Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin was upending the apple cart, and he was making no apologies for it.
It was 2010, and Tobin was a new archbishop hand-picked by Pope Benedict XVI to serve as secretary of the Vatican congregation overseeing religious orders.
In that role, he had inherited an investigation into U.S. nuns, criticized by conservative theologians as too secular and too quick to steer away from established church orthodoxy. The investigation, Vatican observers said, was meant to send a message to the American sisters to fall in line with Rome.
And then Tobin did the unthinkable. He sided with the nuns, angering his superiors and making his Vatican assignment a short-lived one. Two years into a five-year term, he was reassigned to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
“As a result of that dispute, he made a lot of enemies, and he was basically chased out of Rome and given Indianapolis just as a way to exile him,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of the book “Inside the Vatican” and a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.
Six years later — and three years into a new papacy — Tobin is about to become a cardinal and was named Monday as the new leader of the Archdiocese of Newark, a dizzying reversal for the 64-year-old Detroit native.
“This is almost a resurrection story,” Reese said. “For Pope Francis to pick this guy out and make him a cardinal and now move him to Newark is absolutely extraordinary.”
Archbishop John J. Myers, who reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 in July, has scheduled a press conference for 10:30 a.m. Monday at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark.
NJ Advance Media disclosed the selection of Tobin exclusively Friday. The Vatican officially announced the appointment Monday morning.
Tobin was among three American bishops elevated to cardinal by Pope Francis last month. The designation will become official at a ceremony in Rome Nov. 18.
For Newark, the appointment will make history. In its 163-year existence, the archdiocese has never been led by a cardinal. It also has never been led by a member of a religious order. Tobin is a member of the Redemptorist order.
In Tobin, the archdiocese’s 1.2 million Catholic can expect a more moderate cleric — and one prone more to pastoral outreach — than Myers, who has been criticized as a distant figure not in touch with his widely diverse base, Reese and others said.
“The best way to describe (Tobin) is he’s a Francis bishop,” Reese said. “He’s very pastoral. Rather than being someone who wags his finger at everybody, he wants to embrace people and be in dialogue with them. That’s Francis. For Francis, the way forward is through dialogue, not through argument.”
Christopher Bellitto, a Kean University history professor who has written extensively on the papacy, said Tobin is in many ways a reflection of the pope, who has emphasized tolerance toward other viewpoints — he once asked “Who am I to judge?” in response to a question about gay priests — and who has sharply criticized bishops who see themselves as “princes of the church.”
“Francis hates clericalism,” Bellitto said. “Francis hates climbers and bishops who have been trying to be bishops since they were seminarians. That’s what he’s trying to root out very strongly.
“If you want to attract young men to be pastors,” Bellitto continued, “then you need to put model pastors at the top of the hierarchy, and we certainly have not had that kind of leadership, with rare exceptions, in the United States in the last 30 or 40 years.”
As seen in his conflict with the Vatican over American nuns, Tobin has not been one to balk in the face of a dustup.
When Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, now the Republican candidate for vice president, banned the resettlement of Syrian refugees from the state last year, Tobin defied him, resettling one family and then scores more.
For four decades, he said in a statement in December, the archdiocese “has welcomed people fleeing violence in various regions of the world. This is an essential part of our identity as Catholic Christians and we will continue this life-saving tradition.”
According to his biography on the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ website, Tobin, the oldest of 13 children, was ordained in 1978 and worked for decades as a parish priest in Detroit and Chicago.
He has served on several Vatican committees and led the Redemptorist order for 12 years, from 1997 to 2009. He also has worked on committees for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In an interview with America, a Jesuit publication, after Pope Francis announced he would be made a cardinal last month, Tobin spoke at length about his philosophy as a churchman and about his support for nuns in the United States.
The investigation into the sisters, he told America, “got people asking questions about the role of women religious in the history of the United States church. I think they immediately understood, or maybe understood in a more profound way, just what an important, critical role sisters play.”
Speaking of the Redemptorist order, Tobin told the magazine Redemptorists “always like to look on the other side of the tracks and care for people maybe the church isn’t able to care for.”
He spoke, too, about the importance of listening and of constant dialogue. To that end, Tobin recently created a Twitter account with the handle @JoeTobin.
“What I find is really important in positions like mine is being able to listen,” he told America. “Maybe not if you just select people who you think agree with yourself. I think that’s the real seduction of social media and the Internet, is what should have been a marketplace of ideas becomes even more divisive because it isolates people from other opinions.”
It was through Twitter, Tobin said at a press conference last month, that he learned the pope would be making him a cardinal.
His reaction, he told reporters, was one of “shock and a little embarrassment.”
“I don’t much like a spotlight like that,” he said. “I’m not quite over it yet.”
Monday’s expected announcement will mark the second time the pope has chosen a potential replacement for Myers.
In September 2013, three years shy of the archbishop’s mandatory retirement age, Francis appointed Bernard Hebda to serve as Myers’ co-adjutor archbishop. Co-adjutor bishops typically succeed bishops when they retire.
Hebda’s stay in Newark, however, lasted less than two years, as Francis named him acting head of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The pope made the appointment permanent in March of this year.
(This story was published on NJ.com Nov. 7, 2016.)