Three millennia ago, as recalled in this coming Sunday’s first reading, a young King Solomon determined that the greatest endowment God could give him as he began his reign as ruler of the Jewish people was the gift of wisdom. Just over a quarter century ago, a young Father Thomas J. Tobin discerned that the most desirable graces he could receive from God as he first accepted the office of bishop were those outlined by St. Paul in writing to the young Timothy who had also been called to episcopal service within the Church. St. Paul wrote: “For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a cowardly spirit but rather a spirit that is strong, loving and wise (2Tim1:6-7).” Young Bishop Tobin adorned his episcopal shield with these three qualities – strength, love and wisdom – and they have guided his time in office ever since.
Bishop Tobin is clearly a believer with strong Catholic faith. Although he once graciously invited an Evangelical preacher from Woonsocket to speak from the pulpit of the diocesan cathedral, and while he has regularly supported a Catholic/Jewish interfaith dialogue at Providence College, he has clearly distinguished himself as a vocal defender of the Catholic faith and Christian morality. The secular press is quick to remind readers of Bishop Tobin’s vociferous deference to unborn life, his letting the chips fall where they may. Bishop Tobin has also prudently voiced reservation regarding any public activities or civic legislation that might gainsay traditional Christian morality (or as he once put it: “defy common sense”). Well is the word “strong” proclaimed on his episcopal shield.
Love for Bishop Tobin has clearly meant practical charity for those without homes and those without heat. Turning the former Carter Day Nursery on Public Street in South Providence into a warm, safe and extensive (150-bed) shelter for men who would otherwise spend the winter beneath the bridges or on the park benches of Providence was a loving service to say the least. Recall also the Keep the Heat On campaign has raised money from corporations and individuals to provide warmth for needy families throughout the whole diocese. Now in its 18th year, more than $285,000 was distributed during the 2022-2023 season to many who otherwise would have experienced great seasonal distress.
Bishop Tobin’s love for his diocesan family indeed reached out toward those deprived, but he also displayed his love by festively and warmly acknowledging those many diocesan and parochial workers and volunteers who carry on the daily business of preserving and extending the Catholic religion and Christian charity around the state. The “Lumen Gentium Awards,” sadly interrupted by the Covid crisis and by the difficulty of seating the expansive number of people cheering on the workers, was a loving tribute to the many, nominated by pastors, who worked faithfully and quietly in nine different areas of diocesan service. A “Lumen Gentium Award” graces my bookcase: “for literary services rendered.”
Bishop Tobin has indeed proven himself wise in two especially notable areas. Even before arriving in the Diocese of Providence the bishop had published a selection of his thoughts and sermons in a book titled, “Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life” and, more recently, in an edition named “Effective Faith: Faith that Makes a Difference.” And, of course, the bishop has regularly contributed columns to the weekly Rhode Island Catholic, the diocesan publication he renamed from the former “The Providence Visitor,” perhaps thinking the old name sounded too much like a tourist agency.
But Bishop Tobin’s wisdom extends beyond his literary expertise to the practical maintenance of the diocese as well. The cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in downtown Providence is certainly one of the most distinguished buildings in the state and even in New England. Although the sanctuary of the cathedral had been wisely and grandly brought into agreement with the guidelines of Vatican II, an interior refurbishment was needed, and a complete exterior overhaul was an urgent demand. Much to Bishop Tobin’s wise financial efforts (and no doubt to Bishop Henning’s great relief), the entire cathedral, in and out, has been restored and secured for another century or two.
“Strong, Loving, Wise!” A motto has clearly become a reality.