I knew him when

Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis. (Photo/Sean Gallagher, The Criterion) See US-CARDINALS-TOBIN Oct. 10, 2016.

Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis. (Photo/Sean Gallagher, The Criterion)

It appears in high school yearbooks at some point — the grateful appreciation from a classmate who writes, “When you’re a (fill in the blank) I’ll be able to say ‘I knew him when…'”

Now, I can say the same about Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis, who was chosen Oct. 9 by Pope Francis to join the College of Cardinals. Not that Cardinal-designate Tobin and I went to high school together. But I really did know him when.

The setting: The parish center (i.e., former convent) of St. Raymond of Pennafort Church in Detroit in the early 1980s — possibly 1982. I was there making a weekend retreat called “Exercise in Christian Living” for young adults in college or a bit older. I had been invited to bring my guitar, so I did. Apparently, the same invitation was issued to my friend Pat. At the time, the two of us were preparing for our annual St. Patrick’s Day set of Irish music. Taking a cue from the Blues Brothers, who were big a few years before, I billed us as the Blarney Brothers. But we had some practicing to do.

We carved out some time in the parish center basement, where then-Redemptorist Father Tobin, then assigned to Holy Redeemer Parish in Detroit, was hearing confessions of retreat participants. One song in our set that needed work was Tommy Makem’s classic “Four Green Fields,” an allegorical tale of the split between the majority-Catholic Republic of Ireland and the Protestant-majority Northern Ireland, still part of the United Kingdom. But knowing that there were confessions nearby, we had to keep it quiet. And so we did.

Not quiet enough, apparently. Before the night was over, he saw us with our guitars and said, “Here I am hearing confessions, and then I can hear ‘Four Green Fields’ over it all. I thought maybe I was already in heaven.” Hey, how were we to know the Detroit-born priest was not only a Redemptorist, but Irish, too?

It was a charming moment, but was quickly stored away in my brain until I noticed in 1997 a CNS story that said he had been elected superior general of the Redemptorists. I was doubly impressed, since I thought that such leaders tend to come from Europe and not Detroit — the Galilee of our time — and at only 45 years of age.

Then Father Tobin became archbishop of Indianapolis in 2012. Then I started thinking, wow. And that wow is minimal compared to last Sunday’s news.

Last year, I had an opportunity to interview Archbishop Tobin on an entirely unrelated topic. Once I had wrapped up the interview, I related the story of “Four Green Fields” on the retreat. And he remembered! Or at least he said he did.

I don’t have much occasion to break out into Irish tunes these days, but maybe I’ll pull out the guitar tonight, for old times’ sake.


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