Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
The Conversation: The Familial Intensity of FaithThe Conversation: The Familial Intensity of Faith

The Conversation: The Familial Intensity of Faith

Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, on the family of faithful that sustains him

Thomas Collins
21 minute read

Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, looks back on his first year wearing the red hat, having been elevated to the College of Cardinals on February 18, 2012. Despite political controversies and assorted assaults on the faith, he tells Convivium he has been sustained by the deep connection of his office to the family of faithful all around him

Convivium:You've been a Roman Catholic Cardinal for a year now, though as you joked during your recent speech on Leadership and Character, in Toronto, you already scampered up the ranks of seniority because of the appointments that came in November 2012. Has the elevation to Cardinal been what you expected it to be or has it been a 'what fresh hell is this?' learning experience every day?

Thomas Cardinal Collins:Yes, we have much to teach the class of November. [Laughs.] For the first time since 1929, they had two consistories in one year. I hadn't really thought much at all about what the role would be. So it's one day at a time. You just take it that way. Certainly it means I have more to do, so there's that. But my main mission is to be Archbishop of Toronto. This is the biggest diocese in the country. Being a cardinal, there is a certain added emphasis, you might say. And it is a very moving thing. As I went to Rome to take possession of my church there, San Patrizio, it really made me think how being a cardinal is an international thing. But it is also based upon a very homey thing, which is being the parish priest of a community in Rome. This most exalted of organizations, this College of Cardinals, is rooted in the deacons, the priests and the neighbouring bishops of one diocese, which is very much what we are as Catholics. We're engaged in a community and I'm conscious of that, all the more because in our own diocese here in Toronto—as I've come to know it now, having been Archbishop of Toronto for almost six years—I am so aware of the local communities. The Church exists in this local community. We are doing pastoral planning for the future, stressing the parishes, vocations, our outreach and justice and love to people, and our engagement with the culture. With all of that, our cathedral is visually the centre. I'm very conscious of that now; and as cardinal, it certainly is more visible.

C: You're actually part of the structure that makes decisions for the Church here, but also for the Church universally, for all time.

TCC:Oh yes. Absolutely. The role of the cardinal is a profoundly important one historically. There are cardinals who have not exactly been models… Richelieu, Wolsey, people like that…. [Laughs.] Certainly major historical figures, but I don't think I would look to them. On my desk, I have a medallion of Charles Borromeo, always my great hero, as a bishop. But he was also a cardinal. He was a cardinal at the age of 20 because his uncle was Pope. This shows you that even nepotism is going to turn out a saint sometimes. But there's also Cardinal Fisher, who never got to wear the red hat because he was a martyr. People like that are models of sacrificial history. They were great saints. So there are people to look up to. And when I became Archbishop for the first time in Edmonton, I travelled to Milan to pray at the tomb of Charles Borromeo.

C: At the talk you gave on leadership, you spoke of the need to establish the proper balance between superior and subordinate, and I loved the question you said every co-pilot should ask of the pilot: 'What's that mountain goat doing in the cloud?' [Laughs.] But the Church itself is a very curious organization in terms of what it demands of leadership, isn't it? To cite another famous question: 'How many divisions does the Pope have?' None. Even as a cardinal, you don't have the normal levers of power to get people to do what you want. People do what you ask because they want to do it.

TCC: That's very true. I made the distinction in my talk between leaders of authority, or power of office, and leaders of influence. And I think it's true, certainly with leaders of influence, that their only effectiveness is if people accept them and respect what they say or respect their integrity. But that's also true of leaders of authority. Canonically, a bishop is the authority of the diocese. Legally, the bishop essentially owns the whole thing. It's a corporate sort of thing. When I sign things, things do happen as a result. But even leaders who have office, who have that sort of [legal] authority, their effectiveness to do any good depends upon the respect of the people. So there's no real distinction, in fact. You have to earnestly try to serve faithfully every day. It means asking [God], 'Help me to be a good priest today. Help me to serve.' That's what it has to be.

C: I was having a conversation a few weeks ago with some Protestant friends about Church discipline. They were talking about how, in some Protestant churches, if somebody goes off-line, they can be shunned, they can be excluded from the church, they can be kicked out and then can have to do all kinds of things to prove their worth in order to return to the church. And I said that in the Catholic Church, we don't really do that, though I suppose some Catholics wish we would do more of it.

TCC: We certainly do that much less than other churches, yet it's amazing how people have the opposite view. People are always asking about bishops excommunicating people and all of that. I've often loved that scene in The Lion in Winter, in one of those medieval things, where Thomas Becket excommunicates King Henry II and you have all those hooded monks with big candles, flipping them into the ground and smashing them. I sort of dream about that. [Laughs.]

This is the vision people often have of what cardinals and bishops are doing: excommunicating. In fact, the remarkable symbol of the Catholic Church is Bernini's columns: it's embracing. We do have a formal process for excommunication, but it's very rarely used. We rather want to dialogue. And now some people say it should be used more frequently, but I'm not sure. It's not for me to speak of other faiths, but I do recall once I was on a flight and somewhere over Winnipeg the lady beside me, who was a very, very fine, very devout lady, looked up at me and said: 'I see you're a clergyman. Have you been saved?' And then I put away my notes, and I had a long flight to Vancouver [laughs], listening and talking. We had a wonderful conversation. I had a sense, though, at the end of the flight, that she was still very much in doubt about me. She wasn't exactly 'excommunicating' me. But she questioned whether I was in or not because I would not have had the particular spiritual experience that she would identify as fundamental to being a Christian. Whereas I would not doubt at all that she was a Christian. I mean not at all. There are things that I would hope she would accept, but I wouldn't doubt she was a Christian. Those who have the actual power to excommunicate are very careful about using it to write off others. We want to try to help people to come together in the faith. But it is there though. I mean, the shunning, you might say. It sometimes may need to be done, but it is never what we want to do.

C: We used to have a breakfast once a month with Bishop Mancini in Montreal. A bunch of us would have bacon and eggs with the Bishop. I remember somebody once came up with some silly hypothetical situation about two groups, X and Y, pitted against each other over some difference, all to ask the question 'so then, Bishop, in such a circumstance, would you refuse to give communion to group X or to group Y?' And I remember Bishop Mancini saying, 'I wouldn't give it to either group because they're not in communion with each other.'

TCC:That's another thing. People sometimes get insulted in terms of Eucharistic hospitality, which I think misses the point of what the Eucharist is. We look at one Eucharistic and Ecclesiastical communion as being intimately related, and so do the Orthodox. But that doesn't have anything to do with a sense of excommunication. It has to do rather with the nature of the Eucharist, that when you receive communion within the Church, you are professing not only that this is the Body and Blood of Christ according to the faith of the Church, but also your communion with the Church. That's how a person, for example, becomes a Catholic. It's brought to completion in that. I'm very conscious of that every Easter Vigil. At the Cathedral, I baptize some. Others are already baptized. I confirm them. But the high point is when they receive communion. By saying Amen to the Body of Christ, they're not simply accepting the Eucharist. They're expressing that intimate union with the whole community of faith. So that's a different concept. It's not a concept shared by all. Others have other [opinions] as to what is meant by communion.

C:In terms of that delicate balance and that need to lead, as you described it, is it frustrating for you with regard to issues such as Bill 13 or other political events, when well-meaning lay faithful—even if they know better—operate on the assumption that you should do something about it? As if you have a hat with stars and you can magically make things happen.

TCC: I think it is sometimes. I realize that people might say 'why doesn't the Bishop do this or that?' They're well-intentioned and I probably agree with them on the general direction of what they're thinking should be done. But I do think sometimes these individual situations are more complex and you have to ask, 'What do you do tomorrow?' Once you've sort of shot your wad [laughs], well, okay, what's the next thing you do? There's a profoundly beautiful thing. Whenever I've sent a priest away to study canon law, I've said, 'Always remember the last canon says that the salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church.' So it may be necessary to take a stand of a rather more drastic form. But the key is to ask whether this is something that advances the salvation of souls. You want to keep building bridges. There may be a point at which that's futile and you have to do something else for the good of the whole community. It's the same thing in dealing with people with whom we disagree on profoundly important issues. The Pope, for example, regularly meets with people with whom he profoundly disagrees. It's affirmative orthodoxy. Rather than simply saying, 'I won't… away with you,' he proposes, we propose, the faith. And if people understand the faith, if people appreciate it for what it is, they will respond. We don't impose the faith. We propose the faith. And when we're dealing with key issues such as the right to life or family and marriage, and people do not profess what we think is right, we seek to lead them to a deeper understanding and to see what is right. There are different ways of doing that. That's where judgment is called upon. That's why the great virtue is prudence. Prudence not in the sense of timidity but simply in making a good judgment. It means judging, in this case, what is right. What is the decision with integrity? And that involves being faithful to what you're called to do. So people can disagree on the prudential wisdom of a decision, but what they should not do, I think, is to impugn the motives of people. This happens too much. In some of the media things, I sometimes read blogs and when I read the comments, it is so lacking in charity. I just wonder, wow, what is happening there? There's something wrong.

C: I was at a wonderful event in Vancouver last February, a thousand people in the convention centre, and at the dismissal, Archbishop Miller said, 'Go from this place remembering that, yes, chastity is part of the Ten Commandments, but charity is the first Commandment. We are called first to charity.

TCC: Absolutely. That's true. Two of my great heroes, I've got a little statue over there of Charles Borromeo, but two of my heroes are Francis de Sales and Fulton Sheen. Francis de Sales, his whole thing was clarity and charity….

C:The patron saint of journalists…

TCC: Yes. In the Church of Our Lady in Guelph, there's a nice statue right at the back of him with a quill. It was said of him: 'If you want to beat someone down in an argument, get someone else. If you want to convert them, get Francis de Sales.' He was absolutely orthodox, and very clear on the faith. But he was charitable always; not yelling and screaming. Charitable, but clear in the Faith. The other bishop, Fulton Sheen, he had this great idea—he may have taken it from someone else, it's common wisdom—but it is that if you fill the box with salt, there will be no room for the pepper. So this is essentially the whole thing of a moral theology based on virtue. Our role is to live virtuously and to propose the virtuous life and to propose the life of faith. We also, by the way, are against vice, and we need to condemn it in due time. But our goal is… we're on our way to Heaven and not simply avoiding Hell. And I think if we propose virtue, and try to fill the space with virtue, then there is no room for the vice. And our fundamental stress should be on that, but occasionally we do have to identify the evil. This is something that may have been picked up a bit, maybe indirectly, by Stephen Covey in his book about [The 7 Habits of Highly] effective people, where he talks about the circles of concern and the circles of influence. It's somewhat the same idea.

C: I think what often gets forgotten is that prudence requires time to make a sound judgment. It's Chesterton's idea of Tradition as the democracy of the dead. I heard John Allen Jr. give a wonderful speech in Montreal last spring where he talked about the pace at which the Church moves. He said that by the normal pace of the Church, Pope Benedict XVI is a rocket blazing across the sky. Looked at from the outside, those who oppose the Church, and even some of the lay faithful, ask, 'What's happening? Why isn't this moving any faster?' John Allen's point was that the Church actually should move slowly. That's what the Church does.

TCC:The Church is more a living organism than a machine. When you have the growth of faith, you have to clip occasionally, prune a little here and there. The images Our Lord always uses are organic images of the mustard seed, of growth, of things like that. So there has to be some weeding, and there has to be some fertilizing as He says in one of His parables, but it's not so much an idea that you just rip out this or that. This is also partly what the Pope emphasizes with his idea of the hermeneutic of continuity. You don't set to it, whether it's doctrine or liturgy or anything else, and sort of fix it for the present age, because you're probably going to get it wrong. It's rather to let the great tree grow, because it is of God. You might see things we do that get encrusted around and trim them off, but it's a living entity.

It's the same as dealing with people. You can fix a machine, but for people you need to lead them, guide them, serve them and help them, by God's grace in the art of arts, come closer to God. That's why, when I was a spiritual director and a seminarian was about to be ordained to the priesthood, I would give him a copy of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care. Because Gregory, who was a very decisive leader—he held off the barbarians at the gates of Rome—has a beautiful introductory section about the beauty of the priesthood, but the middle part of the book is about how to deal with the weak and the strong, the proud and the humble, the 'this' and the 'that.' So that's how we have to deal with it. If you're really responsible for people, it's the art of arts, it's pastoral care, and that is not as simple as people might think. It requires sensitivity to the person, fidelity to the principles, fidelity always, not just as ideals but as the norms we live by. But at the same time, it requires attentiveness, so as to not quench the flickering flame or break the bruised reed. And that's the way to do it, I think.

C: John Allen Jr. also has a wonderful book—I'm sure you've read it—The Future Church. He's not really talking about the future Church at all but about the Church now. He's talking about what is present in the current Church that will make that Church radically different in the future. I was thinking in terms of the balancing that you're talking about, you already live the 'future Church' here in Toronto.

TCC: This is one of the principles in our pastoral plan for all that we're going to do in approaching our responsibilities here. One element for us is to respect the cultural diversity. In some ways, we see this in the city here. I always brag—I don't know if the number is correct—but we have 37 or 38 different languages. Whatever it is, it's certainly somewhere around there. I am on the road all the time, visiting communities of different ethnic/cultural backgrounds. So it's vibrant and alive and it enriches our society. But my concern is that second- and third-generation Canadians will not only lose the richness of their culture, but might also be absorbed into a flatter, cheaper, harsher cultural matrix, which is at times what we deal with here. I'm not condemning the whole culture because this kind of secular culture is not just in North America. It's all over the place. Good and bad can be communicated by modern technology, so we need to maintain the richness of the culture. You mentioned Chesterton. That's what he was worried about, even back then. He was worried about the big shops and this loss of the person. That's what distributism is. It's subsidiarity. It's Leo XIII. It's the Antigonish Movement. It's all that we are that is personal—that you have to see the face of the person you deal with and the effect of your decisions. That's what we really have to stress, and that's what is lost in our culture. I sometimes think we are analog Christians in a digital world. We need to be analog in the sense of dealing with relationships with people, whereas we're in this very disoriented and fragmented, disconnected world, either because of distance or because of the technology, becoming accustomed to treating people as things rather than as persons.

C: Transactional, or instrumental.

TCC: Yes.

C: Was it difficult for you to adjust, being a southern Ontario lad, to what Toronto has become in terms of being emblematic of the future Church? Or is it something that you grew with, that you saw developing?

TCC: I never thought too much about it. You mean the cultural diversity?

C:Yes. The way Toronto has developed and changed culturally.

TCC: I grew up in Guelph. We had different cultural groups. There's an Italian community, an Italian tradition there. My background is more Irish, English. When I went to school, we didn't have as much diversity as we have in Toronto now, but there was some. When we went out to Edmonton, we had people from all over. We would have one Chinese parish, one Spanish parish. where here we have several. It's an immense richness. I really discovered the richness when my Bishop sent me to study scripture in Rome. When I was asked to study, I said: 'What do you want me to study?' They said Scripture so that's what I studied. It was purely what they needed. It could have been canon law, whatever it happened to be next year. So by God's Providence it was 'Scripture.' But when I went to the Biblical Institute, I was surrounded by people from all over the world. My first Greek class in Rome was taught by a Spaniard, from an English textbook, speaking heavily accented Italian to people of all different backgrounds. He was the most extraordinary teacher. It was one of the best courses I've ever had. Even though it was very hard to understand his words, he could communicate beautifully. And I remember once I had the great Scripture scholar, who died recently, Carlo Cardinal Martini. He taught me about manuscripts. I'll never forget: he taught in Latin. But he said at the beginning, 'I don't expect you to ask questions in Latin. Just ask in whatever language you want and I'll reply in your language.' So people would ask questions in French, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and he'd reply in French, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese. I was amazed.

C:So the 'future Church' was truly there already?

TCC: It was there already. I find it just wonderful. This is an amazing experience, just beautiful. I wish I could speak many of the languages. I try to say 'The Body of Christ' in the language of the church I'm at, when I'm distributing communion. I can usually try to do that. I ask just ahead of time what it is so that I can try to get it correct. But I wish I could do more.

C:This is a city that I have spent my entire career avoiding.…

TCC: [Laughs.] Edit that part out…

C: I've made no secret of it. A friend of mine once described Toronto as Hell surrounded by a donut of misery and I've been repeating it ever since…

TCC: Oh,oh.That'stooharsh…[Laughter.]

C: I do remember coming here as a kid in the '60s, early '70s, when this was not a Catholic city. The political and social leadership position that you now have in Toronto, compared to when you and I were young, has changed radically, hasn't it?

TCC: I don't know. I do know one of my predecessors was stoned when he entered the city in the 1800s. There were riots. But certainly a lot of the power structure of the community, of the province, of the country is not in harmony with some of the things we believe to be right. But culturally there is one thing I think about when I'm dealing with various political situations and so on. Night after night after night and day after day after day, I am going to meet with hundreds and thousands of people of many different cultures. And we are one. We are one. Then when I deal with others who look at political questions or ask 'who are the citizens?' Well, I, as Bishop of the city, have a deep, intimate, personal, family connection with a very big family. It is there quietly, and is serving quietly, my brothers and sisters in the family. When I meet them, they say, 'Hello your Eminence, hello your Grace.' There's a tremendous connectedness there. So when I am dealing with, let's say, people who say they speak for the citizenry, or speak for something, I am not blown off course by their pretentions. I am not blown off course by their presumptive statements about whom they represent because I'm very conscious that very same night I will be meeting a thousand people and we are one in the Faith. There are signs of deference to the office, there's a tremendous sense of love for the Faith, but they're not meeting their boss or their superior or their ruler, or anything like that. We are one in the Faith. It's a familial intensity that I experience every single day that puts into perspective some of the other things I have to deal with. I realize that relates to the office and not to me personally. But when people look at polls, or when people speak for the Catholic Church hither and yon…. I speak for the Catholic Church. And the people know it. There are huge numbers of them, yet we're one. And that is an immensely consoling consciousness that is deep that I have.

I am grateful—not personally because it's not about me—but that it puts a lot of things in perspective. When you're at a meeting with people around a table and they're saying this or that, I don't say much about this usually, but it keeps me grounded, and in my own personal life, immensely conscious of my need—my responsibility—to serve the people. When I see things in society being proposed that I know are really problematic, not only do I know they're problematic, but I know there are all these good people who are serving so faithfully, they have values that are profound and they contribute to this society. And so I represent them, too. It's not only that I represent them but also that we are one in the Faith.

C: You lead them.

TCC: I lead them. I'm the father of this community. To be a spiritual father of the Catholic community is an awesome thing.

C: That's so tremendously hopeful. Often in these conversations I like to hear what people think about what Convivium seeks to represent as a magazine: faith in our common life. You've heard the idea that faith has a place in common life but also that we have a common life to have faith in. If I'm hearing what you're saying correctly, it sounds like you believe that we do have a common life worthy of faith.

TCC: It's here. Absolutely. There's a world in which we live, in which all that I have spoken about is not valued and not seen. It's invisible. In a sense, it's the people I'm talking about, this large group of the faithful, young and old…. I frequently meet with young people and talk with them about this, and they are very strong in their faith. Again, I'm just so grateful for the experience of being able to meet with them. I think we do need to be not more aggressive, but more assertive. We should not simply be banging the drum for the sake of effect. We do need to be quietly engaged in society. We have to be engaged. I'm not talking about partisan things. I'm very conscious that attention must be paid to the good people who give their lives to make this a better place. When sometimes-con-troversial issues come up, I point out that Toronto, Ontario, Canada would be a colder, harder, harsher, more bitter place without the good work quietly done, unseen, by the people of faith. Not only Catholic faith, but also other faiths. And I think that those are the people that Convivium is attentive to.

We're quietly going around contributing to making this a better place. And we should therefore not be content in any way if people trivialize that, or caricature it. I think we should always turn the other cheek, as Our Lord called us to, but I think we need to be more conscious of the importance of this. There's a tremendous benefit, I've found, in some of these controversial issues, in the tremendous growth of connectedness between evangelical Protestants and Catholics. I found it one of the graces in my life over the years.… I also meet with Jewish, Muslim and other religious people. But in particular I would think evangelical Protestants and Catholics have much in common. Much we disagree on, but I think that's something to see in First Things and in Father Neuhaus' work, in the United States. We see it in Canada, too. And I think it's good for us to celebrate that and to deepen it.

C: Is there one thing that people of faith—of Catholic faith obviously, but of all faiths—can do in their daily lives, in their engagement, to help you as a leader of the Church, whether on issues such as Bill 13 or the Loyola case in Quebec, or with what many people simply see as regular assaults against the Church? What can people do to help you most in that regard?

TCC: Pray. That's the most important. I'm very conscious and grateful that at Mass, every single Mass celebrated in this diocese, the people pray for me. And they pray for the Pope at every Mass celebrated in the world. That's beyond price. It's a treasure of immense benefit. I also think it's important for people of faith to get to know their faith more, and to become interested and involved in these issues of social importance. This is a long process, a long struggle you might say, for people to be engaged and to not take things for granted.

So I think that it's important for people to become knowledgeable about the issues, to discuss them prayerfully and reflectively and see how they can let their light shine in terms of their faith in the world. I find that very consoling personally, as I'm engaged in my own mission that the Lord has given me to be the spiritual shepherd of this community, of the Archdiocese of Toronto. But I think the key is that we're united in prayer. And in talking about and sharing these issues, and trying to be faithful and letting the light of Christ shine in this world, slowly, quietly, gently.

The world has changed, and the world has transformed as an organic reality more than as a machine or something like that. So it sometimes takes time, there's patience needed, but obviously Rome thinks in terms of centuries. [Laughs.] What's been profoundly important in my own life… for various reasons I did my doctorate on the Book of Revelation and that connects into the whole idea of witness, of witnessing martyrdom. How do you, with a world of evil—not all of it of course, but a lot of evil—deal with that world with integrity?

Just recently, when I was in Rome, I was reading a book about one of my great heroes, Saint Edmund Campion. I love Campion's Brag, his great tremendous statement with that fire and zest, you know, 'Thus it was begun.' But On December 1, 1581, when he and Ralph Sherwin and Alexander Briant were tied to hurdles to be dragged by horses from the Tower to Tyburn, in the sleet and rain and mud and muck, where they would be hanged, drawn and quartered, they were laughing. They were filled with joy. I don't think the minions of the Queen understood that. Because they were about to go to the presence of the Great Lord.

C: As a very wise friend of mine said, 'We're not here to win, we're here to witness.' We've already won in Christ.

TCC: That's it. The strife is over, the battle won, now is the victory. Worship God.

You'll also enjoy...

God With Us

God With Us

With the very advent of Christmas upon us, Brittany Beacham gives Convivium readers this irresistible reflection written from the pure-hearted beauty that is the full meaning of Christian faith.

Raw Christianity

Raw Christianity

After 15 years with The Voice of the Martyrs Canada, former sportscaster Greg Musselman has travelled to more than 50 countries where Christianity is persecuted but also, he tells Convivium’s Hannah Marazzi, purified and renewed in the raw choice of loving Christ.

A Giving Hand Like Grandpa’s

A Giving Hand Like Grandpa’s

In her Golden Thread submission, Amanda Kleinikkink shares the story of her grandfather, whose faith overflowed into the way he lived his life.