'Once he trusted you, he let you do your job' said Joseph Sinasac, former editor of The Catholic Register

Friends recall Cardinal Ambrozic's dedication to Jesus

  • August 30, 2011

TORONTO - Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic spent 56 years as a priest because Jesus was the man he admired most. When he entered the seminary just after the Second World War the new seminarians were asked about their heroes. A few snickered when the immigrant boy from eastern Europe stood and named Jesus as his hero, but decades later as cardinal and archbishop he would stand at the pulpit and proclaim Jesus.

"It is Jesus to whom we look. It is Jesus whom we imitate. It is Jesus whom we follow. It is Jesus who is with us so we can be with Him," were words that often found their way into the late Cardinal Ambrozic's sermons.

"Any time he had a choice, his choice would be to talk about Jesus," said Kitty McGilly, former faith formation consultant with the Toronto Catholic District School Board. "He didn't say Christ, he didn't say God, he didn't say Lord. He very intimately named Jesus."

A friend of the cardinal's for more than 30 years, McGilly remembers him standing off-stage at the SkyDome in 1984 waiting to speak to 45,000 people who had turned up for an event called "Journey of Faith."

"He said to me, 'Kitty, I want to talk to them about Jesus.' ”

The urge to follow Jesus' example stayed with Cardinal Ambrozic even as he was made a prince of the Church. When he returned from Rome a cardinal in 1998, his first visit was to a homeless shelter.

"We were the first place he came to after he was elevated to cardinal," said Good Shepherd Ministries director Br. David Lynch. "He wanted to celebrate his elevation first with the poor and the homeless. He literally came off the plane the night before and came here (to the The Good Shepherd on Queen Street East) the next day."

Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic - 1930-2011

Pope sends condolences after death of Cardinal Ambrozic

Cardinal Ambrozic's concern for those who suffer and are scorned by society was constant and unwavering.

"He had a big concern for those living with HIV and AIDS," recalled Lynch. "He had a great love for the poor."

If people sometimes misunderstood Cardinal Ambrozic, casting him as a fearful and fearsome traditionalist, a churchman constantly playing defence, a man more obsessed with what he's against than enlivened by what he's for, that never worried him, said Suzanne Scorsone.

"He was fundamentally dedicated to God, not to himself," said Scorsone, who served as director of communications for most of the years he was archbishop of Toronto.

If Cardinal Ambrozic argued forcefully in support of his opinions, it wasn't because he intended to shut down the debate. Rather, he expected others to argue just as forcefully for their positions, said Scorsone.

"He expected other people to know their stuff and be able to articulate what they believed," she said.

He was always careful to leave space for other legitimate views, according to Scorsone.

"I once heard him tell a journalist, 'I know the difference between my own, personal opinion and the teaching of the Church,' ” she recalled.

As Chairman of the Board of The Catholic Register for the 16 years he was archbishop of Toronto, Cardinal Ambrozic was very willing to see diverse opinions represented in his paper, said former Register editor and publisher Joseph Sinasac. He was, in many ways, an ideal boss, Sinasac said.

"Once he trusted you, he let you do your job," he said.

'I have had three or four teachers in my life who built confidence in me and helped me to learn. He was one of them.' - Ottawa's Jesuit Archbishop Terry PrendergastWorking for Cardinal Ambrozic was never the fearful prospect that outsiders imagined, said Sinasac.

"His public persona was this gruff, conservative, hardline archbishop. There's no doubt he could be intimidating," he said. "But he also had the ability to trust in those people he appointed to positions of great responsibility."

A stamp of approval from Cardinal Ambrozic was the last hurdle Moira McQueen had to cross before she was hired as executive director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute. McQueen knew that the CCBI had finally come together in 2001 largely at the urging of Cardinal Ambrozic, who strongly believed debates about bioethics needed a serious, intellectually credible, Catholic voice, one that could gather respect among academics and at the same time offer insight to ordinary Catholics.

Knowing Cardinal Ambrozic's own reputation as a scholar, McQueen arrived at lunch with him prepared to speak in depth about Catholic moral theology and contemporary science. She wound up chatting amiably about family.

"When he heard that I had seven chindren, he was actually moe interested in that," she said. "At that point I didn't know that he was one of seven."

With Cardinal Ambrozic on the board of the CCBI, McQueen discovered the cardinal was a gracious, courteous, charming and very loyal friend.

"He was very positive, very encouraging," she said.

Cardinal Ambrozic's great love of Scripture and ability as a scholar never left him, said St. Augustine's Seminary rector Msgr. Robert Nusca. When Ambrozic was well into his 70s, Nusca had the cardinal lecture first-year seminarians annually on the Gospel of Mark.

"You could see how much he enjoyed lecturing," Nusca said. "It was obviously his area. It was amazing to see how well read he was and what a great teacher he was in the classroom."

For Ottawa's Jesuit Archbishop Terry Prendergast the line between teacher and friend blurred over the years. As a professor of New Testament at the Toronto School of Theology in the 1970s, Cardinal Ambrozic supervised Prendergast's PhD thesis. As archbishop of Toronto, he asked for Prendergast to be appointed auxilliary bishop.

"I always say I have had three or four teachers in my life who built confidence in me and helped me to learn. He was one of them," said Prendergast.

When the young Jesuit scholar was plagued with doubt, wondering whether he had chosen the wrong topic for his thesis, Cardinal Ambrozic invited Prendergast over, poured him a scotch and talked it out.

"He said, 'You are totally free to do what you want, but I think you have a good thesis topic,' ” recalled Prendergast.

With renewed confidence, Prendergast finished his thesis within a year and went on to teach New Testament at the Toronto School of Theology.

If Cardinal Ambrozic came across as a bulldog in debates, there was good reason, said Prendergast.

"Cardinal Ambrozic's experience as a displaced person, as a refugee, as a person who suffered at the hands of communists and fascists — I think he basically had the experience in his bones of what it means to see evil incarnate. I think he felt he needed to warn people about that," he said. "That's why ideas were so important to him."

Cardinal Ambrozic was no elitist who thought only professors were capable of grasping the faith.

"He trusted ordinary parents and family to do what was right in terms of the faith. He really had the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful)," said Prendergast.

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