One on one with Bishop Tobin

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In December, Thomas Tobin is celebrating his 25th year as a bishop. The last 12 of those years were at the Diocese of Providence in Rhode Island. Now 69 years old, Bishop Tobin was only 14 and in the eighth grade when he decided to study to become a priest.

He says his former parish priests were a big influence in his vocation, and despite a young age his parents were very supportive. When asked if he ever thought the priesthood or being a Bishop wasn’t for him, Tobin replied “I don’t think in my own personal journey I ever reached that point. You wake up every day and you have to say I’m going to continue this.”

Bishop Tobin says his mission of helping the less fortunate is rewarding. “The Keep the Heat on Campaign has been successful. And the Emanuel House is terribly important,” Tobin said. “And the little help we’ve recently given with the RIPTA bus tickets to people get to food pantries and soup kitchens.”

Over the years, Bishop Tobin has not been silent when it comes to controversial issues like abortion, same sex marriage and politicians that he says defy the teachings of the church. He says these issues usually come his way. “I think it’s part of the teaching ministry of the church, part of the teaching ministry of the Bishop in particular,” said Tobin. “So I will continue that. Some people agree, others disagree, but I think it’s part of the church.”

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When asked his thoughts on Pope Francis, Tobin said “Pope Francis is intriguing. There are many things about Pope Francis I love. He certainly challenged us in a very prophetic way. He gives all of us something to think about and pray about. He speaks in very clear and direct language. He uses language that most people can understand. It’s wonderful.

There are also things Bishop Tobin finds challenging about the Pope. “Just the fact that his teaching style came be somewhat ambiguous,” said Tobin. “A good example I think is the document on marriage and family life, and the whole question about communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Different people have interpreted that in different ways.”

Bishop Tobin has faced challenges during his tenure, including a dwindling number of church goers, as well as school and church closings. And just as disappointing; when a man begins to question his faith and decides to leave the priesthood. “Especially if it’s someone I’ve ordained and went through that whole process with him, and somebody walks away it’s really hard,” said Tobin.

Bishop Tobin says being an administrator is something he enjoys, because the root of the word “administrator” is “ministry.” He says if he’s a good administrator, he’s helping other people in their ministry.

Over the past twelve years in the Diocese of Providence, Bishop Tobin has faced serious challenges. 16 Catholic schools have closed, plus 13 churches have either closed or stopped offering masses. 44 parishes are now administered by only 22 priests. On July 1st, ten of those priests will be 70 years of age and over, and three will be over 80. By July of next year, 19 priests will be past the non-mandatory retirement age of 70.

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Bishop Tobin said, “we’ve lost 58 priests from active ministry. At the same time, I’ve ordained only 18. So, that’s a net loss of 40 in just eight years.”

Last year, Tobin said the diocese probably has more churches than it needs. He stands by that statement. He says the churches are not closed because of a lack of priests, but the changing nature of the parishes and the churches. He says in almost every case where a church has closed, it’s because two things have happened; the people have disappeared and the building is in terrible condition.

In the past year alone, Our lady of Mount Carmel Church in Providence, St. Williams in Warwick, St. Maria Goretti and St. Edwards in Pawtucket have either closed or stopped offering masses. St. Casimir in Providence announced its intention to close earlier this month.

The bishop says it’s very possible more will either merge or close next year. He says the diocese is studying the viability of parishes in Warwick, West Warwick, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket.

Despite the challenges, Bishop Tobin believes he’s here to stay until his retirement at 75 years old. When asked about the possibility he could be reassigned, Tobin answered, “I think it’s highly unlikely. I mean you know in God’s Providence and the Pope’s, anything is possible I suppose. As you say I’m 69 going on 70 so it would be very unusual to send a Bishop at that age to another Diocese to start all over. So I fully expect to retire here.”

When asked what he would like his legacy to be, Tobin said “I don’t know. I haven’t started to think too much about it. That’s something [other] people speak about better. I hope that people will say he worked hard and did his best for the church. That old Bishop Tobin, love him or hate him, he worked hard and he did his best, and tried to keep the church strong even sometimes when it was challenging and difficult.”

See Mike’s full interview with Bishop Tobin in the video above.