Canada's Cardinal Designate Looks to the Past for Future Guidance

By Michelle McQuigge
Medicine Hat News
February 17, 2012

Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins poses for a portrait at St. Michaels Cathedral in Toronto on Friday, January 6, 2012. Collins, 65, is about to become the 16th Canadian to be elevated to the position of cardinal, an elite group of advisers handpicked by the Pope

TORONTO - The picture on Thomas Collins' desk depicts a 16th-century cardinal who fought to return the Catholic faith to its roots while managing one of the largest religious communities in his country.

The present-day Archbishop of Toronto now plans to look to that image for inspiration as he prepares to follow in his idol's footsteps.

Collins, 65, is about to become the 16th Canadian to be elevated to the position of cardinal, an elite group of advisers handpicked by the Pope. Collins and 21 new appointees will don their red hats on Saturday at an official ceremony at the Vatican.

Hundreds of Catholic supporters â€" as well as a government delegation including three senior cabinet ministers â€" will be on hand to watch Collins join the body of men tasked with shaping the institution's future and even selecting the next pope.

For Collins himself, however, the added responsibilities are simply the outward trappings of the faith that's shaped his life.

"Being a cardinal is simply an office in the church, but being a Christian for each one of us is the most fundamental thing, to live a life with the lord," Collins said in a telephone interview from Rome.

Religion was part of Collins' life from his childhood spent in the southern Ontario town of Guelph. He was first educated in the province's Catholic school system before moving on to attain a string of degrees at universities in Canada and Europe.

His master's degree in English from the University of Western Ontario and doctorate of theology from Rome's Gregorian University allowed him to immerse himself in his two driving passions.

His pursuit of academic credentials did not slow his clerical career, which began in 1973 when he became a priest in Hamilton, Ont. He moved on to become the Bishop of Saint Paul in Alberta, followed by an eight-year stint as Archbishop of Edmonton that ended in 2007 with his move to Toronto.

The four years he has spent as head of the largest archdiocese in the country has cemented his reputation as a driven leader whose scholarly bent has not interfered with his desire to connect with the people around him.

"He's shown himself to be a great teacher, a man of good insight, a man who is able to articulate those insights well in ways that people can understand," said Richard Smith, who is president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and describes Collins as a personal friend.

"It makes him a genuine shepherd, a genuine leader within the Church."

That leadership brought Collins to the attention of Pope Benedict VI years ago, Smith said.

The pontif personally appointed Collins to a team probing rampant allegations of sexual abuse in Ireland in 2010, Smith said, adding his friend was also pegged to serve on the Vatican communications council before his elevation to cardinal.

Collins said connecting with the wider community is a high personal and institutional priority, adding it's the best way to fight the social tides that threaten to erode the Catholic support base.

Over his career he established chapels in commercial hubs to make it easier for would-be worshipers to fit prayer into their schedule, led community scriptural sessions for those seeking to deepen their biblical knowledge and worked to bring more youth into the fold.

The greatest obstacle to these outreach efforts, he said, is a pervasive cynicism that can take root in countries where the fight for religious freedom has become a distant memory. One of his goals as a cardinal will be to urge Catholics to "be more zealous in our faith," he said.

"I think that's the danger, taking our faith for granted and not realizing what a wondrous and splendid reality it is."

Although Collins has publicly denounced the Church's long-running sex abuse scandals in strong terms, he toes the line on most points of Catholic doctrine.

His staunch pro-life stance prompted him to hope that "the scourge of abortion be lifted from our land," while his views on chastity for the clergy are best summed up in a 2006 editorial he penned for the Western Catholic Reporter entitled "Celibacy can be lived with joy."

Collins said any influence he brings to bear in his new role won't involve changing the status quo.

"The 10 commandments never have been the 10 suggestions," he said. "The fundamentals are solid and clear. There's no doubt about them at all."

Although nearly 200 Catholics are following Collins to Rome for the consistory ceremony, some religious faithful were chagrined by his elevation to cardinal.

Ted Schmidt, editor of the New Catholic Times, said Collins' contentment with the current system won't prompt him to push for the sorts of changes the institution needs to survive.

The pope's tradition of surrounding himself with yes men who uphold an outdated worldview â€" in which women are barred from the clergy and laymen are excluded from key decisions â€" is driving people away from the Catholic Church, he said.

Collins' appointment will do nothing to staunch the bleeding, he added.

"There's going to be continued tension as long as the Vatican keeps imposing ... their people on us," Schmidt said. "It really is a tragedy of failure to adjust to the signs of the times."

Collins anticipates some trying days as he adapts to life as a cardinal while staying at the helm of the Toronto Archdiocese.

The demanding travel schedule and responsibilities may cause him stressful days, but won't shift his focus from what he sees as his primary goal.

"The greatest thing a bishop can do for the universal church is to try to be a good bishop in his local church," Collins said. "If every bishop does that, we'll be in good shape."


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