Our new cardinal seems like a 'Jersey guy' - Opinion

Star-Ledger Guest Columnist

The arrival of Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin to lead the Archdiocese of Newark is exciting and historic. For the first time, the Archdiocese of Newark will be led by a cardinal.  

There will be much written about the potential conflict between Cardinal Tobin and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.  This fits nicely into the New Jersey versus New York story line which dates back to Alexander Hamilton.

Of course, Tobin has already rejected the highfalutin title - Prince of the Church. And consider the story of him receiving the news of his promotion -- the highest leadership position in the Roman Catholic Church -- while painting his mother's house. Well, the guy sounds like a Jersey guy to me.  And the story about his workout partners at his local gym in Indianapolis not knowing he was an archbishop - priceless!

The installation of Tobin is important because of its timing. Since the tail end of St. John Paul II through to the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, the American church, as reflected in the American Bishops, took on a more authoritarian, precise tone. Moral questions had simple yes or no answers - there was no room for debate, discussion or reflection. To many of us of the post-Second Vatican Council, who remembered a younger more vibrant John Paul II, the doors to the church seemed to be closing. There was a darkness, a harshness blanketing the church that seemed foreign to us.

Pope Francis flung open the doors and let in the light.  He did this not by changing church doctrine, but by his approach. He famously responded to a question, "Who am I to judge?"  Pope Francis rejected the notion that any member of our society should be marginalized; instead he focused on each individual's dignity and the role of the church in providing protection. He speaks in terms of love and mercy when facing many of the moral questions raised in today's society. Most importantly, he engages and encourages all of us to engage in the discussion - openly and lovingly.

Tobin has been characterized by those who know him as a reflection of Pope Francis. In reading some of his interviews, it is clear that Tobin considers himself a missionary and pastor. This is welcome news for the 1.5 million members of his church. His openness is especially exciting for those of us who are immigrants or first generation Americans.

The Archdiocese of Newark has been under a significant amount of strain over the past several years.  Although I do not believe the media coverage of the church has always been fair, the Archdiocese has done itself few favors in this regard. The disengaged style of its previous leadership has led to an alienation of many of its followers. 

I am under no delusions that the new leadership will suddenly reject church doctrine and adopt a progressive agenda. Similar to Pope Francis, I anticipate Tobin will hold firm to the church's teachings while still encouraging and welcoming diverse viewpoints and loving each of us as unique individuals, focusing on the poorest and most vulnerable of our community.

This is an exciting moment for the church. As a Knight of Malta, as an elected official and most importantly as a father, I am excited about the prospects of Cardinal Tobin or Padre Jose as he is known to many of his parishioners.  I look forward to welcoming the cardinal to our community. 

I know there are critics of the church who will submit Tobin to their litmus tests - whether from the political left or the political right.  However, the overwhelming majority of his 1.5 million parishioners will not. We will hope and pray that Pope Francis has provided us a leader who understands our diversity and appreciates its value.

Nicholas A. Chiaravalloti (D-Bayonne) is a state Assemblyman. 

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