PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — After nearly two decades leading the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, Bishop Thomas Tobin is gearing up for his final day.
Though Tobin is nearing the church’s mandatory retirement age, he’s unsure exactly when he will be handing the reins over to his successor, Most Rev. Richard Henning.
“I don’t know the exact timeline, that is the mysterious part for me,” Tobin said in an interview with 12 News. “It could be accepted the day I turn 75.”
Tobin turns 75 on April 1, which is also when he plans to submit his letter of resignation.
It will then be up to Pope Francis to accept it.
“It doesn’t always happen right away,” Tobin said. “There are a whole bunch of factors that might determine when the retirement actually begins.”
“I’m proud of the impact the church has had in this state.”
Tobin was appointed bishop by Pope John Paul II in 2005, though he’s served as a priest for nearly five decades. He told 12 News he’s proud of everything the diocese has accomplished under his watch.
“I’m very proud of the impact the church has had in this state over the years,” Tobin said.
Tobin said the diocese is the second-largest provider of charitable assistance in Rhode Island, right behind the state itself.
What he’s most proud of is how hard the diocese has worked to better the lives of those who are struggling. Tobin highlighted the Emmanuel House, which opened more than a decade ago as an emergency shelter for the homeless.
“It predates the current [housing] crisis.” he explained, adding that the Emmanuel House first opened as an overflow shelter.
He also noted the success of his annual “Keep the Heat On” campaign, which has raised more than $4 million.
“We’ve done well in addressing the various needs and priorities in the state,” he added.
Tobin admitted that closing down the state’s churches during the pandemic was one of the most difficult decisions he had to make.
“It was painful, but we did it for the common good,” he said.
WATCH: Bishop Tobin on Rhode Island’s parishes (Story continues below.)
Tobin tells 12 News he still believes the state has an overabundance of parishes. He expects downsizing to continue long after he’s gone, though there are currently no active church closures he’s aware of.
“When I came to the diocese 18 years ago, we had 150 parishes,” he said. “Today, we have 120.”
“A terrible chapter in the history of the church.”
Staffing has also been a challenge for the diocese over the last two decades. Throughout Tobin’s tenure, 91 priests have either retired, died or left the diocese altogether, while only 41 were ordained.
“I think in the 18 years I’ve been here, about 10 priests have left the ministry permanently,” he said. “That’s very tragic and very sad.”
When asked why those priests left, Tobin said there are a variety of reasons.
“Sometimes it’s bad behavior, the relationships they get involved in, or lack of faith,” he said. “Some addiction, some abuses … it’s always sad when it happens. It’s a source of great pain for me, for the rest of the priests, and for parishioners as well.”
Tobin described the 2019 sexual abuse scandal as “a terrible chapter in the history of the church.”
“It’s terrible,” he said. “We know that, when they’re abused that way, their life is changed forever and their faith can be demolished.”
Tobin has been criticized over the years for sharing his occasionally divisive opinions on Twitter. He came under fire for denouncing Pride Month several years ago, and just last summer condemned a local doughnut shop’s decision to collect donations for Planned Parenthood.
When asked whether he believed there was a place for everyone in the Catholic church, Tobin said absolutely.
“Everyone is welcome in the church, but on Jesus’ terms … not on their own individual terms,” he explained. “If you’re going to be Catholic, you have to accept the faith and the teachings of the church. You can’t join a club and disobey all the rules.”
Tobin acknowledged that he’s made mistakes throughout his tenure, adding that he plans to stay off Twitter throughout his retirement.
“I’ve certainly never been perfect and I’ve never claimed to be a saint or a perfect moral example,” Tobin said. “But you do your best despite your weaknesses and your sins and imperfections. You recognize that in the end, we do our best and it’s all in God’s hands.”
“The right pope for our time.”
It’s unclear exactly when Pope Francis will accept Tobin’s resignation, especially now that he’s hospitalized with a respiratory infection.
When asked for his thoughts on Pope Francis, Tobin believes he is “the right pope for our time.”
“I like to describe him as a prophet,” Tobin said. “He has challenged the conscience of the church and the world on issues that are very important to him.”
“He has certainly made his mark,” he continued. “He’s challenged the world in new and innovative ways.”
WATCH: Bishop Tobin’s thoughts on Pope Francis (Story continues below.)
While he and Pope Francis don’t always see eye to eye, Tobin said he still has “a great deal of respect” for the pope.
“I think he’s been a good pope,” he said. “I think he’s really responded to the needs of our time.”
Tobin told 12 News he plans to stay in Rhode Island and will help out if asked, though he believes Henning will pick up right where he left off.
“He has really hit the ground running,” Tobin said of Henning. “I’m just so grateful and so blessed that he is my successor. It’s time to pass the torch.”
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