The missionary vocation of Cardinal Joseph Tobin, C.Ss.R., archbishop of Newark, began in the heart of southwest Detroit, where the spirit of mission permeated the air in the Holy Redeemer Parish back in the 1950s. 

“I admired the priests. It was a very active parish, and many left for missions,” he recalled, reflecting on the Redemptorist community that shaped his early life. “The first American Redemptorist to work in Brazil’s Amazon region came from my neighborhood. Even more exotic were the fellows who went to Thailand.” 

His parish was big on mission animation, his neighborhood was a cradle for missionaries, with clubs in the parish supporting missions in Brazil and Thailand, and the young cardinal-to-be served as an altar boy when these priests returned to celebrate Mass and share their tales from the missions. 

Cardinal Joseph’s journey to priesthood was influenced by his admiration for the Redemptorist order and the support of his father, who advised him to follow God’s will. Despite not having envisioned a specific mission territory when he began exploring his vocation, Cardinal Joseph was prepared for a wide horizon of possibilities. “Towards the end of theology, it narrowed,” he shared. His provincial first brought up the possibility of an academic career, pursuing a doctorate in Rome, but without challenging his vow of obedience, he said he would prefer to “die in the frontlines.” 

Unexpectedly, his first assignment was not Brazil, as he had been prepared for, but back to his home parish in Detroit. “I had to become a missionary,” he states, recognizing that the city had changed and presented new cultural challenges. “I finally got to a foreign country other than Canada when I got elected to the General Council and went to Mexico. I remember being in front of the Tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and began crying, thinking of all the abuelitas who had taught me to love the Morenita.”  

Cardinal Joseph was in the general government of the Redemptorist for 18 years, including as Superior General between 1997 and 2009: “For the 18 years I was in the general government, I spent about half of them in Rome, the other half in the countries where we work. We are in 78 countries, and I believe I’ve been to 71 of them. I still wake up with three questions haunting me: where I am, what language do we speak, and where is the john.” 

Haiti stands out for him. “The poorest country in the hemisphere, one of the five poorest countries in the world,” he noted, “suffering terribly, they still have a joy that is inspiring.” This contrasts with his experiences in the former Soviet Union, where the joy was so less apparent, that teachers in Belarus would walk their students to the garden of a Redemptorist parish where a priest had planted flowers. 

To those considering a missionary vocation, lay or otherwise, the prelate offers encouragement, citing the transformative experiences of those who have served overseas missions. “It confirmed them as adults in the faith of their childhood, broadening their horizons,” he says. The cardinal echoes Pope Francis’s sentiment that young people should be given something to do, not just talked at. 

“I think living outside of one’s country helps you understand your own,” he said. “I remember reading a XIX century American author named Ambrose Bierce, who was a bit of a cynic. And he said, ‘War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.’ And I think even today, there is a tendency to think that everything ends at our borders. And there is a whole world out there.” 

Being a foreign missionary today, he argued, “is an exchange of gifts. It is not ‘I have something to bring,’ no, Christ has been there before us. What we are trying to do is help the local Church and announce with joy the universal sisterhood and brotherhood that we share as Catholics.” 

After 45 years as a priest, Cardinal Joseph has spent much of his life in cultural realities different from the one he was raised in, finding it exhilarating. His advice to those considering the missionary path is heartfelt: “Especially if you can bear with yourself for massacring languages!”