Archbishop Collins at his installation as chief shepherd of Toronto.

A conversation with Archbishop Collins

By 
  • February 5, 2007

Editor’s note: A few days before officially being installed as chief shepherd of Toronto, Archbishop Thomas Collins sat down with The Catholic Register to talk about what it means to be a bishop and how the local diocesan church relates to its many parts. Below are some excerpts from that interview.

CR: Let’s start by considering the three offices of a bishop — sanctifying, teaching and governing. How have you seen these unfold during your 10 years as a bishop in St. Paul and Edmonton.

A: One of the very dramatic parts of the ceremony of the consecration of the bishop is the point where the prayer is read, the prayer of consecration right after the ordination, and the book of the Gospels is held right over the head of the bishop. I’ve often thought of that. I’ve tried as a bishop to be very much involved in teaching. I’ve spent most of my life as a priest in the diocese of Hamilton and serving in the seminary in London (St. Peter’s) and so my whole life has been very much involved in that. I’ve also taught at Cathedral Boys High School when I was just ordained. So I love teaching and it has been very much part of my life. For a period of my time when I was bishop of St. Paul I taught a course at Newman Theological College on the Book of Revelation, continuing the Scripture teaching I had done at the seminary in London.

What I do a lot is give talks: Days of Recollection, talks on the Apocalypse, talks on the Psalms. For years now I’ve been giving retreats on how to pray the psalms of the Divine Office. Many years ago I did this retreat for the priests of Toronto and just this past October I did a short form of it for the seminarians of St. Augustine’s. I’ve also done a lot of teaching on what it means to be a Catholic, also the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse, which is the area I specialized in when I was doing my doctorate in biblical theology. I’ve also done a fair bit of teaching in relation to the idea of stewardship within the life of the Christian. Part of that teaching has been in the form of three official pastoral letters: one on the sacrament of Reconciliation; one on the Eucharist and one on stewardship. That was a formal effort when I was archbishop of Edmonton to teach on some very crucial dimensions of our life of discipleship. That has been a very important part of my life.

CR: Do you see that as a missing ingredient in Catholic life, this kind of solid understanding of our faith and traditions?

A: We always need to work to build that understanding. Very often in some of the controversial issues that face our society, one of the difficulties is that our own people, as disciples of Jesus, are sometimes not even aware of some of the basic insights that come from our tradition. I think it is very important that the teaching office of the church be very, very strong. This, of course, takes form as well in Catholic education, which is very, very important. Also in Catholic universities. I am the liaison bishop for Catholic universities in Canada. That is another dimension of this whole reality of the teaching of the faith. So I think that anything that can be done to strengthen that is all to the good.

CR: In recent years, since we’ve had full public funding for Catholic education in Ontario, there has been an ongoing discussion about the very identity of the Catholic school system in relation to our faith. Do you see a particular role for the bishops in helping Catholic schools with their spiritual journey?

A: I certainly think in principle that the bishop is the first teacher of the diocese and, therefore, has a very important role in strengthening Catholic education.

CR: How does a bishop relate to civil society, beyond the Catholic community, especially when there is debate over public policy.

A: I think there are a couple of ways in which that works. One of them is the more obvious way: the bishop speaks for the Catholic Church. Therefore, when there are some issues before society which affect the life of the whole community, the bishop needs to be present because he speaks for the benefit of the community. And that is a kind of exclusive role of the bishop. But I think the chief ones who are to be engaged in civic discourse are the lay people of the church. The role of the bishop and the priest is to give them spiritual support and guidance in order that they may fulfil their mission, which is to fundamentally act in the public square and to proclaim not only the values of the Gospel, but also to proclaim the deep values that people of all faiths or no faiths can recognize, based upon what many of us call natural law, the basic order of creation. The central role of disciples engaging the civic world is that of the lay people. But certainly the bishop is the leader of the church, the shepherd of the people, and, therefore, from the very earliest days, the bishops have always fulfilled that role.

CR: How do we ensure our lay people are properly formed in the teachings of the faith?

A: It is clearly a challenge, that is a teaching challenge, when we find Catholic leaders in the civic realm who are not aware of some of the profound issues. That’s a challenge that’s always there and it needs to be worked on constantly. I think rather than waiting for particular crises to arise, it is key to concentrate on that constantly so that all of the people may be aware of the spiritual values and the deep realities which are really at the heart of what we’re talking about.

I think we have to be proactive in this and clearly we have a lot to do. There is a whole countercurrent of teaching found within our secular society in cultural transmitters such as newspapers, TV, film, videos and music and so on. The whole reality of the evangelization of cultural is a very strong message being communicated by the institutions of popular culture. We have to be present there, because if we’re not others are.

CR: In reading the signs of the time, where do you see evidence of hope?

A: I’ve been a priest now for almost 34 years and a bishop for 10. As I reflect on it, I am filled with hope. My fundamental state is to be extraordinarily encouraged. One of the joys of being a bishop is that you are on the road all the time and you meet all kinds of people who are engaged in the service of others, living the Christian witness profoundly: young people, old people, middle-aged people, caring for the needy, the marginalized. There is such life and vitality. This is for me a constant encouragement. I rarely ever feel discouraged as I’m constantly seeing all the good that is being done. Granted, in the broader culture, and within the church itself, there are struggles and difficulties. I think the key thing to remember is that it is God’s providence that governs everything. There are so many signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit that it is a constant source of encouragement. Following the famous 80/20 rule of how to spend one’s energies, I think it is important to use 80 per cent of our time and energy building up and encouraging and strengthening the good forces and perhaps devote 20 per cent of our energy dealing with the problems and negative forces. I think that if we do that then ultimately the good flourishes. There’s c certainly enough evil in the world that we could spend all our time dealing with it, but it all comes down to the famous saying of the Christopher movement that it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.

So I think that we have every reason for great hope. No reason for optimism, because optimism is based on the illusion that everything is going well, and it isn’t. But hope is based on the recognition of the problems that are very real, but seeing them in the context of divine providence and, therefore, being able to act with energy in letting the light of Christ shine brightly and not being intimidated by the various problems we face. I think hope is key: energetic hope which bears fruit in love and action and, of course arises from faith. It is faith that allows us the vision to see what is real. That can only lead to hope, which fills us with energy and that energy is then sent in love and in doing something beautiful for God.

CR: In Toronto there are over 200 lay movements and groups. What needs do you see them meeting in the church and how do they fit into our traditional parish structures?’

A: I think they are clearly a sign of the action of the Holy Spirit. Of course, this always needs to be discerned and that’s why the Council of the Laity is there in Rome to monitor and encourage these different movements. They provide ways in which people can live more and more effectively their basic baptismal discipleship. If they are to be fruitful, it is important that they, first of all work together, and that they all be integrated into the overall life of the church, which is found in the parish and the diocese. And I think that is what they do. Each one has its particular gift and charism which allows people to be fruitful in the life of discipleship. Of course, the life of discipleship has a broader reality and, therefore, these various movements need to be in touch with the full community of the parish and the diocese.

I remember Pope John Paul, on the feast of Pentecost, he would have an assembly of all the lay movements. Because it is important that they not become separate, isolated entities. Each will flourish to the degree it is in relationship to the whole of the church. I think that can happen and is happening.

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