Archbishop Philip Pocock Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Toronto Archives

Archbishop Philip Pocock was a trailblazer

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  • March 12, 2016

There’s no doubt that Archbishop Philip Pocock’s stand against Planned Parenthood was a defining moment in his episcopal career.

“It can’t be understated. This was a huge thing,” said Peter Meehan, Pocock’s official biographer.

Francis Philip Pocock had been a bishop since he turned 37 years old in 1944. A professor of moral theology and canon law at St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont., beginning in his late 20s, he went from bishop of Saskatoon to coadjutor and eventually archbishop of Winnipeg to coadjutor and then archbishop of Toronto. 

He was an experienced but still relatively youthful bishop in his 50s when he attended the Second Vatican Council. He came back from that global gathering of the Church on fire with a new vision of how the Church could and should engage the modern world.

He pushed Toronto parishes into a full embrace of the new liturgy and inaugurated a more consultative style of governance.

“When the (Second Vatican) Council was called he was absolutely revved up for it, ready to go,” said Meehan, whose forthcoming biography has a working title of “To know God and to Make God Known”: The Life of Philip Pocock, Seventh Archbishop of Toronto. “When he came back he was the lead innovator and implementer… Pocock was just blazing trails.”

Like Pope Francis, Pocock had an instinct for mercy, said Meehan. In the days before Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, with its pastoral judgment against artificial birth control, when Catholics were still exploring the moral implications of altering a woman’s body chemistry to render her temporarily infertile, Pocock held a pastoral seminar for Toronto priests. He didn’t approve artificial birth control, but he anticipated Catholics would be coming to confession unsure whether their married sex life had now veered into sin.

“He basically said, when these people come to you in the confessional, you can’t turn them away,” said Meehan. “A lot of bishops buried their heads in the sand over stuff like this. He was basically saying, we’ve got to bring God’s mercy and forgiveness to people.”

So when Pocock stood up to Planned Parenthood a decade later, it came as a shock.

“It was very shocking. It was a break with the past,” Meehan said.

Pocock was diagnosed with cancer in 1978 and in light of his failing health took up residence at St. Mary’s parish in Brampton. His residence was portrayed to the diocese as lightening the load for an elder in failing health, but in fact the move was strategic. At St. Mary’s, Pocock lived next door to Ontario Premier Bill Davis.

Across the backyard fence Pocock worked on Davis, persuading the premier of the basic unfairness of the province’s limited funding for Catholic schools. Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter gets far more credit for hosting the Conservative premier at home. But when Davis went home to Brampton, he had the other archbishop to deal with.

He was never boastful about creating ShareLife or its astounding early success. But he was proud, said Meehan, “a very humble man.”

Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic commissioned Meehan to write the official biography because he felt Pocock was underappreciated.

“These larger than life figures in Carter and (Cardinal James) McGuigan, they did crowd him out. He’s what we call in social history a lost voice who needs to be reclaimed,” Meehan said.

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