In Conversation: Thomas Collins

By Brian Bethune
The Macleans
February 20, 2012

Guelph, Ont.-born Thomas Collins, archbishop of Toronto, is among 22 prelates joining the College of Cardinals in Rome on Feb. 18, placing him among the governing elite of the Roman Catholic Church.

Q: You are both a pastor and a politician. Does that make it difficult to talk to the media?

A: I suppose it does. You're always concerned that [what you say] be expressed the right way, and that's a constant issue.

Q: You are about to become one of the Pope's advisers in governing the worldwide Church. What are the major issues facing it?

A: Because it is a worldwide Church, that varies from place to place. In Toronto, where the mass is celebrated every Sunday in 37 different languages, we have people from all over the world, and so many of them are facing persecution. That's one of the key issues. For some years we have had a refugee office to help people. That goes to the origins of our diocese, which was founded that way in 1847 when people fleeing the Irish famine—not exactly persecution but certainly hardship—came here, 40,000 immigrants in the summer of 1847. Our first bishop, Michael Power, working with the Anglican community as well, was really the driving force behind organizing the response.

Q: Michael Power died from typhus.

A: Yes, he died Oct. 1st, 1847, in this house where I live, and when I preside over the Church in Toronto from the cathedra it's directly over the tomb of Michael Power. So that's an important issue, for the whole Church and for us here—refugees and persecution.

Q: You've already had larger-than-Canada responsibilities, among them being a member of the synod on the Middle East, which focused on that issue.

A: That's right, that deals with the suffering of the Christians in the Middle East. I knew already a bit about that, but just shortly after [the synod], we had the terrible attack on the Syriac Catholic Cathedral [in Baghdad]. We have other parts of the world where this is also being faced: Nigeria, terrible things in the north there, parts of Asia. The most persecuted group in the world right now are Christians. But in the northern hemisphere, Europe, North America, we have other issues, particularly the ones that the Pope is speaking of: the new evangelization, directed toward people who've become jaded with their faith, somewhat tired or drifted away.

Q: For outsiders at least, the sexual abuse of children by clergy, and the Church's response to it, is the single greatest issue facing the Church. Do Catholics feel that way?

A: That's a very serious issue, obviously, but I think there are many things we need to deal with. I think that's something we have to learn from, we have to learn where we've done wrong and where we've not handled it well. I think we have learned, but we can always learn more. It's an issue, it's an important issue, but it's not the only issue.

Q: You were also one of the five bishops, the apostolic visitors, sent to Ireland in the wake of its child-abuse scandal. Why were you chosen?

A: I don't know for sure. All of us, though, were Irish in descent: two Canadians, two Americans and a Briton. There may have been a feeling that we had kind of an affinity for the culture.

Q: What was your task as an apostolic visitor?

A: To try to understand the situation, and to see what is being done. Was proper care being taken of victims, were there proper steps taken since this to learn and to change and to improve? To look at the whole state of the Irish Church—and, I suppose, see what I could learn for my own Church.

Q: To return to what you were saying about evangelical Catholicism. Do you use that phrase? What do you mean by it?

A: We need to be evangelical, to be on fire, to fire a Pentecost. The Church exploded outward from the upper room, from Pentecost, and we never should forget that.

Q: One longer-term trend is the increasing weight of southern Catholics in the Church.

A: That's a profound reality, the shifting of population. It's a big Church, and you realize this when you go to Rome. You look around, you see the whole Church—it's not just a North American Church or a European Church. And I think that's a humbling reminder to upwardly mobile North American Catholics: you're not the Church, you're just part of the Church.

Q: You're also on the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, which deals with social media. I understand you're going to Skype your old Guelph high school from Rome?

A: Yeah. And I read the breviary on an iPad most of the time—I hate to say I haven't used a batteryless breviary for a while—because it's great in the darkened church. And I've got the Bible on it too.

Q: As a theologian you specialized in the Book of Revelations, the most obscure book in the Bible.

A: Oh, heavens no! It's a bit confusing at times, but it's a great book. People do use it as kind of a predictor of disaster, but it really speaks to people who are facing a terrible world of persecution. It speaks to them of hope, of the heavenly Jerusalem. There are two groups who are really being addressed in it. One group is facing persecution and they're called to be faithful, to be servants of the Lamb, not the Beast. So you have to choose. The other group are the ones who failed the test. They were persecuted and they wanted to compromise with society. The danger of being co-opted and the danger of being martyred are still the two dangers we face. Martyrdom is what a chunk of the Church in the south is facing; the danger of being co-opted faces the Church in the north. Revelations has profound lessons—we are still in that world.

Q: You are the Canadian Church's point man for the Anglican converts. What is the situation there?

A: Our numbers are relatively small—hundreds of people, not thousands as in the U.S. and Britain—but the goal is create a country-wide diocese for those Anglicans who want to join the Church but maintain their own rite and Book of Common Prayer tradition. We're getting there.

Q: The Canadian Catholic Church these days seems to have a lower profile than it has in the past. But now in Ontario you are having a run-in with the provincial government over anti-bullying measures, particularly the gay-straight alliances. Some of the popular reaction to the Church's position is to, once again, raise questions about de-funding religious schools. How concerned are you with this situation?

A: Catholic education has been immensely important in this province right from before Confederation. It provides, for one thing, even quite apart from any religious perspective one might have, diversity within our education system which is enriching to every part of it. It provides a certain competition, a certain pushing for excellence.

Q: You're eyeball to eyeball with the provincial government. You do have an issue. How much can you diverge from what the province mandates for education and still be within the public system?

A: The norm for education is set by the government, but also by the Constitution. The goal is: we work together, we try to find a way. There are many different approaches for dealing with the different challenges we face in education, and we have our ways of doing them which reach the goal just as well as anybody else, and we would say better.

Q: So you expect to reach a compromise over the anti-bullying policy?

A: Bullying is something that's totally against Catholic teaching. We think in schools people are bullied for many different reasons. It should never happen in any school, and we feel that the whole school is the place for an environment where people are treated with real love and respect. No school is perfect, no individual is perfect, but in our Catholic schools we earnestly seek to do well, and I think when people recognize that, they are grateful for the example we show.

Q: You've been very active in what Catholics call "life issues." Is that role going to increase when you're a cardinal?

A: I think it is the ultimate issue, the respect for life from the moment of conception to natural death. The challenges have always been in terms of abortion, and that's still very true. But the challenge of euthanasia is another dimension to pro-life. We need to put our resources into providing palliative care, to helping people in their time of sickness. We all are called to die, but we are called to live here as long as God gives us the gift of life on this Earth.

Q: Given Pope Benedict's age (84), and yours (65), you are likely to vote for his successor. Can you comment on that responsibility?

A: Of all the responsibilities of a cardinal, the most solemn one is to vote for the successor of Peter. Historically, cardinals sat in conclaves all over the place, but now they are in the Sistine Chapel. I think it's immensely beautiful and important that when the cardinals are dropping their ballots they're looking up at Michelangelo's Last Judgment.


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