Cardinal-designate Tobin talks about helping refugees under Trump and meeting the future Pope Francis in 2005

Pope Francis’s surprise pick for cardinal, American Archbishop Joseph Tobin, has said the US Church has four difficult years ahead as it tries to welcome to migrants and refugees during a Donald Trump administration.

Cardinal-designate Tobin knows well what lies ahead: as archbishop of Indianapolis, he publicly challenged Trump’s vice president-elect, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, over his order to prevent aid groups from helping resettle Syrian refugees in the state.

Cardinal-designate Tobin refused, and last year the archdiocese settled the Syrian family — followed by 52 other refugees.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Tobin said the US Church had been helping resettle migrants for over a century. He said that priority “is going to be challenging in the next four years and hopefully we will meet the challenge”.

“The ethical reflection of a nation isn’t reduced to the government,” he added, saying what counts is its people. “I have a lot of faith in the American people.”

Cardinal-designate Tobin was in Rome for the ceremony Saturday during which Pope Francis will formally make him a member of the College of Cardinals. He is one of 17 new cardinals, three of them Americans, who will get their red hats.

His nomination was a surprise, given that Indianapolis has never had a cardinal and that the US Church had been passed over in Francis’ previous consistories. Francis compounded the shock by recently appointing Tobin to take over in Newark, New Jersey.

Cardinal-designate Tobin, the oldest of 13 children raised largely by a single mother after his father died young, confesses he doesn’t know what exactly Francis saw in him to entrust such weighty responsibilities. Others, however, know why.

“He’s not pompous and he cares about the peripheries,” said John Carr, who led the justice and peace section of the US bishops’ conference for more than two decades before founding a programme at Georgetown University on Catholic social thought. “He’s a pastor, not a prince.”

Cardinal-designate Tobin was nearly alone at a plenary meeting of American bishops in urging the US Church hierarchy to focus on prioritising Francis’s environmental message.

Francis has made the plight of refugees one of the hallmarks of his papacy, even bringing a dozen Syrian refugees home with him from Lesbos, Greece. He has asserted that anyone who wants to build a wall along the US-Mexico border to keep out migrants — as President-elect Trump has proposed — is “not Christian”.

Pence had been among dozens of governors from mostly Republican states who attempted to block Syrian refugees following the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris, saying there were questions about the federal government’s refugee screening process.

During the confrontation, Cardinal-designate Tobin brought an Iraqi refugee with him to a meeting with the governor to explain the Church’s position.

The cardinal-designate said Pence received his Iraqi friend “with great respect” and said he thought Pence’s position was more political strategy than personal conviction.

“I’d like to believe that the governor himself felt caught, because I think that there was an overarching political interest in this thing, the governors banding together against the administration,” he said. “And I think Governor Pence, who takes his Christianity seriously, felt conflicted by it.”

He considers Francis a teacher, and says he has styled his ministry on what he observed in visiting the Argentine members of his Redemptorist religious order while he was superior general. His priests liked Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, and so did his mother.

Cardinal-designate Tobin tells the story of how he and Cardinal Bergoglio, the future Pope, first met during a 2005 bishops meeting at the Vatican just a few months after Benedict XVI was elected.

During a coffee break, he told Cardinal Bergoglio that his mother had actually been rooting for him to be elected pope instead since she had read that he picked up after himself, cooked his own food and did the dishes.

“I said ‘Frankly, she’s had it up to here with the princes of the Church,'” Cardinal-designate Tobin recalled telling the future pope. “He’s never forgot that. And I’m hoping because she’s here, perhaps on Saturday or Sunday, they’ll get a chance to meet.”