Things I've learned in Rhode Island

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Welcome to Without a Doubt, a column of personal reflections you'll find in this space on a regular basis. Here you'll encounter a smorgasbord of written entrees - some presenting the teachings of the Church, some offering purely personal opinion; some very serious, some with a lame attempt at humor. In any event, my modest goal is to share a conversation with you, to help us get to know one another a little better. I hope you enjoy them. I always welcome your feedback.

When my appointment as the bishop of Providence was announced on March 31st, I said that one of my first priorities would be to get around the Diocese, to meet people and to learn - to learn about the strengths and weaknesses, the blessings and needs of our Diocesan Church. Although it's just about three months since my work here began, I think I've already learned a lot about the region and the local Church.

I've learned, for example - and this came as no surprise - that Rhode Island has lots of wonderful people deeply involved in the life of the Church. In just a short time I've met priests, deacons, religious, seminarians and laity. I've met faithful in their parishes, young people in their schools and members of diocesan staff in their offices and mine. I've discovered that people are committed to the Church, proud of their cultural heritage and concerned about the problems of the local community. In my travels I've received a wonderful and warm welcome and for that I'm really grateful.

In the first few weeks I had several meetings with priests in the various regions of the Diocese and in so doing learned that the priests here are not altogether different from priests in other parts of the country. The priests I've met are really good, talented, dedicated and hard-working men. But they have some problems and concerns common to all priests today. They're concerned about the shrinking number and increasing age of priests. They're concerned about the expectations and demands placed upon them and their schedules. They're concerned that the image of the priesthood has suffered serious damage in recent years, with society painting all priests with a very broad brush and in very dark colors. They're concerned about the vitality of our parishes and schools, especially where the demographics are changing. And they're concerned about the numbers of parishioners not practicing their faith, not going to church and not receiving the sacraments.

I've learned that the region has very vibrant religious and cultural traditions. I've witnessed impressive devotions and festivals, processions and parades. The traditions are in themselves enjoyable, but they also serve an important purpose in keeping families together, strengthening parishes and fostering the vitality of local communities.

Some of the other things I've learned aren't terribly profound, but are interesting nonetheless.

I've learned that although Rhode Island is a very small State there's lots of diversity and people don't seem to get around very much. In terms of miles, Woonsocket is not far from Westerly, but they might as well be on different planets. People from the West Bay hardly ever travel to the East Bay. And lots of folks have a great deal of affection for a place called South County, even though it doesn't really exist.

I've learned that Rhode Islanders like to send fish to their friends and neighbors to mark special occasions, for example, a birthday cod, an anniversary cod, even a sympathy cod. (I know, they're really "cards", but it doesn't sound like it. I know, too, that you have to put up with my Pittsburgh accent that sneaks through once-in-awhile. One gentleman told me recently, "It's sort of nice to hear a Midwestern accent around here for a change." Pittsburgh ... Midwest?)

I've learned that in Providence we don't refer to "downtown" but rather, "downcity."

I've learned that it's not PAWtucket but P'tucket.

I've learned that it's not socially acceptable to eat Dels Frozen Lemonade with a spoon.

I've learned that in Rhode Island, it's really cool to have a license plate with a low number.

And I've learned that locals have a fierce loyalty to professional sports teams, especially the Red Sox and the Patriots. (I wonder, do New Englanders trade baseball cods and football cods?)

So ... as you can see, in just a few months I've already learned much. It's been informative, interesting and fun. And if I seem confused once in a while, please be patient as I continue to learn about a wonderful region and a beautiful Church.

This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor