Cardinal Joe Tobin, Archbishop for Newark New Jersey, grew up in Southwest Detroit and would become the parish priest for Most Holy Redeemer. In recent years, some within the Catholic Church have touted him as possibly the first American Pope. In early August, I ran into Cardinal Tobin during the 40th anniversary mass for the passing of Msgr. Kern, the legendary pastor of Most Holy Trinity in Corktown. When I first found out from Vic Venegas, one of the primary organizers of the event, that Cardinal Tobin would be the primary celebrant of the memorial mass, I was elated!
I had the good fortune of getting to know him during the 80’s, first through his participation in Casa de Unidad, which for a couple of decades was considered the premier arts and cultural organization in Southwest Detroit. A proud son of Southwest Detroit, he quickly became well known for his defense of community residents, his promotion of immigrant rights and as an advocate for community empowerment. He was also noted for his street smarts and love of football and other physical sports.
I was attracted to his sense of community pride and activism. Years later, I wanted to make sure that my first daughter, Rachel, was baptized by him. I was honored that he accepted our request to baptize her.
As I contemplated meeting him at the Kern Memorial Mass, I remember having read an article a few years back detailing the possibility that Joe Tobin could possibly become the first pope from the United States! Wow our Joe Tobin, I asked myself. Fast forward: motivated by my recent reunion with him I went online and found a few articles on this subject. One I found, an opinion piece written by Reverend Alexander M. Santora, a key figure in the New Jersey religious community, provided background on why some key forces believed this was a possibility. Thus for the rest of this article I will refer to and quote from it. It was published by Bergen Record, www.northjersey.com, a New Jersey publication and entitled “Can Joe Tobin from Detroit, now a NJ cardinal, become the first American pope?” It paints a picture of Cardinal Tobin’s ability to build unity within different factions of the Catholic hierarchy, his personal brilliance, political astuteness yet humble and down to earth approach while being somewhat of a Renaissance man given his many interests.
The article goes on to detail that after leaving Detroit, Joe Tobin made a name for himself at the national and international level. At the young age of 45, he became the Superior General of his religious order the Redemptorists. In that position he traveled the world several times visiting 70 countries. It was noted, “he helped to build relationships among all the provinces”. As a result of his successes, he would go and work in the Vatican. During a notable chapter in that period he advocated for a number of women’s religious orders in the U.S. who at that time were being investigated by the Vatican for being too liberal. His mediation efforts were successful in defending them. Yet as a result, he was “assigned” to Indianapolis as its Archbishop.
True to his character and leadership style, he took the Archdiocese by storm and was loved by pastors, priests and people. Later on in assuming the position of Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, he would again establish deep ties with that community. As the article states, “he’s a people person’s prelate.” honoring a rich tradition of progressive behaviors and practices of a number of religious communities within the United States. Referred to as a case in point he is credited with welcoming the LGBTQ community into his Newark cathedral.
His influence on the Vatican is significant, currently serving on eight Vatican Curia departments or dicasteries including the powerful one that vets bishops. A quote from the article states that in this capacity he is one “who can put forth (Pope) Francis’ agenda. He is definitely in Francis’ corner and can articulate that vision of church unlike few other cardinals.”
As the article continues it lays out a number of reasons why the selection of an American cardinal may not occur but goes on to state that if it should happen, Joe Tobin stood a strong chance given his personal attributes, political and organizational skills and experience, that he knows the global church intimately and his ability to build bridges between different factions within the church.
Our own Joe Tobin! What if that were to happen?