Cardinal Collins sits with members of the government delegation that accompanied him in Rome, including Jim Flaherty to his right, and Julian Fantino. Photo courtesy of the archdiocese of Toronto

"Diving right into the chaos" - Jim O'Leary

  • February 22, 2012

ROME - Roman traffic is chaotic. The speed limit is established by the pace of the car ahead. Stops signs mean ease up a bit on the gas. Signalling a turn is for sissies. Except at major intersections, a red light means look both ways before proceeding.

So crossing the street is not for the faint of heart. Not for newcomers, at least. But Salvatore, a tour guide, explained to a group of Canadians how to enjoy Rome and live to tell about it.

“If you want to cross the road,” he said. “You put your head down, you close your eyes, and you just go. The cars will stop. That’s the only way they will stop. Otherwise, you can stand on a corner for a month waiting for someone to let you cross. You just have to go. Trust me.”

So we trusted Salvatore. And it worked. When drivers see you are committed to seizing the right of way, they let you have it.

Salvatore’s sage advice might also apply to a new cardinal who is learning to navigate between the bumpers of an often unsympathetic society. Some days, you have to declare that enough is enough, steel yourself and make the world stop and listen to your message.

That thought came to mind as Cardinal Thomas Collins was addressing the media on Feb. 18, about two hours after he had been welcomed into the College of Cardinals by Pope Benedict XVI. He was standing next to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in the sun-filled garden of the Canadian Pontifical College, near the Vatican. Both men made opening remarks before inviting questions.

While most of the media was respectful of the occasion, a couple did their best to find something controversial to report on a day of celebration. They asked about scandal in the Vatican, empty churches, abortion. Collins amiably deflected all the thrusts. He made the point that the true reality of the Catholic Church is witnessed by the millions of people who lead faithful lives and who give loving care to the weak and the poor.

“We are here to serve, we’re here to love,” he said.

Sure, there are exceptions. The Church isn’t perfect but, he said, people should remember “it’s the music, not the instrument, that’s important.”

The only time Collins seemed perturbed was when a CBC reporter questioned Flaherty about the government expenditure to send three cabinet ministers to Rome. Flaherty was joined by Jason Kenney and Julian Fantino, plus 21 others, including MPs, Ontario MPPs and staff. A veteran of such scrums, not to mention question period, Flaherty is more than capable of answering for himself. But he barely began his reply when Collins interjected.

Collins had been unfazed by the previous questions, but this one seemed to bother him. He tensed and his face flushed and, those who have seen him agitated before, would notice the tenor of voice rise ever-so slightly.

Flaherty was his guest and, at first, it seemed Collins was interjecting for that reason. And that may have been part of it. But there was more.

What irritated the cardinal was the suggestion that an event so important to Catholics was somehow unworthy of significant government acknowledgement. It was as if the reporter was saying that, after all, this was just a bunch of churchmen repeating an ancient ceremony that is without relevance in a secular society. It was at that moment that Collins put his head down and strode defiantly into the traffic.

He pointed out that Catholics are 43 per cent of the Canadian population but, more than just numbers, Catholics have made “enormous” contributions to all facets of Canadian society. He could have added that it’s been that way continuously for 400 years, since the first Jesuits arrived. And that the contributions can be seen in education, health, business, government, sports, the arts — in every corner of Canadian life.

“I am very grateful to the government of Canada who came to this event that is significant in the life of about half the Canadian population,” Collins said.

His didn’t raise his voice but it was firm. The reporter didn’t venture a follow-up question.

As an archbishop in Edmonton for eight years and Toronto for five, Collins is no stranger to championing the causes of the Church. But an archbishop typically speaks only for his own diocese. In becoming a cardinal, the sole cardinal in English Canada, Collins will take on a greater role as a spiritual leader and spokesman. He is not one to seek the spotlight, but Catholics can be assured he’ll be a forceful advocate of the faith when the spotlight finds him.

He’s been to Rome often enough to know there are times you have to put your head down and stride defiantly into the chaos.

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