Cardinal Thomas Collins goes over the large collection of paperwork that accumulates throughout the day. Photo by Evan Boudreau.

From dusk ‘til dawn, a cardinal’s work is never done

  • May 17, 2014

TORONTO - It’s 5 a.m. and much of the city is still at rest, but not Cardinal Thomas Collins. No, he’s up even before the birds.

The first two to three hours of his day are typically filled with coffee, exercise and prayer.

“I probably should have a bit more of a stable routine,” said Collins while sipping coffee at Fran’s Restaurant on Shuter Street, mere blocks from the rectory of St. Michael’s Cathedral where the cardinal lays his head at night.

“I try to keep the first bits of it, no matter how it slides in terms of time, pretty stable in terms of a cup of coffee and a little prayer; that’s the basics. Bishop (Fulton) Sheen said that of course it is forbidden to have a cup of coffee while you are praying but you can certainly pray while having a cup of coffee, so I follow that wisdom.”

From there Collins heads in one of two directions: to the Pastoral Centre on Yonge Street via the subway or outside the rectory to meet Richard Renz, his assistant.

Today, May 7, Collins goes with the latter.

“Good morning,” said Renz, accompanying his pleasantry with a handshake.

With a day full of events Renz packs various outfits for the cardinal — from a basic vestment to an elaborate cassock — into the black Buick sedan. And then they’re off to Brampton, Ont.

“I let Richard deal with the stress of driving and I handle the rest of the stress of running the diocese,” said Collins while crunching his BlackBerry in the front seat.

While en route to celebrate a Catholic Education Week Mass at Notre Dame Secondary School, Collins explains his strategy of arriving no more than 20 minutes in advance.

“I like to show up 15 or 20 minutes before I am supposed to be somewhere,” said Collins while constantly glancing towards the clock. “That’s a buffer zone. If I were to arrive say a half an hour before, people may get panicked and that would disrupt their preparation.”

Not only does this buffer zone compensate for the unforeseen, it allows the Archbishop of Toronto to meet with those he leads.

“He’s a good leader because he communicates with people,” said Jennifer Nwamadi, 14. “It is really important to know what we (the parishioners) are thinking because we are the people and they have to lead us and direct us.”

Nwamadi, a Grade 9 student at Notre Dame, along with some friends spoke with Collins for a few moments before the Mass about his busy life.

“I was really surprised that he has so many things to do,” she said. “I thought he would sleep more every day, I didn’t think he was that busy. I feel blessed that he would come and talk to students.”

With the 10 a.m. Mass in the books, and a few photos snapped with students, it is back into the Buick.

As Renz escorts Collins to his next engagement, a lunch with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk at Josyf Cardinal Slipyj Catholic School, Collins explains a challenge of running Canada’s largest diocese.

“I try never to look at my watch and say where am I suppose to be next,” said Collins as the Buick races towards the Queen Elizabeth Way. “I always just try to be where I am and at a certain point I have to leave like I just did now. I’d rather be at everything but there is a limit to how much you can do.”

Working within those limitations to see as many parishioners as possible is something that Max Vecchiarino, a superintendent of education with the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, said sends a powerful message.

“He reminds us that leadership is horizontal,” said Vecchiarino. “For me it is a very simple and powerful reminder that we are all human, that there are no differences between people.”

The next stop for Collins is back to downtown Toronto for a 1:30 p.m. press conference and Mass hosted by the French Catholic school board of south-central Ontario.

Despite the cardinal being a little nervous about celebrating Mass in French, those attending feel that by doing so Collins shows he embraces the francophone culture.

“We need him and we need to hear him in French as well ... (because) it gives us the strength to continue our journey,” said Sebastien Lacroix, a board spokesperson. “Those young people, what they feel is that Cardinal Collins spoke to me directly.”

After celebrating Mass at Paroisse du Sacré-Coeur, a French parish at the corner of Sherbourne and Carlton Streets in downtown Toronto, the cardinal makes the short drive back to the rectory to take care of some paperwork.

When not reading e-mails, returning phone calls and checking documents, Collins likes read biographies of political and religious leaders.

“I have this couch that I’ve had since the ’70s when I was in the seminary — it is this beaten up old thing — and I lie down on that and I read a book,” he said. “I relax that way, I’ve loved reading ever since I was a little tiny boy. “

But before Collins is able to pick up one of the hundreds of books which cover every shelf, table and place to sit in his little apartment, it is back to Fran’s for a spaghetti dinner.

“I come here very often,” he said, as the waiter asks if he’ll have his regular orange chicken. “I’m sure you can tell.”

So the day is winding down with a comfortable meal at a familiar restaurant, but not before heading to celebrate another Mass — this time the Neophyte Mass at the cathedral.

Once again as the Mass finishes, Collins, despite having to be up at 3 a.m. the next day to head to Ottawa for the National March for Life, takes time to acknowledge the people he leads.

“Like I told my children, he is the very big boss of all the priests so it is very important for him to get time for us on a special day like this,” said Rolanda Bezati.

“He gives us hope.”

Days like this are why Collins became a priest.

“I became a priest to be one on one with people,” he said. “It is an opportunity for me to listen and to understand. I find that is one of the great joys of my mission.

“I love it, it is great, I am tired but it is a good tired.”

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