Cardinal Joseph Tobin’s mild Midwestern demeanor can make him seem like a spiritual teddy bear. But as those who have studied him know, Tobin—who was installed in January 2017 as archbishop of Newark—is not a man to mess with.
The 66-year-old, 6-foot-3, classical-piano-playing man of the cloth is a onetime bouncer from Detroit who can deadlift 450 pounds. If you’re a person of influence whose position on human rights doesn’t sit well with him, he can get prickly (just ask Vice President Mike Pence).
Tobin’s appointment to lead the 1.5 million Catholics who populate Bergen, Union, Hudson and Essex counties—the range of the Newark Archdiocese, the ninth largest in the country—surprised him. He was minding his own business as archbishop of Indianapolis, he says, when he got his marching orders. The job change coincided with a stunning promotion. In 2016, his friend Pope Francis tapped Tobin to become one of only 16 cardinals in the country. At a formal ceremony in Rome, the new cardinal whispered to the pope in Spanish, one of five languages Tobin speaks fluently, “What have you done?”
Followers familiar with the pair knew exactly what Pope Francis was doing: promoting someone who shares his progressive views on everything from immigration to gay rights.
Tobin doesn’t have the time or inclination to pontificate about his gloriousness, but already his new colleagues in New Jersey do. As the Reverend Jack Johnson, coordinator of the Coalition of Religious Leaders of New Jersey, says, he has hit the Garden State ground running, making sure lawmakers know his position on some of the most pressing moral concerns of our time.
“He’s already been a leader on the issue of immigration,” says Johnson, who is based in the Burlington County town of Columbus. “At his first meeting with the coalition, almost as soon as he arrived, he said, ‘We need to make a statement.’” That statement, which took the form of a letter signed by 34 ministers, bishops, priests, rabbis and imams across the state, expressed “deep concerns” about the Trump administration’s plans to phase out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
And it’s only one area of moral repair the man who could become the first American pope, according to the Indianapolis Star, is prepared to tinker with.
“It’s clear that immigration is important to him. But he also supports the fact that violence is a problem that needs to be addressed,” says Imam W. Deen Shareef, a Muslim leader in Newark and a member of the interfaith coalition, who first met the cardinal last year. “I think he can help continue the conversation [U.S. Muslim leader] W.D. Mohammed set up with Pope John Paul II before he passed in 2008.” In other words, Tobin’s presence represents a new era of openness and cooperation between Muslims and Catholics, at least in Newark.
It may represent a new era of openness between Catholics and just about everybody else who is listening. As Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz, incoming president of the interfaith coalition and senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, notes, Tobin is driven by a sense of “prophetic justice.”
“He doesn’t mind speaking the truth to make sure an ethical imperative is reached,” Gewirtz says. That includes making bold moves like flinging open the doors of Newark’s Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart to the LGBTQ community. In 2017, Tobin personally welcomed more than 100 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics and their families from around New York and the five dioceses in New Jersey, something that might have been unthinkable for the Catholic church even five years ago.
“I am Joseph, your brother,” he told them.
The welcome pleased, but didn’t surprise, Gewirtz. “Whatever [he] can do to help the world be more egalitarian is something he’s not going to be shy about,” he says.
Tobin is not shy about answering questions, either. In May, during an hourlong interview in his large, tidy office across the street from the cathedral, the cardinal talked about everything from his irritation at people who call themselves spiritual instead of religious to his devotion to his 12 younger siblings and 95-year-old mother. A photo of the clan from the early 1970s—bell-bottoms, sideburns and center parts on full display—hangs prominently on the wall across from Tobin’s desk. The candid cardinal also proved willing to weigh in on women’s rights, soaring property taxes and his own short fuse.
Q: Welcome to New Jersey. You came to us from Indianapolis where, since 2012, you headed a smaller archdiocese of 246,000. Are Jersey Catholics different from Indiana Catholics?
A: They’re much more diverse. You have some of the wealthiest people in the country and also some of the poorest people in the U.S. living in these counties. We celebrate our church services every Sunday in anywhere between 20 and 30 languages. And, full disclosure, I really like that. I’ve always worked in cultures outside of the one I was raised in. It’s given me a great appreciation of the enriching force that sort of cultural crucible produces.
Q: Tell us about the culture you were raised in.
A: I’m the oldest of 13 kids. Growing up in southwest Detroit, I was fascinated and a little bit jealous of my classmates who went home and spoke a different language, whether it was Spanish, Polish, German, Arabic. I thought that was amazing. The diversity was because of the auto industry. It was a real gateway for a lot of people. I remember playing ice hockey as an eighth grader, and I couldn’t pronounce the goalie’s name. It was all consonants.
Q: But you liked the stewpot of languages. You speak five: English, Spanish, Italian, French and Portuguese.
A: Yes. I think it’s a challenge we’re facing here in New Jersey that’s sometimes misread. To use a couple of biblical images, I think we’re somewhere between the Tower of Babel, where language divides people and confuses them, and the Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit manages to pull all these people together. In my past work, I visited 71 different countries over 18 years or so. That gave me a conviction that the Catholic Church, for all its spots and wrinkles, is the most diverse institution on the face of the Earth. We’re a billion people, and we’re all very different.
Q: Demographically, though, your new flock has pockets of unity. About 30 percent of Catholics in Newark are Hispanic.
A: It might be a little higher than that due to the presence of undocumented people.
Q: Which is a population you care a lot about.
A: Yes. Their faces have been taken away. Politicians make a lot of hay saying terrible things about them, most recently, that they’re animals. In a way, that’s been the story of immigrants in this country for a long time. My dad was first-generation Irish in Boston. When I look back at cartoons made by Thomas Nast in the 1870s, the code images for Irish people were apes—and drunken apes. There would be a white schoolteacher protecting her children from the Irishmen. Some of the same sort of calumny is used today, when immigrants are called rapists and drug dealers.
Q: So you want to be a face for the faceless.
A: And a voice for the voiceless. When we’re talking about immigrants, we’re talking about grandmothers and law-abiding citizens who are hardworking and paying their taxes. I’m humbled by the people who tell me with tears in their eyes that, when they kiss their kids goodbye in the morning, they don’t know if they’re going to see them again in the evening.
Q: Does it help that New Jersey is a sanctuary state?
A: That’s not a word I use easily, sanctuary, for two reasons. First, there’s a risk that you’re exploiting the presence of the undocumented for a wider political goal. I don’t think you should exploit people for anything. The second reason is you’re implicitly making a promise you can’t keep. If I have undocumented people in the cathedral during a service, and ICE has the warrants to enter, I can’t stop them.
Q: So what can you do to help?
A: We can inform them of their rights. I spoke at Seton Hall’s law school graduation—nobody fell asleep or threw up, as far as I know—and one of the professors said statistics show that if you go to your deportation hearing with an attorney, you have a 70 percent chance of staying. If you go without an attorney, you only have a 13 percent chance. So we can try to let them know things like that.
Q: Why does the plight of the immigrant especially trouble you?
A: Maybe because I’ve been a stranger in many countries, and I know what it feels like. I know what it is to stumble along in a different language. When I’ve heard some of my nieces and nephews make fun of somebody’s accent, I say, ‘Well, that’s how your uncle sounds in a different language.’ I don’t want to brainwash anybody. I just say, ‘Think about it and try to find a modicum of empathy.’ And I say that not simply because of what happens to those people, I say it because of what happens to us. Our hearts harden. And that’s an awful thing. We become less than human. We’re speaking about immigrants as less than human—as animals. But it’s really us. We’re becoming something else.
Q: You’ve also been a proponent of women’s rights—specifically, the rights of U.S. nuns. In 2010, you were tapped for a Vatican job that proved short-lived because you sided with nuns when they were accused by conservative theologians of being too secular.
A: That’s right. My concern with women’s issues is not any virtue on my part. I have eight sisters. When you have one bathroom and eight sisters, you learn not to be selfish.
Q: What about women’s roles within the Catholic Church? Is that important to you?
A: One of the big issues within the church is certainly the question of ordination as well as their place in other leadership roles. It’s something we have to address. Pope Francis has said he’s going to find new ways to use the gifts women bring to the church, and I hope he finds a way to make good on that.
Q: What do you think of the #MeToo movement?
A: I think it has sensitized people in new ways. I was down at Georgetown a month ago to give a talk. Afterward, some young women, grad-student weight lifters, stopped to take a picture with me. One of the girls flexed her bicep and said, ‘Feel this.’ I said, ‘I’m not feeling that.’ She said, ‘Why not?’ and I said, ‘Because you’ll #MeToo me and I’ll be on the Internet!’ She was a little miffed.
Q: She knew about your secret life as a power lifter, I guess? Just before you came to Newark, the New York Times ran a story about your weight lifting routine and gym buddies in Indianapolis. You were deadlifting 450 pounds! Do you have a gym here?
A: I have found a gym, but I’m not going to tell you which one. It’s 10 minutes away from here, and no one knows who I am. I’m just this large old man who comes in and does crazy things. Which is what I want. I don’t want to intimidate anyone or cause any fusses. I want people to relate to me just as Joe.
Q: Got it. Even though you’re a 6-foot-3, buff cardinal, you want to be a regular Joe. Have you found a group of guys at the new gym you like to work out with?
A: Not like I had in Indy. But I was working out there a year or so before we came together.
Q: Will it be as easy to be just Joe here as it was in Indianapolis?
A: Maybe not. In Indianapolis, I was responsible for 39 counties, but only 11 percent of the population was Catholic. Here we’re around 30 to 40 percent of the population. That’s the positive side of it. In Indianapolis, people knew we were there, but they weren’t terribly interested. Here, if you burp the media wants to know what you had for lunch.
Q: You didn’t burp, but what did you have for lunch? Kidding! Does the media attention feel invasive?
A: I’m not one to caricature the media, because I remember hearing a cardinal in Rome once say, “Would you rather they ignore the church? Try and get your message out.”
Q: Good. What are some New Jersey-specific messages?
A: I hope somebody can get a handle on property taxes, because that seems to be an issue that’s driving a lot of people out of New Jersey.
Q: A lot of Catholic people? Are there concerns the Catholic community is shrinking?
A: You hear this statistic sometimes that for every new Catholic there’s five that left. I don’t know if that’s true. Whether you’re talking about Christianity or Islam or Judaism, there’s a growing credibility question. Because people can say, ‘Why bother? I’m spiritual but not religious.’ Which I think sounds nice, but what it really means is you’re not ready to be committed to the work and doing what it means to be bonded to religion. I bind myself. I say, ‘This is who I am.’ I’m not just an amorphous piece of Jell-O.
Q: Is that amorphousness contributing to the dwindling of New Jersey Catholic schools? There are fewer than 250 now. At their heyday in the late 60s and early 70s, there were 513.
A: It’s a problem nationally. Part of it is the cost of education, even though Catholic education has been a strong point in underserved areas and has been no-frills. I think that, unfortunately, as Catholic people have left cities for suburbs, the Catholic schools went with them. In the first few months of my service here, two Catholic high schools closed, one in Jersey City and one in Arlington. It broke my heart. I felt the train had already left the station.
Q: Have you had much interaction with New Jersey politicians?
A: I know [Newark Mayor Ras] Baraka and several members of the city council fairly well. And I’ve touched base with [Governor Phil] Murphy. We’ve talked about DACA. With them, it’s sort of preaching to the choir. But I would like to think that the political and religious life of a community are not opposed, nor are they completely uninterested in each other. We should be pulling in the same direction, working toward the common good. I support the mayor in his efforts to ensure that, as new possibilities open up for Newark, the people who are here aren’t forgotten or pushed somewhere else so they become invisible.
Q: You’re used to squaring off with politicians. In Indianapolis, you notably defied then governor Mike Pence’s ban on resettling Syrian refugees in Indiana.
A: What we did was legal and I think in the best interest of the U.S. I’ve seen him since. He’s very cordial. I know his mother and dad. His brother Greg Pence was just nominated to run for Congress. I’ve been to Christmas Eve at Greg’s house. I think the narrative is, you can’t disagree with someone without despising him. Well no, that wasn’t the case. I think Pence was wrong on immigration, but that doesn’t keep me from talking to him.
Q: That’s an open-minded way to look at things. From what I gather, that’s part of why your friend Pope Francis likes you so much. The word is he chose you to become a cardinal because your priorities match. You’re not interested in formality, and you’re not stuck on the divisive issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. You’ve emphasized humility and service to the poor, and you promote different styles of worship.
A: I’m not sure what he was thinking when he made me a cardinal. It came as a terrible shock. It’s like I was asleep in class in Indianapolis, and all of a sudden the teacher called on me.
Q: Right, you speak all those languages! You mentioned that you spent 18 years visiting scores of countries. That must have a huge effect on your understanding of the world and our place in it.
A: Yes. People sometimes ask me what changed here in the U.S. in all that time. I like to tell people I never saw Seinfeld. What’s even more embarrassing is, I never saw The Sopranos. I was at a church service last spring in Park Ridge. One of the people who read the scriptures was Vincent Curatola, the actor who played Johnny Sack. I had to say afterward that I’ve never seen the show.
Q: Oh, no. Have you been catching up on New Jersey culture since you’ve been here? Have you found places you like to go?
A: I’ve certainly been to the Ironbound here in Newark, which I think is a wonderful place. And I’ve sampled the fleshpots of Nutley—the pasta spots. I think the Shore is gorgeous. The only place I’ve been is the retreat house my order has in Long Branch, but the Shore is such a gift to New Jersey and to the country. People have invited me to the Paper Mill Playhouse and to NJPAC. I’m hoping to get there.
Q: Does your status as a cardinal mean you’re likely to be whisked off to a new post unexpectedly?
A: At this stage of the game, I feel completely free. I had a wonderful teacher in college. He used to say his dream was to live the chorus of “Me and Bobby McGee,” the Kris Kristofferson song. It goes, ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.’ And that’s how I feel. This is where I’m supposed to be. When people say to me, ‘Thank you for saying yes to Newark,’ I say, ‘It’s nice of you to say that, but I wasn’t asked a question. It was kind of a declarative sentence. This is what I signed up for.’
Q: What do you hope to accomplish here personally?
A: I think I need to be a better person and a better leader.
Q: Really? How?
A: I need to be more giving and to be less short-tempered. I can be unpleasant if I’m under the gun. There are days when you feel like you’re juggling five oranges and someone’s asking you for a match.
Q: That’s surprising to hear from someone who’s entitled to be called His Eminence or Prince of the Church, though I know you don’t go in for that kind of fawning formality. It’s also surprising to hear from someone who was raised in a family of 13 kids. You must be used to juggling.
A: I don’t think I’d be the person I am if I didn’t come from such a large family. One of my sisters had a high school teacher tell her, only ignorant people have large families. My sister said, my mother’s got a master’s degree. What have you got?
Q: Did your family sense that you would be a star in the church?
A: When people ask my mother which one do you love best, her answer is interesting. She says the sick one until they get better, and the one far from home until they return. And if someone says, you must be proud of Joe, she bristles a little. She says, I’m proud of all my children. Which actually takes a little heat off me. For us, having such a large family is a gift. But I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody.
Q: People might say that about devoting your life to the church.
A: My grandmother was an immigrant from a very famous part of Europe called County Kerry. She used to look at me say, “Joe, I never figured you for a priest. But I guess it’s better than honest work.” I’m still trying to prove her wrong.