Thomas Collins, MA'73
will be elevated to the College of Cardinals
When Western alumnus Thomas Collins, MA’73, was installed as Archbishop of Toronto in January 2007, he became the spiritual leader of Canada’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese, with 1.9 million parishioners. Only in the past year, though, has His Grace become a media magnet, as his strong stand against sexual abuse in the church has been widely reported.
Just before Easter 2010, at a time when many senior Vatican voices were reacting defensively, Collins cautioned 400 priests at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto not to depict the public dismay over the church’s abuse scandal as a media invention.
He defended the coverage of “the sins” committed by some Catholic clergy, noting that the media’s attention was “a profound tribute” to the priesthood.
“People instinctively expect holiness in a Catholic priest, and are especially appalled when he does evil."
Collins then walked the talk: He launched a review of the diocese’s procedures for dealing with abuse allegations. He appointed a panel of lay people with expertise in youth, psychology, legal issues and ethics, and gave them a tight deadline for reporting.
Although the panel’s report largely reaffirmed the process for investigating alleged abuses, it resulted in a more “user friendly” document that allows those who are not experts in canon law to understand clearly the steps that the archdiocese follows.
In June 2010, Rome named Collins, along with nine other bishops, to help investigate the abuse scandal in Ireland and report on how the Irish church has responded. The Archbishop says he was not informed why he was chosen, “though we all had Irish names."
He spent most of January in Ireland, where he met with abuse victims. “I found it to be a profound experience,” he says. “It was a great privilege to listen to people who have been hurt and who have struggled.” His emphasis was on listening. “Often we need to speak less and listen more,” he says. At the time this story was written, Collins was working on a report which the bishops were submitting to the Vatican by Easter.
Born and raised in Guelph, Collins earned a Bachelor of Theology in 1973 at St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont. The same year, he completed an MA in English at Western. “I asked for permission to do the MA because of my great love of English,” he recalls. He went on to teach English literature to seminarians and other students in King’s University College for three years. (Even today, he makes time to read Old English classics such as Beowulf). Ordained a priest in 1973 at the Christ the King Cathedral in Hamilton, Collins spent two years there as associate pastor and, at the same time, was Chaplain and taught history and religious studies at Cathedral Boys’ School.
But his major duties were at St. Peter’s, teaching Scripture for six years, mentoring the seminary students and then serving as rector. Along the way, he upgraded his theology credentials through study in Rome, where he received his Licentiate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Bible Institute and a PhD in Theology from the Gregorian University.
In 1997, Collins left behind the scholastic life and found himself on the fast track for promotion up the church hierarchy. The Papal Nuncio in Ottawa summoned him to a meeting and informed him that Pope John Paul II was appointing him Bishop of Saint Paul, Alta. Eighteen months later, he was elevated to Archbishop of Edmonton, and in December 2006, he received word of his posting to the Archdiocese of Toronto. “The call to the priesthood comes from deep in the heart,” he says wryly. “After that, the calls come by phone."
The next call, it is widely believed, may be for Cardinal. There is a 60-year tradition of Toronto archbishops being made cardinals. Collins, 64, was passed over for the red hat last October, likely due to his relative youth. His role in the Irish Visitation, however, shows he has the confidence of the Holy See. (He has met Pope Benedict XVI three times, including a private, 20-minute audience with him when Collins was Archbishop of Edmonton).
As Archbishop of Toronto, he keeps a busy schedule, celebrating mass and meeting the faithful in the 225 parishes across Greater Toronto. “I try to be on the road as much as possible,” he says. Whereas in Edmonton, he tried to devote Saturday afternoons to hearing confession, now his role as confessor is more limited - and more impromptu. “Sometimes people see my Roman collar when I’m at the airport and ask to take confession."
The Archbishop confesses his own sins every three weeks. “It helps me to know myself better and to appreciate God’s mercy in my life,” he says. “It also makes me more patient with others. Both ways, as a confessor and as a penitent, it’s one of the most moving experiences of being a priest.”
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