Cardinal Collins reflects on a disciple’s life

12 January 2022

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Michael Swan
Canadian Catholic News

In an alternative life, Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, might never have been a bishop, an archbishop or a cardinal. He might very happily have remained a professor of New Testament with an intense interest in the Apocalypse of John.

He would have dedicated himself to the formation of the next generation of priests at St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont., and happily translated the wisdom he encountered in academic study into homilies that resonate with the worries and hopes of ordinary Christians.

In the life he really has led since Jan. 16, 1947, Thomas Christopher Collins has done all that and more. But he never turned away from who he was before being consecrated bishop of St. Paul, Alta., under Pope John Paul II in 1997, then archbishop of Edmonton in 1999 and finally 10th archbishop of Toronto under Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.

As one of Rome’s Cardinal Priests since 2012, Collins has been a teacher, pastor, communicator, advocate and spiritual father to more than two million Canadian Catholics in the Archdiocese of Toronto.

He now reaches that milestone birthday of 75. Like all 5,600 bishops in the Roman Catholic Church, Collins long ago submitted a letter of resignation to the Pope, to be opened on his 75th birthday. When Pope Francis and his advisors will act on that letter is anybody’s guess.

Collins is at peace with this indefinite date with retirement.

“Every vocation and way of life has its daily pressures and demands, but that is just life,” the cardinal told Canadian Catholic News. “I love being a priest and bishop, and that of course lasts forever. But there comes a time when what is sometimes called ‘the burden of office’ is given up and one retires from that, though not from the priesthood or episcopate itself.

“There is so much to be grateful for, and certainly being called by our Lord to serve as a deacon, priest and bishop is central to my life as a disciple of Jesus,” he said.

For now, some of the people who have worked closest to the cardinal are celebrating his 75th with a feast of writing. Faculty at Toronto’s St. Augustine’s Seminary have produced a volume of essays on theological, historical and scriptural subjects called For Love of the Church: A Festschrift on the Interests and Accomplishments of His Eminence Thomas Cardinal Collins, available from Novalis later this year.

Nearly 500 pages of dense, probing theological argument may not be the right birthday present for everybody, but St. Augustine’s faculty just know it’s the right thing for Collins, said Church history professor Father Seamus Hogan.

“He’s made St. Augustine’s a priority,” said Hogan. “He’s invested a lot of his personal time with the seminarians, visiting us very frequently.”

So frequently, in fact, that he maintains a small apartment in the seminary, where he frequently leads colloquiums for seminarians and generally makes himself available to encourage the work of both faculty and students.

Hogan’s contribution to the book is an investigation into the thinking of St. John Fisher, bishop and martyr, who was executed by King Henry VIII for standing against the English Reformation — or, more precisely, with the idea of papal supremacy as guarantor of the independence of the Church. Fisher is a favourite saint of Collins.

Hogan was particularly interested in two essays Fisher wrote to his sisters at the end of his life, while imprisoned in the Tower of London. One was on how to live religious life well — or any life really — and the other was on how to die well.

If the late medieval life of St. John Fisher seems remote from the demands of running the world’s most multicultural, multilingual archdiocese, just hold on. End-of-life issues and the formation of the next generation of Catholics have been major issues for Collins. He’s chosen to tackle those issues — legal euthanasia and the challenges of Christian life for the next generation — by doing what he loves.

“Cardinal Collins is a teacher, a true teacher of the Word of God,” said Suzanne Scorsone, the director of research for the Toronto Archdiocese.

As a teacher, Collins has focused his energies on communication, Scorsone said. She calls the cardinal a natural-born communicator.

When Scorsone looks over the last 15 years, the cardinal’s dedication to education — from Catholic primary schools to graduate studies — really stands out. But then that focus on education provides a base for everything else.

“He brings that wide perspective to the organization and provision of pastoral care and social service programs across the archdiocese,” Scorsone said.

Deacon Peter Lovrick, who edited the cardinal’s birthday book, agrees Collins is prime communicator in and for Catholic Toronto.

“Several years ago, Cardinal Collins called for a program for preaching excellence in the archdiocese,” said the St. Augustine’s professor of homiletics (the art of preaching).

“He has whole-heartedly supported the preaching initiatives at the seminary — including workshops, seminars and preaching conferences, attending them all… His own heart-to-heart preaching style has been a model of good preaching that embodies what the Church calls for.”

Randy Boyagoda, St. Michael’s College professor of the Catholic intellectual tradition and American and contemporary literature, has turned his attention to Collins’ role in leading the Archdiocese through the turbulence of cultural and political change.

Boyagoda has mined 15-years-worth of Collins’ addresses at the annual Cardinal’s Dinner, where Collins each year is surrounded by political leaders at the head table.

“I thought, ‘OK, is there something to these dinner-time addresses that is actual and real, as opposed to the throat-clearing acknowledgement of all the dignitaries, then a funny joke and then you sit down after a prayer? Is there something substantive there?’ ”
Boyagoda said. “There absolutely was, in address after address.”

It’s a glimpse of Collins fulfilling his duty of leadership.

“This is not a Catholic speaking to Catholics, but rather a theologian and thinker and servant who understands the goods of the Catholic tradition are not meant for Catholics alone but represent a positive contribution to a flourishing public life,” said Boyagoda.

If anyone were looking for a pattern in all of this, Collins laid down a template for his labours in Toronto early on with a four-point pastoral plan. The plan calls for the archdiocese to develop vibrant parishes, form people for discipleship, care for those in need and evangelize the surrounding culture.

Sticking to that plan has born all kinds of fruit, but Collins points with particular pride to the welcome Toronto Catholics have extended to refugees.

“Thanks to the work of our Office of Refugees and dedicated parishioners, more than 5,000 people have a new start in Canada and our community. It’s heartening to know that generations of families will enjoy the peace and freedom of Canada,” he said.

Over the years Collins marshalled the generosity of hundreds of thousands of Catholics to fund the renovation of St. Michael’s Cathedral and many of the historic churches of Toronto, to build up evangelization and formation programs and ensure the next generation of priests will have every opportunity to grow into all of their gifts. The five-year Family of Faith campaign ensured a witness of beauty as Catholic churches re-emerged fully renovated from scaffolding.

The cardinal will continue work of lay formation, which stands as one of the four pillars of the pastoral plan, in his retirement with the newly formed St. Monica Institute. Just as there’s no retirement from a vocation to the priesthood, there’s no end to Collins’ vocation as a teacher.

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