Insiders not surprised at Archbishop Collins' posting to Canada's largest diocese

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  • December 22, 2006

TORONTO - The man who is about to become one of the most powerful churchmen in Canada has no interest in the trappings of power.

Archbishop Thomas Collins has been a success as a seminary professor and rector, as a bishop in northern Alberta and as a metropolitan archbishop in Edmonton. Church insiders are not surprised Collins was appointed to lead Toronto, Canada's largest and richest Catholic diocese by Pope Benedict XVI on Dec. 16.

National Catholic Reporter columnist John Allen Jr. called Collins "the prototype of a Benedict XVI bishop in a major see: A leader with rock-solid credentials on Catholic identity, yet personally gracious and pastoral, for whom conflict is the court of last resort."

Nobody expects the humble and pastorally focussed Scripture scholar to start rubbing shoulders with Bay Street financiers or schmoozing with the political class.

"I will take a small wager that he's flying economy class to Toronto tomorrow," Basilian Father Tim Scott told The Catholic Register. "He is uninterested in the trappings of high office. It's not his taste. It's totally not him."

Scott, the president of St. Joseph's College, the Catholic college at the University of Alberta, recently asked Collins how often he has spoken to former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, the ruling premier throughout the nine years Collins has been a bishop in Alberta. Collins guessed he had spoken directly to the premier twice.

"He is no power broker. He's not that kind of priest. He's not that kind of a bishop," said Scott.

When asked whether he would confront Catholic politicians at the communion rail over abortion and gay marriage, Collins suggested a pastoral approach, inviting the politicians to listen to the Gospel and suggesting to them conditions for worthy reception of the sacrament.

Though uninterested in politics and power, Collins is interested in getting things done, said the man who has been the senior administrator in the archdiocese of Edmonton under Collins.

"He's a man of initiative. He's got a great vision of things, and he's got a great love of the church, and a great love of the priesthood, and a great love of the people," said Edmonton chancellor Fr. Gregory Bittman.

Collins introduced several innovations in his seven years in Edmonton. There has been monthly lectio divina and evening prayer services at St. Joseph's Basilica, and recently a chapel in a downtown shopping mall.

Quick facts

  • Born Jan. 16, 1947 in Guelph, Ont.
  • B.A., St. Jerome's College, University of Waterloo, 1968
  • Bachelor of Theology, St. Peter's Seminary, London, Ont., and M.A. (English literature) University of Western Ontario, 1973
  • Ordained a priest for the diocese of Hamilton, May 5, 1973
  • Licentiate in Sacred Scripture Biblical Institute in Rome, 1978
  • Appointed coadjutor bishop of the diocese of St. Paul, March 25, 1997
  • Ordained bishop May 14, 1997; installed as bishop of St. Paul June 30, 1997
  • Appointed coadjutor archbishop of Edmonton, Feb. 18, 1999, succeeded Archbishop Joseph MacNeil as archbishop of Edmonton, June 7, 1999
  • Appointed archbishop of Toronto Dec. 16, 2006

Collins didn't hesitate to bring the church into an arena where it would have to compete for the attention of shoppers in a rented space upstairs from the Eddie Bauer store in the City Centre Mall.

"He's looking at it as a way of evangelization and reaching out to people," said Bittman.

Former Edmonton member of Parliament, cabinet minister and senator Doug Roche welcomed the fresh thinking that went into St. Benedict's Chapel, which is aimed at downtown workers with three daily half-hour Masses, Monday to Friday.

"I thought it was a great move. I liked that idea very much," said Roche.

In conversation with The Catholic Register Collins spoke of how he values relationships with ordinary Catholics.

"I've been immensely grateful for my experience as bishop of St. Paul and as archbishop of Edmonton," he said. "The people have been an inspiration to me and I will miss them very much."

As a pastor and a scholar, Collins's monthly lectio divina evenings at the cathedral in Edmonton were a simple matter of sharing his prayer life with people, especially young people.

"It's prayer. In a sense, it's what I do now when reading Scripture alone. My hope would be that individuals would take this experience and do it themselves with other Scripture readings," he said.

While Toronto's newest archbishop may not make it a priority to gain the ear of politicians, the politicians will find it easy to approach the archbishop, said Rev. Dr. Bruce Miller, an Edmonton member of Alberta's provincial legislature.

"He's very approachable. He doesn't have any kind of aloofness," said the United Church minister.

Miller said Collins's style is more persuasive than confrontational.

"He's sincerely interested in people and I think that gets you a lot further than a more confrontational approach," he said.

Fr. Murray Watson, a former student of Collins and his friend for 30 years, described the spiritual director from his seminary days as "a blend of Cardinal Christoph Schonborn (Vienna) and Cardinal Walter Kasper (in Rome), with a good dose of Cardinal Carlo Martini thrown in."

Despite the seriousness, scholarship and dedication, Toronto will find its new archbishop very human, Murray said.

"He takes himself lightly, but takes his ministry as priest and bishop very seriously," said Murray in an e-mail from Dublin. "He was the type of person who could be sitting, reading Greek one minute and then down in the student lounge watching Star Trek with us the next — very down to earth and approachable, with a very obvious sense of humour."

As for playing the role of a prince of the church, it's the last thing Murray would expect from his mentor.

"My experience of the man showed me someone who lived a very austere personal life, who was generous with his time and gifts, and eager to share his learning with those who were open to it in a way that was always inviting and never intimidating," he said.

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