Cardinal Thomas Collins has spent more than two decades as a bishop, and almost 50 years a priest. He’ll retire next week as Archbishop of Toronto, when Bishop Francis Leo is installed as Collins’ successor on March 25.
As Cardinal Collins prepares for retirement, he talked with The Pillar about his priestly life and ministry, challenges for the Church in Canada, and his hope in Christ’s victory.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cardinal Collins, you’ve been the Archbishop of Toronto for 16 years, and you’ve been a bishop for 26 years. In fact, your successor in Toronto will be installed on March 25, the Annunciation, and that’s the same day you were appointed a bishop, the coadjutor bishop of St. Paul, back in 1997, 26 years ago.
That’s right. And, you know, my sister pointed out to me too that I was consecrated a bishop on May 14, 1997, which was exactly my 25th anniversary of my being ordained a deacon.
So that’s either a fluke or providential, depending on how you put it.
As you look back on these decades of ordained ministry, where do you see the Lord? Where do you see Providence in your life of ministry?
Well I am just so grateful that the Lord called me to ministry, and called me to serve in the priesthood.
And I love being a bishop — I love being a bishop! So with 50 years for the priesthood, and coming up on 26 for the episcopate, I just think it’s been so beautiful — you see the hand of God everywhere.
Now, I see problems, too. Oh boy, yeah, there have been these day-to-day problems — and you at The Pillar, you of course realize that bishops have problems they’ve got to deal with!
But, I mean, God is good, and I am just so grateful for all the good people. My gosh, when I look around at the priests and the lay people, and the people I’ve met over time, you realize that God leads you along, from one moment to the next.
In fact, ever since I first thought of the priesthood, when I was in high school, I saw these wonderful and good priests, I was just so blessed. I can think of one pastor, who seemed like he was very old, but was probably about 20 years younger than I am now, and was such a wonderful example.
And then Fr. Newstead [Collins’ 11th grade English teacher, who suggested to him that he consider the priesthood].
Dear Fr. Newstead suffered a great deal as a child, he was very sick. And when he became a priest, every day he would visit the sick in the hospital with a great big cheery hello. It wasn’t counseling, he didn’t have a degree, or anything, he was just a gentle, loving priest. So people would wait for him to go by, with this happy presence.
And I learned that it’s the being there that is really so important. This teacher of mine, Fr. Newstead, who kept inviting me to ordinations, and Chrism Masses, and other events — I remember when I realized that he did this work of visiting the sick every day, which he kept up until sometime just before he died, when he just couldn’t do it anymore. That just impressed me immensely.
So when Fr. Newstead asked me to think about becoming a priest, well, I had already been thinking about it, but when he said it, it just really touched my heart.
And I’ve seen God’s Providence all along. I remember my dear Bishop Reding. I was at his parish when I was a deacon, and he was auxiliary bishop. And he drove me to my ordination, and then became our diocesan bishop, and he was very kind to me when I was in studies as a young priest.
I’ve been very blessed in my life. And I love to tell our seminarians that I love being a bishop, being a priest. And I love being Archbishop of Toronto. It’s a joy. I mean, my gosh, we’ve got problems. We’ve got a secularizing society, with serious consequences to that: MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying), abortion, and so many other agendas pushed in our culture, and we have to work carefully to deal with that. This is the society we’re in, and we’ve got to navigate it with clarity and charity.
But priesthood is a joy, and God has done so much for me.
As an American, Your Eminence, it certainly seems to me that the Church is facing real challenges in Canadian society. Medical Assistance In Dying, of course, and then challenges to the curriculum of Catholic schools, and their ability to teach the Catholic faith.
How does the Church navigate these challenges in Canadian society?
Things are indeed getting more and more secular in a lot of ways. If you look at the federal parties, two of the three main ones reflect very much a secular mode of thinking, and the one that’s less so, is also to some degree that way.
So when you count the votes, many people are not going to go in favor of the things which are faithful to the Gospel. And this is what we have to deal with. This is the sea in which we swim.
So what do we have to do, as believers here?
I think we are called to be prophetic and wise — prophetically wise and wisely prophetic, and mostly prophetic.
But we have to do so in a way in which we are thoughtful about the effect of what we’re saying. There is a Jewish saying which says, “Don’t make an ax of the Torah.”
We need to ask: How can we get to where we really want to go, and not just say something that will make us feel good that we “vented?”
I remember once, one of my advisors — a really good guy, a very good guy, a very wise person — was helping me with a letter, and I was venting and venting in what I was writing. And he said to me, “Oh, that’s very beautiful, Your Eminence. Very beautiful. But, uh, what effect do you want it to have?”
That’s the question: “What effect do you want it to have?”
And I thought: “Oh, ok. I’d better think again.” And I just so appreciate that.
It reminds me of a story about Abraham Lincoln, in which Lincoln was writing a letter, a hot letter, to some politicians, and telling them they were fools, and just really letting them have it and at the end his secretary told Lincoln it was an excellent letter, and asked if he should mail it, and Lincoln said “No, no, put it in the fire! Don't send it. Put in the fire!”
The key for us is light, not heat. And more heat is often less light. I think God put our heads in so prominent a place, on our shoulders, that I think he wants us to use them — and so we have to be prophetic, but we have to think about what exactly we expect the effect to be when we speak. That’s very important.
Look at some of the troubles we have with our schools. Our schools are very good — we have wonderful students, and wonderful teachers, in this enormous, publicly-funded Catholic school system. We have more than 40,000 teachers in Ontario in the Catholic Teachers Union. And only a few of them go into leadership, but sometimes the leadership ones are the most “woke,” and not reflective of all the teachers they’re supposed to represent.
So I have teachers who come to me and ask: “Cardinal Collins, why don’t you do something?” with regard the latest thing, the union marching in the Gay Pride Parade, or something like that.
And I say: “Well, I’m not a member of the union. You are. So go to the meetings.” Because the lay people have an opportunity that I don’t have. I try to guide and encourage, and they have the opportunity.
There are four education systems in Ontario. The biggest is “secular English.” Then the next largest is “Catholic English.” Then the next is “Catholic French,” and then the smallest would be “secular French.”
But they're all publicly-funded systems; they're governed by school boards — in our case, elected by those who are registered as Catholics at the time of the election. There are very fine trustees, and others who are very much in the swing of the zeitgeist. So the 29 local Catholic school boards - elected school boards - govern the schools, and it’s all funded by the government.
We have chapels in the school. The religion program is vetted and set up actually by the bishops. We can have priests visit. We have all kinds of stuff. To a great degree these schools are something to cherish, and we always defend them.
On March 9th, the new archbishop of Toronto will be here, before his installation, and there will be an Ordinandi Lunch and an Ordinandi Dinner in a big banquet hall north of Toronto. The Ordinandi Dinner is a formal event, but during the course of the same day, there will be 700 or 800 teenagers who come on buses from Catholic schools, and the soon-to-be-ordained deacons and some young sisters speak to them on vocations. Then we all have pizza together, and have a great time, and then they head back to school, and in the evening we have the larger Ordinandi Dinner.
One such event really touched my heart when I first came here — This young man who was about to become a priest was speaking to the students, and he told them that he had been not too long before sitting [at the ordinandi event] like them, hearing a vocation story, and then found his own vocation soon after. So these young men and women tell their vocation stories to all the school children, and it’s just great.
We couldn’t have that if we didn’t have the publicly-funded Catholic schools, so there's a lot to be said for them. But, sure, there are problems when we have the teachers’ union marching in gay pride parades.
I have said to them that “this is not our way. There are other ways in which we are inclusive, and open, and loving, and caring, which we are, of course.”
But when strange things happen, I get letters from the States, saying: “Bishop, why don’t you fire all the teachers? You own the schools. Why not fire all the teachers?”
Well, we don’t own the schools.
I’m sure it’s not actually in your purview to make a decision about this — but as you think about the time and resources that you invest into that educational system, is it worth it? Is it a help to the mission of the Church in Ontario, or a hindrance?
Well, it’s a big question. A common one. I think on balance it is good, but there are problems. And the problems are not what Americans usually think the problems are, at least until recently.
The difficulty is that it's an enormous system, and how do you get 40,000 - all the teachers - fervently Catholic? It's a big system in which to maintain a high level of Catholicity.
But we do spend a lot of time on political issues which pertain to our schools. We spend a lot of time, we have a lobby day, at which usually the Archbishop of Toronto, a union leader, and a school board trustee go to meet the premier, the head of our province, and others, in teams, meet with the legislature. And all the major parties are, at this point, in favor of publicly-funded Catholic education for various reasons.
Generally, we do spend a lot of energy on our schools, to be sure, but they do a lot of good in many ways.
Still, when you see that the boards often demonstrate the influence of the zeitgeist, and often the young kids have absorbed the zeitgeist, mistaking things…
Well, I'm in favor of kindness and love as proclaimed by our faith, but often there are elements of [Pride Month] which are not really, I think, good for the work of our schools, although I think they're probably well-intended running up the rainbow flag and everything.
But I have said to them, "Well, actually June is the month of the Sacred Heart."
So I was just trying to give a vision for what the Church teaches about love, which is the love of the Lord’s Sacred Heart.
Of course, a couple of the boards said, “Yes, yes, June is the month of the Sacred Heart, which is perfect for Gay Pride Month.” Well, ok…
But the thing is, I get these letters from America saying, "Shut down the school or fire the principal or something."
Well, we can influence — with difficulty. And often there are good trustees, there are wonderful teachers, but there's some who come who are influenced by the zeitgeist, and it is a struggle. It is a struggle.
On the other hand, I remember visiting the American version of Toronto, and the cardinal there was busy going to events to raise money for the school, as it seems like American bishops have to do all the time. American [bishops] have to spend their time on raising money, trying to keep the lights on, because they’re parochial schools, they’re owned by the Church.
So we’re both spending a lot of time trying to get it right, doing our best, no matter what the system is.
I think the key thing, either way, is get into the schools and get to know the teachers, help them in their faith, that’s the way to go.
But it is a difficult issue. There's always a movement, whenever election comes along, to defund Catholic education. And as you know, we used to be more united, but now in various ways, we're not [united] in resisting that, because a lot of people see stories about Catholic schools, and they get troubled. It’s a complex issue, but I’ve tried to support our [Catholic schools].
There are also wonderful initiatives like the Catholic Teachers Guild, which includes all these wonderful teachers - fervent Catholics. It’s an organization for Catholics to support each other, and receive formation, whether they teach in the publicly funded Catholic system, or secular schools, or even universities. So there are very encouraging things happening.
Could you talk with me about the kind of witness the Church needs to make in response to MAID? How do you see things going?
Well, first of all, it’s sad to say, but the movement in society is extremely secular. We’re treating people like things. I'm astonished, and people are openly asking if MAID isn't cheaper than healthcare in many cases.
Thank God, literally thank God, that even some of the most extreme secular voices outside of the country are saying that things here are going too far — of course going at all is too far. There is some breaking effect on the legislation, but not much, so it's moving forward.
Now what do we do?
Well, first of all, we continue to protest against it. We try to find ways of helping people within the political system. There are efforts to slow all of this down if possible, without a great deal of success, I think.
But secondly, to push for conscience protection for individuals, doctors and nurses, nurse practitioners, and for institutions. Right now we've got that, but we've got to be careful to keep it. And we don't have much protection for institutions, and we should. Because Catholic institutions have a mission. We have a mission, and that's our conscience, so that should be protected.
We have to continue to work there, and it’s going to get more difficult to protect conscience rights about this in the years to come.
On the positive side, I recently blessed a hospice for people who are homeless, built by St. Elizabeth Health Care, and Catholic Charities, a few other groups, and a very good, fine, Catholic family as a donor. We are building palliative care resources — only 30% of people have access to palliative care. So that’s one thing we’re working to provide.
What’s happening is that some people now are hearing that it’s better to be killed than to face homelessness or other difficult issues, so in everything we’re doing, we want to be saying that nobody should ever feel that they should be killed because their life is so miserable. Rather, they should know that the Church is with them.
Cardinal Collins, as the Church faces these challenges, in schools, with MAID, with other social problems, how is the Church in Canada effectively proclaiming the Gospel, or seeing conversion to Christ? Where do you see life in the Church’s evangelical work?
For all these clouds on the horizon, which are very real, they are not the only thing happening. Not at all.
First, the seminary is just such a gift. We’ve got such wonderful seminarians, and that’s a sign of encouragement for me. We had 10 new guys go in last year. And we’ve lengthened our formation, added in the pastoral, or the spiritual propaedeutic year, about 10 years ago or so, and we've been working very much on our efforts toward giving very good formation for our priests.
We’ve just recently added a pontifical faculty for pastoral patristics — evangelical patristics. It's just amazing.
And so the potential here is just beautiful. And that is very, very encouraging.
I'm also very impressed and very encouraged by our priests — and then too by so many laypeople. In this very secular world, we've got a lot of wonderful people stepping forward. I’m impressed with our parishes, also. So many of our parishes are very, very good. We got through the pandemic in different ways, and many parishes bounced back, especially in places where the pastor and people in the parish are reaching out.
We’re trying to deal with the long-term erosion of a secular society. And it takes some time.
And in a sense, you know, we deal with these things that are urgent and important — like, for example, the MAID tragedy — but we have to make sure that we’re making time to look to the important stuff that doesn’t always seem urgent, like the seminary, or lay formation, or stewardship — things which deepen the Christian understanding of one and all.
Like, for example, we’re trying to help improve preaching — and maybe actually, that is pretty urgent — but it’s an example of the importance of going deeper in faith.
The storms are rising, The seas grow higher and all that. But...Onward!
We go onward!
The Lord is calling us to evangelize, and that's part of the four themes of the pastoral plan we’ve devised here.
Of course, people hear pastoral plans, and they want to know what church you’re going to shut down next. And sadly, sometimes we do have to [close churches].
But the goals are vibrant parishes, formation of priests and lay people, caring for the needy and sharing our lives with them, and then evangelizing the culture. We’ve got to see all of them as important.
We’re renovating the cathedral, because there were parts kinda falling down, so we had to do that. But it’s a chance as well to reach out through beauty. That’s why our St. Michael’s choir school is so important. Because beauty catches people — it’s sort of the prow of evangelization, and then truth and goodness can follow.
There is so much good in all these areas, and so much good we can do. So what I’ve tried to do is to keep 80% of my attention on those good things we can do, and then 20% on MAID and other such things we’re fighting against. You’ve got to keep your attention on building for the future, and kindling the light.
Let the light shine, and then people - especially young people - will be able to handle what we’re facing.
When I go back to the seminary, I mention to the guys the little priests' cemetery there, and a little tiny six-person mausoleum there in that cemetery. There’s priests interred there, and the two archbishops, Archbishop Neil McNeil and his predecessor, Archbishop McEvay.
McEvay was Archbishop of Toronto from 1908 until 1911, he died at 58, and he was dying all those years he was archbishop. But he founded St. Augustine Seminary, and Catholic Missions in Canada, and helped get going the St. Elizabeth Health Care apostolate.
So near him in the mausoleum is an empty slot, and they’re looking for their first cardinal. I’ve got a little sticky note on the slot I want there, and I want to be interred there, because every All Souls’ Day the seminarians go down and they pray. They spread around and they pray for the souls of the priests. And I’ve got a smile on my face to think about how that carries on and continues.
I should instruct the mortician to put a smile on my face, I guess. You know, like in “The Loved One?”
Yeah, that’s such a funny novel and —
I’ll be smiling because I’ll be thinking of all the good people who are going to be carrying on the fight, and evangelizing with the Gospel of Christ.
Cardinal Collins, even while you are encouraged, I talk often with Catholics, including seminarians and young priests, who say they’re concerned or discouraged about some of the theological conversations unfolding in the Church today.
When you talk with seminarians or priests about the theological debates of the Church right now, what advice do you give them?
Well, I’d say, first of all, disconnect from social media, that'd be good. Not The Pillar, not The Pillar! I read The Pillar!
But out there, there is a lot of rhetoric that is not helpful, and there are troubles. The truth is that God is running the Church, but we can have problems!
I have said to the guys who ask me: ‘Go deep, deep, deep, deep in prayer, deep in study. Study and pray! Pray and study! Look at the history of the Church. Get close to Christ!’
Look at what’s happened in the history of the Church. We’ve had a lot of strange things going on in history. But the faith does not change, and the Gospel does not change.
When I’m meeting with people, I wave my little Bible around, and I say: ‘Read one chapter of the Gospel everyday. The Gospel. Get to know Christ. Read the Gospel.’
We can all go more deeply into the Word of God, the Gospel as written text but also our encounter with Jesus, the Word of God, in the sacraments. A holy hour every day — this isn’t rocket science.
I would suggest to people who are troubled to avoid the heat in favor of the light. Don’t get too absorbed into the rhetoric. Spend an hour in adoration before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament every day. Read the Gospels, read the Scripture, be immersed in the words and the lives of the fathers of the Church and the great saints.
On the surface, the sea is rocked by waves of storms and tsunamis, but down deep below there's a peace and a serenity and a reality that we need.
That's why I think now more than ever, we need to go deep in understanding, and deep to the roots of our faith. All the more so because the winds of the zeitgeist are whipping around — sort of the like “winds of lust” at the beginning of Dante’s “Inferno,” just spinning people around in circles.
In that setting we have to go deep.
Not just prayer. Also - of course to encounter Christ - but also in thinking and knowing. Looking at the sources, like the fathers of the Church. The fathers of the Church dealt with gnosticism and other things the Church is encountering now. There’s nothing new under the sun.
So I would say to go deep in the study of the faith, and deep in prayer, especially centered on the Gospel, and on adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. And get to confession regularly, because we’re all sinners, and we don’t see clearly when we’re fogged by our ego. And we need to see clearly because these are dangerous times.
What about younger bishops? I know bishops who feel somewhat overwhelmed by the administrative tasks of their offices, and overwhelmed by cultural challenges — and some who might even feel that to me the things expected of them as bishops today, they don’t have time for deep lives of prayer, or deep intellectual lives.
As you look at your own episcopal ministry, what is your counsel to new bishops about the Christian life?
Well, I would start by saying that I don't spend most of my time in administration. Much of the administration of this diocese is being done by highly competent lay people. You have to build up a group of collaborators, coworkers, who are good faithful lay people and priests, who know more than you do about what they’re doing, and about the difficult administrative issues.
I remember reading once a book by William Oncken called “Managing Management Time.” He basically said that leadership is mostly coaching of competent people. You set the parameters, and that’s what you can do that no one else can do. Set the mission, set the vision, set the parameters.
That reminds me of what John Paul II would do with World Youth Day. He said it must be rooted in the faith of the Church, it must be for the universal church though done locally, and the youth must be involved.
And from those parameters, people developed their plan creatively.
The worst thing is to be looking over someone's shoulder all the time to tell them what to do. You don't have time for that and, anyway, people don't like that. It's irritating to people if you’re micromanaging.
Instead, help build, be with [collaborators], share life with them. Be available to the key people who are going to be shepherding the flock with you, so they know the vision that you're trying to accomplish — which is essentially the Gospel, really.
Make sure they know you're there for them at all times and everything. Then let them do it.
Of course, there may be things that gradually go off the track. You need to move in a bit and tweak it a bit in another direction, but if you help your collaborators, and you’re available to them when problems come up, then you can spend your time on the pastoral and good work of being a bishop.
The hardest thing about being a bishop is when problems come up.
But I think you spend your time on prayer and on moving around, being with the people, being there for things. It’s important for a bishop to show up. To be there. Like a father, really, to show up in the lives of your family.
And then use whatever talents you have and trust that someone else will have other talents. Whatever God has given you, use it for the glory of the Lord.
When I became a priest 50 years ago, I decided that I would serve the Lord with gladness, “come before him singing for joy.” And then when I became a bishop, I chose as my motto, Deum adora, - “Worship God,” from Apocalypse 22:9.
“Worship God.” If you get that right, the rest will follow.
You know, it’s a bit hard to think of myself as an old bishop. Inward, I feel like I’m in my 20s, but I know that my knees are giving out, and my eyes. You begin to fall apart, really.
But each day, with all troubles: Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat!
Whenever I’m frustrated and writing to a friend or dumping my problems, I remind myself of who and what really matters: Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat!
And that’s the gift!