Could this Detroit Native be the Next Pope?

How the weight-lifting, piano-playing, former football player became part of the Roman Catholic hierarchy
Pope Francis (right) shocked the Roman Catholic hierarchy by naming Joseph Tobin as a cardinal in October 2016. Tobin, who grew up in the neighborhood around Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in southwest Detroit, later became a priest there. Tobin now leads the Newark, N.J., archdiocese.

Marie Terese Tobin knew the oldest of her 13 children was whip-smart and also caused a bit of trouble in the southwest Detroit alleys around Holy Redeemer Catholic Church. “He got into quite a few fights,” she recalls. But the burly athlete also was an altar boy who so looked up to the priests, he became one.

Tobin, the former football player turned priest, is also an avid weightlifter.

Joseph William Tobin is a 6’3’’ witty weightlifter, a piano-playing jazz buff, a regular at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and the onetime leader of the 5,500-member Redemptorist priest order. A year ago, Pope Francis shocked the Roman Catholic hierarchy by selecting the outspoken progressive to wear the red hat of a cardinal.

“I can’t believe my son is a prince of the church,” Tobin recollects about his mother’s reaction to the news. “I told her I know she doesn’t think I’m a prince of the church. I don’t think of myself that way and the pope doesn’t believe I’m a prince of the church. So, let’s not use that term again.”

Observers say Pope Francis has long been impressed with Tobin’s credentials, compassion, and “Regular Joe” qualities.

“Tobin’s elevation … is one of the most extraordinary things the pope has done in terms of church governance,” says the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for Religion News Service. It signals that Francis favors less traditional and conservative leaders than were the norm under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

It’s also likely that Tobin, when the time comes, will be among the 120 cardinals locked in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel to select the next pope. Indeed, the Detroit native could possibly become a future and first pope from the United States.

Tobin, 65, who now leads the Newark, N.J., archdiocese, doesn’t entertain such speculation or pomp. “Call me Cardinal Joe,” he says in a telephone interview. “Some of the essential values that get me out of the bed in the morning, I learned in Detroit.”

And, he adds: “In sharing one bathroom with eight sisters.”

Says one sister, Detroit attorney Ann Tobin: “Joe is a wonderful listener, slow to judgment, and quick to either wit or wisdom, whichever best fits.”

Tobin speaks five languages — English, Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, and reads several others.

“He’s exactly what Francis is looking for — people who aren’t careerists and trying to climb the career ladder. There’s not a bone of ambition in Joe’s body,” says retired Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, an icon of progressive, pacifist Catholics.

Pope Francis (right) made Joseph Tobin a cardinal at a service at the Vatican in November 2016.

Gumbleton says Tobin mirrors the values Francis emphasizes in his papacy, including support of refugees. In Indianapolis, Tobin used archdiocese resources to resettle Syrian war refugees in 2015, despite opposition from then Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

Since January, Tobin has lived in the rectory next to Newark’s Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart. When he heard a group of LGBT Catholics wanted a cathedral tour, Tobin issued a personal invitation and led the tour.

It’s a hallmark of Tobin’s outreach to those who’ve felt like outcasts in their faith. He visits refugees relocated to Newark. In March, he was a visible supporter at a hearing for Catalino Guerrero, a Mexican immigrant facing deportation — now stayed until 2018. He’s called on other bishops and cardinals to accompany potential deportees to hearings. Tobin also strongly criticized President Donald Trump’s announcement to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program as “malicious” and an “abandonment of humanity.”

“He’s a holy man, a brilliant man, salt of the earth. Tobin’s the kind of guy who could set the world on fire. The personality is even bigger than his body,” says Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia-based church insider who authors the Whispers in the Loggia blog. “It’s another example of the church turned upside down after Francis.”

Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Donald Hanchon, a friend, says: “To me, the pope’s saying this is just the kind of American cardinal I want … and I want to set him up as an example.”

Marie Terese Kerwin Tobin gave birth to Joseph when she was 29, and her 13th child when she was 48. “After dinner, we always said the rosary,” says Marie Terese, who is now 94. Every night, her husband prayed one of the children would be called to serve as a priest or a nun. Joseph W. Tobin Sr., an auto company cost analyst, died of a heart attack in 1977, a year before his son was ordained.

Childhood friend Duncan “Duke” MacDonald, who traveled to Rome for Tobin’s ceremony, was his altar boy co-captain. “He always had a bit of the red-head feistiness,” says MacDonald, recalling the time they egged girls’ houses on Devil’s Night.

But at Tobin’s home, there was a makeshift altar in the basement. Joe wore priest-like vestments made by a neighbor, as he and his buddies re-enacted Mass.

Says Tobin: “Holy Redeemer was such an influence in our lives. It was such a massive community, but there was a certain intimacy there.” Inspired by the priests who ran Holy Redeemer, Tobin went to a Redemptorist-run high school then college in Wisconsin. The order’s mission is to “serve the poor and most abandoned.”

When he finished his seminary studies, Tobin expected to be sent to Latin America or Brazil. Instead, when he opened his assignment envelope, the address was irritatingly familiar — 1721 Junction Ave. Holy Redeemer needed a Spanish-speaking priest to serve a growing Hispanic community.

“I do all this study and I get sent back to where I came from,” Tobin recalled. “But it was the greatest grace of my life. It really became my school for the priesthood.”

Tobin helped establish what is now called Freedom House, for political refugees seeking asylum. He hosted actor Donald Sutherland when the church became a movie set for The Rosary Murders. Tobin sometimes butted heads with the producer over scenes, saying: “You can do that in Hollywood, but you can’t do that in our church.”

At Holy Redeemer, he counted among his altar boys John Gillis, who considered priesthood before becoming rocker Jack White.

Joseph Tobin as a child with Molly and Margo, two of his eight sisters.

It is mind-boggling to siblings that their brother is “a prince of the church.” Tobin’s brother Jim, an auto supplier executive, recalls a Vatican parking garage scene after Tobin became an archbishop in 2010. “Joe does his own driving and we’re getting into his Volkswagen Golf and I hear a priest and nun call his name. They rush over and get down on one knee to kiss his bishop’s ring,” he says. By then, Joe had shed his bishop’s vestments. “I never saw a guy with a Detroit Lions jersey get their hand kissed,” Jim laughs.

It’s also unknown whether other Catholic cardinals appeared in The New York Times in workout clothes, bench-pressing 255 pounds. Tobin finds gym visits a good way to deal with frustrations. He’s also a faithful AA attendee, and videos of his speeches about alcoholism are on YouTube.

There was a time he quelled frustrations with drinking. That surfaced in clashes with superiors — such as the late Detroit archbishop Cardinal Edmund Szoka — when Tobin vigorously argued for more support for struggling Catholic schools.

After attaining sobriety, Tobin apologized to Szoka for his outbursts, says his friend Hanchon. “He always made a point to make things right. That takes a huge conscience.”

Tobin and Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, met at a Vatican gathering in 2005. Tobin said his mom read about and admired Bergoglio’s simple lifestyle, including doing his own laundry. Bergoglio always asked about Tobin’s mom after that.

Tobin also had a strong relationship with Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. They came to know and respect each other when Tobin was the Redemptorist superior general from 1997 to 2009 and sometimes had to defend priests being investigated for skirting church teachings by the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict.

In 2010, Benedict gave Tobin the No. 2 job in a Vatican office overseeing priests and nuns worldwide. In that position, Tobin defended American nuns criticized by some conservative U.S. bishops for favoring social justice causes.

When Benedict dispatched Tobin to serve as Archbishop of Indianapolis in 2012, observers considered it a demotion. “Everybody thought his career was over,” Reese says. “It was akin to being sent into exile.”

But Tobin thrived, driving his Chevy Tahoe across 39 Indiana counties. Some parish visits brought out recently arrived Hispanic immigrants eager to make confessions in their native Spanish — sometimes until 1 a.m.

Tobin didn’t have advance warnings about Francis’ intent to name him a cardinal. But in July 2016 while at the Vatican to discuss other matters, he remembers Francis musing about his papal circumstances.

“He said to me: ‘The election was not my plan. I accepted becoming pope as the will of God, and I’m confident that I will have what I need to carry it out.’ I now wonder, was that a cryptic message?”

Tobin was “completely stunned” by texts and messages greeting his Oct. 9, 2016 promotion to cardinal. “My first thought was: ‘What have you done, Francis?’ It’s like you’re asleep in class and a big spotlight comes down on you.”

Marie Terese Tobin, 94, was on hand when her son was installed as the Archbishop of Newark in January 2017.

He wasn’t asked his preference about the reassignment to Newark: “It was shocking. I was given a declarative sentence. I’m a missionary and I go where I’m sent. But I was angry because the people in Indy were excited about this cardinal business. They were hurt.”

Tobin instituted visits with priests over potluck dinners “and I listen to what they want to tell me.” Afterwards, he holds Mass for parishioners and invites folks to remain for a town hall meeting. “They all stay, and they have a lot to say.”

Tobin says Newark and Detroit share a lot of big-city history. “I don’t think Newark has suffered as Detroit has suffered,” he notes. “But there’s probably a sort of cautionary tale. Detroit is looking for signs of rebirth, and that brings gentrification, which often is based on the displacement of poor people. You can’t make downtown a theme park without paying attention to neighborhoods and schools and the literacy rate.”

Tobin doesn’t theorize about his future beyond Newark, or the possibility of succeeding the 80-year-old Pope Francis.

“If he was not an American, I would say he could be ‘papabile,’” says Reese, using the Italian for papal worthiness. “In the history of the church, the cardinals have tried to keep the papacy out of any superpower.” He adds that there’d be conspiracy theories that the CIA or Wall Street rigged the conclave if white smoke from the Sistine Chapel heralded an American.

But Tobin’s experience is unique. Among American cardinals, he has extensive parish experience. “He didn’t come up working desk jobs at the chancery,” Palmo says. His facility with languages is a plus, as are contacts around the world from leading the Redemptorists.

The last three popes — Polish, German, and Argentinian — broke the Italians’ centuries-old hold on the papacy. “I think all of us in the church have learned to never say never,” Palmo says.

At Tobin’s Jan. 6 installation in Newark, the cathedral was filled with cardinals, bishops, a few hundred priests, and 11 of his 12 siblings. The only person exceeding Tobin’s popularity that day may have been his mother, Marie Terese. Sibling Ann heard Gov. Chris Christie tell the matriarch: “We’ll take care of him.”

“I just ask God to use him. And so far, Joe has let the Lord use him,” Marie Terese says. “My prayer has always been that he be a good priest. And my prayer now is still the same.”