, 70, of Providence, Rhode Island was born and reared in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1973. He served in a variety of parishes within the diocese, and as vicar general and general secretary. In 1992, he was ordained an auxiliary bishop. In 1996, he was installed as bishop of Youngstown, Ohio. He was named to his current role as bishop of Providence in 2005.

He has become known as an outspoken defender of Church teaching. He has been active in efforts to end abortion, and was a leader in the ultimately unsuccessful effort to preserve traditional marriage in Rhode Island. He writes a biweekly column, “Without a Doubt,” for his diocesan newspaper, and has authored two books on faith: Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life and Effective Faith: Faith that Makes a Difference. He also has made many appearances in the media.

Bishop Tobin recently spoke to CWR about priestly vocations, demographic challenges, cultural struggles over life and marriage, and the Met Gala, among other topics.

CWR: In a recent letter to your people, you spoke about changes coming to the Diocese of Providence, specifically in regard to parish and school consolidations and closures. Can you discuss what some of these changes are?

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin: What is happening in Providence is similar to what is happening in other dioceses in our part of the country, and in dioceses throughout the world. We have an aging population, and a declining Mass attendance and sacramental practice. We also have an aging clergy and fewer priests, so we must make adjustments in our diocese accordingly.

These changes are being driven by common factors across the Northeast and Midwest. In my home Diocese of Pittsburgh, for example, they’ve announced a massive reorganization of parish life. You’ll find the same thing going on in the dioceses near us, such as Boston, Fall River, and Hartford.

CWR: One of the points you have made is that if people don’t have as many children, the diocese doesn’t need as many Catholic schools. Do you think there is a need for the laity to be more open to the gift of human life?

Bishop Tobin: That would be wonderful. In Rhode Island especially, we have a very rapidly aging population. According to one recent public report, the population of children and youth in Rhode Island, meaning those up to age 18, has plummeted 15 percent in the past 15 years.

This has affected the school population, parochial as well as public, which has declined something like 20 percent. We’re rapidly aging; it’s not happening gradually. This, in turn, impacts other areas, such as our sacramental programs, our religious education programs, and vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

It would be wonderful if we had more Catholic families and more children.

CWR: Last year, you ordained three men to the priesthood, but noted that in the previous eight years, 58 priests had left active ministry while only 18 were ordained. The average age of priests in Providence was 68. How is Providence for vocations to the priesthood and religious life?

Bishop Tobin: If I may be candid, this has been my major disappointment as Providence’s diocesan bishop: the few vocations we’re getting. We have 14 seminarians, who are undergoing an eight-year period of formation. That’s abysmal; we should have two or three times that number. It is a great challenge, and an area of great frustration for me.

It’s going to continue to affect the diocese. We have many priests in their 60s or 70s, but only 21 under the age of 40. If I knew how to solve this problem, I would. I’ve tried everything to promote vocations. I have two great young priests involved, and we do Holy Hours and pray for vocations during Confirmation ceremonies. Our vocations directors reach out to parishes and schools. I don’t know what else to do.

CWR: How do you compare to the surrounding dioceses as far as vocations go?

Bishop Tobin: I think their situation is similar. There is a dearth of vocations in this part of the world, although some dioceses are doing better than others. I wish I knew what the key to success was.

CWR: Why do you think there are so few vocations?

Bishop Tobin: The reasons are clear and well documented. We have a lack of young people in our Church and diocese. We live in the Northeast culture of very aggressive secularism, which affects the Church and political life. There is the challenge of excessive concern about human sexuality, which results in lots of confusion about marriage and family life.

If you go back to what Pope St. John Paul II said in regard to priests: we’re living in a time of practical and existential atheism. People no longer bother to deny the Faith, but live without God. He hits the nail on the head. The atheist culture in which we live is taking its toll, and it’s going to take 25 or 50 years to change.

CWR: What advice would you offer a young man considering a vocation to the priesthood?

Bishop Tobin: I would encourage him to pray very hard about it. He should talk to some trusted individual counselors, such as his parish priest, high school chaplain, or campus minister.

One of the keys for young people, I believe, is to create a space for silence. We are inundated with technology and social media. We’re constantly plugged into phones, ear buds, computers, and tablets. And, if we’re plugged into things, we have no real space for silence for ourselves. This silence is critical to discerning a vocation and the moral life. We need it to get a sense of direction; it is a space we need for ourselves and for God.

CWR: You recently visited St. Philip Parish in Greenville to celebrate Mass for the parish youth group. What do you think is an effective way to get young people involved in the Church?

Bishop Tobin: Personal contact at the local level is key. Kids need to be part of a good parish youth ministry program.

I don’t think anyone becomes a priest because of the bishop. We don’t have that direct daily influence on people. When a young man becomes a priest, he points to other priests who encouraged and inspired him. The same is true for the general involvement of youth in the Church.

CWR: A survey from the Barna Group indicated that Providence, Rhode Island is the fourth most secular city in the US. How do think what was one of the most Catholic states in the country became this way, and how can the laity best cooperate with you to turn things around?

Bishop Tobin: Catholics need to be involved in the local parish. That’s how the Catholic Church works. At the diocesan level we can put on some terrific programs and beautiful liturgies, but regular involvement at the local parish is key.

It begins with going to Sunday Mass. I’d guess our Mass attendance among Catholics in Providence is about 20 or 25 percent on a typical Sunday. Imagine if everyone came to Mass every Sunday like they did on Easter or Christmas. We’d have a different Church. We’d have more vocations, financial resources, and influence on the culture. People are not involved in the Faith and spiritual things as they should be. I’m grateful for those who are involved—we have some terrific active Catholics here in Providence—but the numbers just aren’t there.

CWR: You’ve been a bishop 25 years, and a priest nearly 45. What are your reflections on your years in ministry?

Bishop Tobin: It has been a year of milestones for me. I turned 70. I’ve been a bishop 25 years and a priest 45.

When you start out as a priest or bishop, you can’t begin to predict the future. I was given a particular ministry, and I did as well as I could in the place and circumstances in which I found myself. I had no idea what the future would hold. You just have to move forward with a sense of trust and faith. You have to trust that all will be okay, and that God is in charge.

CWR: You participated in a recent 40 Days for Life demonstration. What was it like, and why did you want to participate?

Bishop Tobin: That was on Ash Wednesday, one of the days the group had been promoting. My participation was not unusual; I’ve done it in the past, both here in Providence and outside of the diocese. I have made respect for life one of my primary goals as a bishop. It is the primary moral challenge of our time, especially relating to the unborn. I was ordained in 1973, the same year Roe v. Wade was announced. So, in a sense, the pro-life issue has paralleled my own work as a priest and bishop.

CWR: You were active in efforts in your state in support of traditional marriage. What was your reaction when you learned that the Supreme Court mandated same-sex marriage in all 50 states, and where do we go from here?

Bishop Tobin: I was terribly disappointed when it passed in Rhode Island, despite the strong presence of the Catholic Church and the large number of Catholics in our general assembly. A number of Catholic legislators neglected our faith, which was heartbreaking. It wasn’t long after that that the US Supreme Court announced its decision.

Same-sex marriage is one more influence eroding and chipping away at the importance of marriage and family life. I don’t know if we can legislatively turn things around, as it’s become ingrained in our culture. But we can continue to promote our understanding of marriage and family life. We may not win, but we must be faithful.

CWR: You’ve expressed a concern that the rights of business-people who want no part of same-sex marriage—such as florists, photographers, and owners of wedding venues—be protected.

Bishop Tobin: Yes, those involved in public commerce have a right to have their consciences protected. It is a question of religious freedom. If a baker doesn’t want to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, or a florist doesn’t want to provide flowers, they should have the right not to.

This is not discriminating against gay people. If a gay person wants to buy a cake or flowers as an individual, I’m sure the baker or florist would be happy to sell to them. But, what they are saying in regards to same-sex weddings is that they cannot in good conscience participate in them.

Suppose I were a white racist, and I were planning a cross burning. I want to order pizza to feed those involved. The storekeeper who turns me down would be seen as a hero, as he should be, for not participating in an immoral event. In the same way, if I don’t want to support a same-sex wedding, I should have the right not to.

CWR: Michael Smalanskas is a student at Providence College, a Catholic institution, who was threatened by others on the campus because he created an on-campus display in support of traditional marriage. You applauded him for his efforts. Have you had the chance to meet with him?

Bishop Tobin: Yes. I was very impressed with him. He is a fine, fighting young man.

CWR: It seems odd that this should be a controversial issue at a Catholic school.

Bishop Tobin: There are a lot of different components involved. I have a lot of respect for Providence College. It is a great school, with a great tradition for being strong in the Faith.

However, the campus has many different residence halls and campus ministers who may have a different agenda. It’s hard to keep them all moving in the same direction at the same time.

Overall, Michael did his best to try to promote traditional marriage, and he should be commended. Young Catholics need to be strong in their faith, and do so in a prudent and charitable way.

CWR: Fifteen American and European clergy recently released a plea to the world’s bishops to “reaffirm Christ’s teaching” in the face of a “pastoral crisis” in the Church. They worried about “gravely harmful moral errors” about living the teachings of Christ and the role of conscience. There have been a number of public statements of this type that could fit into a general category of asking Rome for greater clarity in regards to Church teaching in areas people might find difficult. Do you share similar concerns?

Bishop Tobin: I have read about the statement. A point I recently made about these discussions of national and international issues, however, is that they don’t often reach into the pews. I go around the diocese a lot. I’ve been with thousands of people in liturgies and other such public activities, and not one person has come up to me to agonize about Amoris Laetitia, for example, or some of the Pope’s other outreaches.

The concerns I typically hear are, “Is my church going to stay open?”, “Will my priest be transferred?” or “Will my parish school stay open?” I find that our people are more concerned about local issues as opposed to broad topics of debate.

That’s not to say that such discussions are not important. They affect the direction of the Church and are important. But what I’m finding is not confusion at the parish level, but apathy. I could survey people’s opinions on Amoris Laetitia, and my bet is that most would say, “What’s that?”

CWR: The Bavarian government recently decided to hang crosses in public buildings as a sign indicating the region’s Christian history. One prominent Catholic bishop objected to the decision saying that it would cause “division” and “play people off against one another.” Other bishops disagreed with him. What side of the issue do you come down on?

Bishop Tobin: I know nothing about the law or the state of the church in Bavaria, but my general sense is that we have an obligation to keep God present in our society. We do no one a favor if we scrub religion from our society. It leaves us rudderless, without a foundation.

Anything we do to express the reality and presence of God is valuable and legitimate, especially in a society that is primarily Christian. It is an expression of the culture.

CWR: Last Monday, the Met Gala was held in New York. The theme of the event was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Among the highlights were singer Rihanna dressed in an ornate bishop’s outfit with a miter, singer Katy Perry dressed as an angel with large feathered wings. There were also many crosses, Marian and Sacred Heart images, and outfits inspired by vestments. What was your reaction to the gala?

Bishop Tobin: My first impression is that it was a feeble and failed attempt to make the Church relevant or cool. They crossed the line if their intention was to build a bridge between faith and fashion. Building a bridge is fine, but the road has to be going in a good and positive direction.

I think it was a well-intentioned effort, but the Vatican’s focus was more on the art exhibit featuring liturgical apparel. They didn’t understand how the gala would be used and abused.

CWR: You’re quite outspoken on the issues to the day, particularly as they relate to the Catholic faith. Many of your fellow bishops are not. Where do you think this willingness to “mix it up” in the public arena comes from?

Bishop Tobin: I haven’t hesitated to get involved in public debates. I hope I do so in a respectful way.

Our Church needs to be involved in public issues in a respectful and balanced way, as we’re the salt and light of the world. I like to say that I was not ordained to be irrelevant. The Church, and bishops in particular, have a prophetic role.

About Jim Graves 147 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.

7 Comments

  1. The lost art of family prayer is the big reason for a serious lack of vocations, Mass attendance, and living a Sacramental life.

  2. I am not sure how else to get a message to those in charge of this, but the new continuous advertisement at the bottom of the page is very distracting and honestly smacks of a flagrant marketing unbefitting a Catholic publication.

  3. Want Vocations? Encourage large families. That’s where vocations come from. that is where vocations have always come from.

    Perhaps we can take a few lessons from the Mormons and anabaptists, at least those compatible with Church Teaching.

  4. Bishop Thomas Tobin one of the bright stars among faithful prelates speaking his mind openly and fearlessly. Insofar as vocations my sense thru the years is the only decisive remedy contra an increasingly secularized Church and culture is the preaching and example of priests preaching as fearlessly and convincingly as Tobin representing in their personal lives the mystery and fire of the Cross of Christ.

  5. I think Bishop Tobin is one of the better bishops the Church has. He has tried to do what he could to increase priestly vocations and get people back to practicing the faith. Here’s one thing he hasn’t tried: Take a page from the Mormons and invite every 18 year old Catholic youngster to spend two years as a missionary, evangelizing across the world. It worked for the early Church, why not now? Financially support those willing to go on mission and then see what graces accrue.

  6. The Archdiocese that I live in has had a full Seminary for years. Catholics are having children, parents are homeschooling and are active in their parishes. I believe the high number of parishes with perpetual Adoration is key to vocations. There is a correlation here and it is a beautiful one. Catholics need to be evangelized. Fifty years of no formation is hard to overcome and our current Pope isn’t helping bring anyone into the Church.

  7. It is great to hear a faithful and courageous Bishop. The Church badly needs this particularly in the chaotic moment we are living in.

    I believe vocations will grew in his diocese. I believe it was the great Saint – John Vianney who spoke about the co-relation between the praying holy priest and the rise in vocations. I believe we all need to pray much more and live our Faith – dont look at the numbers, look at Jesus on the Cross…
    the vocations will come if we are faithful..– all of us..

    The Met event was an absolute disgrace and the Vatican should never have been involved in this – shocking, disrespectful … even the young boys from the Sistine Choir were flown in – I cannot imagine what the reaction of those young men were to the half naked, women walking around…

    God help us…

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