"It is...Our will that Catholics should abstain from certain appellations which have recently been brought into use to distinguish one group of Catholics from another. They are to be avoided not only as 'profane novelties of words,' out of harmony with both truth and justice, but also because they give rise to great trouble and confusion among Catholics. Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: 'This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved' (Athanasian Creed). There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim 'Christian is my name and Catholic my surname,' only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself." -- Pope Benedict XV, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum 24 (1914)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The making of a cardinal

  • By Sandro Contenta 
  • Fri Feb 10 2012 

Thomas Collins has ascended from being an altar server at Church of Our Lady to becoming a papal adviser. Now, this respected teacher, preacher and theologian is poised to become ‘a prince of the church’

Mercury News Services
TORONTO — Chatter and deep yawns fill the gym at St. Joseph’s College School, near Queen’s Park, where Grade 12 girls watch Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins take the stage.
His Grace has his work cut out for him.
The Roman Catholic Church has had a rough time with modernity, the culture that transformed the pectoral cross into bling. Collins largely blames it for shrinking church attendance. The 65-year-old Guelph native now gazes at some 200 teenagers who, despite their Catholic school uniforms, have modernity imprinted on their genes.
And it’s 8:45 in the morning.
The topic — “What it means to be a Catholic Christian” — doesn’t sound promising. Collins begins with an almost pedantic explanation of the inability to comprehend God and the Holy Trinity. It’s met with polite silence and many glazed eyes.
He follows with a call to imitate God’s love by helping the needy; the risk of yet another Good Samaritan parable looms large.
Collins doesn’t go there. Not for him the refried homilies too often served at Sunday mass. Instead, he seems to shift gears at about the point where he compares black holes that trap light to people so full of themselves that love can’t get out.
He’s moving about as he teaches — gesticulating with vigour. He jokes about his “frequent visits to the shrine of St. Tim Hortons” and praises the deductive powers of G.K. Chesterton’s fictional detective, Father Brown.
There are sound effects, too. Monastery bells go “boing, boing, boing,” homework is an angry “aarrrgh,” a heart in crisis beats “barrup, bup-poo,” and frivolous devotion sounds something like, “Ooowwee, let’s be holy.”
Girls are now leaning forward and laughing.
He sprinkles aphorisms: “We’re not a lonely canoe sailing across the Atlantic, we’re a mighty fleet.” He tells of St. Teresa of Avila, so devoted she would levitate while praying, and of an awestruck monk who nonetheless left the apparition of Jesus to continue a four-decade-old routine of feeding the poor.
“Holiness does not mean having an extraordinary feeling about God,” Collins says. “It’s about quietly serving other people.”
By the end of his talk, which included a question-and-answer period, the applause and enthusiasm are genuine. Some girls make a beeline to gather around him and chat some more.
“He’s a natural,” says St. Joseph’s principal Helen Lesniak. “He’d make a great teacher. He is a great teacher.”
It’s hard not to like Collins, who becomes a cardinal Feb. 18 in Rome. His message to the students — don’t just love your neighbours, help them out — is at least as old as Christianity. But there aren’t many princes of the church who can deliver it in such a disarmingly down-to-earth way.
In a church stained by scandals, and burdened by leaders often seen as aloof and out of touch, Collins seems a breath of fresh air. He’s accessible, erudite and friendly.
“He’s always upbeat and he gets excited about faith and teaching,” says Rev. Greg Bittman, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Edmonton, where Collins was archbishop from 1999 until the end of 2006. “He approaches his work with gusto.”
He needs a lot of it. He preaches at a time when religion is often synonymous with extremism and scandal, and greed has been raised to a force of nature. Church attendance is plummeting, at least in the Western world, and recruits to the priesthood are barely a trickle.
“The whole notion of church is being challenged,” says St. Michael’s College theologian Moira McQueen. “Many Catholics nowadays think attendance at church is not the main point, it’s whether or not they live a good and upright life,” she adds. “They’ll say, ‘I don’t need to look to a church to know what’s right and wrong.’ ”
Pope Benedict has been directly tapping Collins’ skills for the past two years. He named him to the Vatican’s communications council, entrusted him with the orientation of newly appointed bishops and put him on the team that investigated sex abuse scandals that ravaged the church in Ireland.
The jobs made Collins’ appointment to the elite group of 125 cardinals who will elect the pope’s successor all the more expected. In the past, heading Canada’s biggest archdiocese has usually been enough to warrant the promotion.
The papal attention has Collins’ hometown friend, Rev. Dennis Noon, teasing the cardinal-designate about his steady climb up the hierarchy: “I said, ‘Maybe you’ll be the first Canadian pope.’ ” Asked if the thought crosses his mind, Collins roars out a laugh: “I can truly say, no — not at all.”
Also not surprising is Benedict’s promotion of a kindred spirit, a staunch protector of Catholic orthodoxy. If the 84-year-old Benedict is “God’s Rottweiler,” as some have dubbed him, Collins is His affable bulldog.
He flatly says in an interview there isn’t anything in church doctrine or liturgy he would change. Those who have watched him closely aren’t surprised.
“What you’re going to see is a strong pastoral approach, but it will not be one that encourages any radical new steps,” says Richard Alway, president of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, of which Collins is the chancellor. “He’s not going to be an innovator in doctrine.”
“He’s happy with what the church teaches,” says Bittman. “He’s happy with everything.”
For some, holding the line on issues like divorce, contraception, celibacy for priests and a ban on women clergy is a recipe for further drops in attendance and new priests.
“For every one person who comes to the church, three are leaving. The people of God are speaking with their feet,” says Ted Schmidt, editor of the online New Catholic Times, and one of Collins’ toughest critics.
Schmidt argues the main problem is the unwillingness of church authorities to give lay Catholics a voice.
“They still want a small group of people — largely aging celibate men in Rome — to tell us what we should believe. But those days are over,” says Schmidt, a former teacher at Toronto’s Neil McNeil Catholic Secondary School.
Collins has tackled his current diocese’s challenges with fervour. It has seen him log 86,000 kilometres on his 17-month-old Buick LaCrosse, which is driven by his bodyguard.
He revised the archdiocese’s policy on sex abuse allegations against priests and, in a recent talk in Guelph, criticized the way church authorities worldwide dealt with the predators. He’s made Catholic education a priority and in 2010 made clear that scandal-plagued trustees should be voted off the Toronto Catholic School Board.
He’s been especially vocal on abortion, denouncing then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff for insisting the procedure be part of a federal maternal health policy for the developing world. Collins also invited to Toronto an order called the Sisters of Life, which helps pregnant women, and set the nuns up in a former church on Danforth Avenue.
He’s been less vocal on specific issues of social justice. He made the recession the focus of an address in October 2008, however, calling it a consequence of “living beyond our means,” and noting the church’s teachings on human dignity and the common good. He also addressed a conference on the abuse of women, calling for sermons on the “terrible evil” so that women will not “feel like they are alone.”
His main priority remains reaching out “to the gathered and the scattered,” as Collins often puts it. In Edmonton, he opened a chapel in a downtown shopping mall. In Toronto, where he was appointed in 2007, he uses podcasts, blogs and videos. Next week, while in Rome for the “consistory” that will make him a cardinal, he’ll answer questions from Guelph high schoolers via Skype.
His model is Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists and writers, whose image Collins has as his BlackBerry wallpaper. In the late 16th century, de Sales courageously travelled through the Duchy of Savoy, converting thousands of Protestants back to Catholicism with a message of love. Collins’ other hero is St. Charles Borromeo, whose more muscular evangelization efforts in the 16th century included zealously hunting down perceived heretics.
Collins grew up in Guelph, in a large detached house on Durham Street, lined with neighbours of Irish descent. The road ends at a hill where the imposing Church of Our Lady Immaculate reaches for the sky. The church was an inescapable presence.
An indelible memory is walking up the steep hill with his dad in the dead of a winter night for “nocturnal adoration” of the Eucharist.
“I was a little boy — it seemed like it was two in the morning but it was probably just 10 o’clock at night,” he says in an interview. “I would see my dad — when he was in prayer, he was focused. It was astonishing. It touched my heart.”
Collins was an altar boy at the church by the time he was eight. One day, as he left Sunday mass, a stone cross from the church’s facade came crashing down, denting the steel railing on the stairs where young Thomas stood.
“It smashed just a few feet away from me — bourrgh! — like that,” Collins says. “It was a very dramatic thing. It was kind of scary. My parents were — ‘Oh my gosh!’ But I wasn’t hurt.”
Many years later, church tour guides would tell visitors the near-death experience was the moment Collins chose the priesthood. But he dismisses that with a laugh.
“I’ve heard people talk that I suddenly had a vision that I was going to be a priest. That’s not true,” he says. “With St. Paul, (the call to vocation) was very dramatic. For me, it never was. It was a steady sense of being drawn to it by the example of my family, particularly my father’s great devotion, by the priests in my parish and by my reading as well — I would read the Lives of the Saints.”
Asked if he believes the near-miss was luck or divine intervention, Collins chuckles — “I never thought of that.”
“I think God is involved totally in our lives but I don’t think omens are particularly — I don’t think that’s the way he speaks to us,” he adds. “It’s usually like the Old Testament says, ‘It’s not in the thunder and the lightning, it’s in the gentle breeze.’ ”
His ancestors arrived from Drogheda, Ireland, in 1832. His great grandfather, Patrick Downey, was the first Catholic principal in Guelph, running a school on the church hill in the 1850s.
His grandfather, Christopher Collins, was also a principal on the hill. His father, Thomas, worked on the railroad before becoming the circulation manager of the Guelph Mercury; his uncle, Joe, was the editor.
Collins’ mother, Juliana Keen, was born in Birmingham, England, and emigrated to Brantford with her family when she was five. Her father, George Keen, was the founder and general secretary of the Co-operative Union of Canada. He received an honorary doctorate from St. Francis Xavier University for his pioneering work in setting up cooperatives and credit unions across the country.
Juliana worked with a company that built mausoleums. In 1928, she was managing the office of a project in Guelph and boarding at the home of Thomas Collins’ cousin. They met and finally married in 1938, after two deaths in their families forced a mourning period that postponed the happy event for three years.
Juliana gave birth to four children, two girls and two boys. One of them, George Anthony, died an infant. Thomas Christopher Collins was the youngest.
When Collins was six, his father suffered spinal tuberculosis and spent a year immobilized on a Stryker frame in a sanatorium near Kitchener. Collins was too young to be admitted for visits and saw his father only once that year. To make ends meet, Juliana got a job as a legal secretary.
Reading became a passion at a young age. Collins recalls with particular fondness the gift of one aunt,Tales From Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb.
“He loved books,” says his oldest sister, Catharine, 72, a former teacher and principal. “We lived within walking distance of the library. So, as a little boy, he would come home with a stack of books half the size of him.”
He went to primary and elementary schools on either side of the church hill, excelled academically and skipped Grade 4. He wasn’t into sports. His game was chess, and he played it regularly after classes at Bishop Macdonell Catholic High School.
“He was a quiet, humble, bright guy,” says Terry Valeriote, a retired teacher who studied with Collins throughout high school. “He was always sociable but hard to notice. He was sort of always in the background.”
A high school English teacher, Rev. John Newstead, fuelled Collins’ passion for literature. “He had a very extravagant style,” Collins says, suddenly reciting William Blake with booming voice and outstretched arm — “Tiger, tiger burning bright, in the forests of the night!”
In Grade 11, Newstead became the first to tell Collins he should consider the priesthood. By then, Collins had also kicked around the idea of becoming a lawyer or teacher.
He delayed studying to be a priest when a stroke left his father partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair. His father died in 1967, at the age of 72. His mother died 11 years later.
Collins was ordained in 1973, the year he earned his MA in English. He spent a few months in Hamilton-area parishes before teaching English in high school and university. At St. Peter’s seminary in London, where he taught Scripture, he would break the tension of exams by placing chocolate bunnies in a bag, smashing them to bits and handing them out to students.
By 1992, he was the seminary’s dean of theology, and later its rector, before becoming Bishop of St. Paul, Alta., in 1997. There, he became one of six Alberta bishops to sign a letter on the environment and global warming. “Part of human sin has been to see ourselves as separate from the rest of creation, seeing the natural world only as a source of profit and personal gain,” the letter said.
Later, as Archbishop of Edmonton, Collins wrote a 2005 pastoral letter explaining the church’s opposition to same-sex marriages. He told The Toronto Star that year that Catholic federal politicians who voted for the law might not be fit for communion because they violated the Gospel.
Protecting established church doctrine has always been a Collins priority. He argues priests are instructed to do so in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
“The Lord is in favour of orthodoxy,” he says.
St. John’s apocalyptic vision was the subject of Collins’ doctoral thesis in theology. “That’s my specialty,” he says with a chuckle. “If I look worried, you should look worried.”
In his lectio divina, a prayerful reading of Scripture, on the book, delivered in 2010, Collins says the “cosmic” battle with Satan demands doctrinal fortitude and “steady toughness.”
“Someone once said that old age isn’t for sissies. Well, being a Christian isn’t either,” he adds, denouncing any attempt at a “wishy-washy” or “watered-down faith.”
“Sometimes we can live on a kind of spiritual diet of marshmallows — and that’s not healthy — a kind of Christianity reduced to ‘have a nice day,’ ” Collins says.
He uses the example of Michael Power, the first bishop of Toronto, as a life well lived while awaiting the apocalypse. In the 1840s, Power devoted himself to helping thousands of poor and sick Irish immigrants “dumped” at the Toronto waterfront, until he died of typhus.
“We can’t be couch potatoes before the word of God,” Collins says.
Does he enjoy his job, a St. Joseph’s student asks? “I love it,” Collins beams. “I’m a happy guy.”
Another girl wonders how he feels about becoming a cardinal. “I’m kind of overwhelmed a bit, but I’m just taking it one day at a time,” he says. “I think basically what I’m called to be is a Christian ... That’s ultimately what it comes down to. You know, when you get to the Pearly Gates, no one is going to say, ‘Your Eminence.’ ”
Later, he tells the students“The key thing in life is to love God, love neighbours — do it every day. That’s what matters. Exams don’t matter so much, if I may say so in this academic environment.” This remark elicits laughter. “The hardest kind of exam is when you get the question ahead of time — there are no excuses. The basic question that we’re going to get, at the end of our work, whenever that may be, is, ‘Do you love the Lord your God with your heart and mind and soul? Have you loved your neighbour as yourself?’ It comes down to that.”
Later, outside the class, Collins whispers: “I can’t believe I told them exams don’t matter,” and then blushes.
Two Grade 10 girls want to know how he starts his day. Collins, who lives at St. Michael’s rectory, says he rolls out of bed at 5:15 a.m., and has coffee and cereal before praying. Then, he goes for a walk.
One of the girls, tells him of finding four TTC student tickets on a subway platform one day. Later, she found two more tickets in the school hallway. And coins seem to magically appear in her coat pockets. Her dad, a construction worker, is unemployed in winter and money is tight. So she asks Collins: Are the tickets and coins signs from God?
Here’s a young believer ripe for the picking. But Collins looks her in the eyes and says he doesn’t think so.
The student seems not the least bit upset. She smiles and fist bumps the archbishop goodbye.
Record news services

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