Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Meeting His Eminence, Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto- Christmas, the Pope, and Angry Birds

     I think it was about half way through high school that I finally decided I no longer affiliated with any form of religious beliefs. It's not that I had an event in particular that lead to a falling out, it's just that, well, religion in its many forms isn't something everybody associates with. With that in mind, in no way did I think I would ever be driving through downtown Toronto on a hot August day with my photographer Victoria, trying to find the office of His Eminence, Thomas Cardinal Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto. It hadn't even been a week since I had returned to North America from a trip to the South Pacific, and I was off to meet one of the most respected religious leaders in my province, let alone my country. Now, even though I'm not religious, I think Pope Francis may be one of the coolest guys around. That's one of the many reasons why I thought it would be really interesting to meet The Archbishop. In the 2013 papal conclave to name the successor to Pope Benedict XVI (only five months before my steaming hot drive to downtown Toronto), three Canadians had the chance to cast their votes. Three, out of the only 115 total electors worldwide. Thomas Cardinal Collins was one of these three, one of these only 115. I found that pretty amazing.
     After searching far and wide for a parking space, and getting lost trying to find the Offices of the Archdiocese of Toronto (why do I even mention getting lost anymore, I've never not been lost on a way to an interview), Victoria and I arrived, both a little nervous. This man oversaw 1.8 million Catholics in the Greater Toronto Area, and was only the sixteenth Cardinal in Canadian history. I don't believe you need to be Catholic to understand the respect this man generated from his community, and the influence he had over many. Surprisingly to some, it wasn't in fact Pope Francis that the Cardinal and I were to be speaking about that hot, August day. In fact, we were talking about something months away. I wanted to finally ask someone in a position of power in the church a question that had been on my mind for, well, years. These days, what do they think of non-religious individuals celebrating Christmas? Because trust me, on that (hopefully snowy day), I'll be like millions of others. Ripping open gifts with a grin on my face, drinking eggnog, and stuffing in that, well, stuffing. Like every interview I've done, my conversation with Cardinal Collins at some points went way off topic, and I soon realized, like many I've spoken with, the Archbishop is one of the coolest people ever.
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 The Archbishop listens while I explain Canadian Stories
Photo by Victoria Alexander

     I remember going to Guelph earlier this year to see a singer named Hannah Georgas in concert. While thrift shopping in the time before hand, my friend Sydney pointed out a massive church that sat on top of a hill. I've been lucky enough to go to both the Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal, Quebec, and the well known Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, yet I never expected a church so close to home to have the same effect on you. Little did I know then, but years before, young Thomas Collins went there himself, to the Church of Our Lady Immaculate, with his father.
     Although everyone in his family was religious, the Cardinal's father, Thomas, was a very prayerful man. The future Cardinal was in awe of his fathers dedication to his beliefs. This continued on even when Thomas Sr was faced with some medical issues. As the future Cardinal was entering the first grade, if he can recall the time line correctly, his father was diagnosed with tuberculosis. This was followed by strokes in the years to come. During those years, he maintained his patience and love in times of immense suffering. Thomas Cardinal Collins lost his father at the age of 20, back in 1967. In those years of difficulty for the family, the way that his father dealt with the suffering, the way he accepted it, had profound impact on his sons life. Thomas Cardinal Collins realized the power of faith. 
     Growing up, many individuals who were devout in their faith continued to earn the respect of young Thomas. There were the nuns from his time in public school (the Cardinal informed me they dressed just as you would see on television), there was "old Father Newman", who the Cardinal joked was probably twenty years younger than he is now when he received the "old" title, there was Father Lloyd Ryan, and then, in the early years of high school, Father John Newstead, who had the biggest impact of them all. Father Newstead was one of the future Cardinal's high school teachers, providing His Eminence with an awe for English literature that would last for years. This impressed me, because I always tended to find high school English rather boring. Father Newstead would take the youth to ordination ceremonies, in which I was told new priests are named. The teacher also brought young students to the hospital to visit patients, an outing he did every single night, as he recalled the times he was young in the hospital with what the Cardinal recalls to be emphysema, and no visitors. It was in grade eleven that Father Newstead suggested Thomas become a priest, advice that would change his life. After finishing high school and a university degree, Thomas decided to take the advice, and start the road to become a priest. 
     After earning his undergraduate degrees in Philosophy and English Literature at St Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario, the future Cardinal then went to London, Ontario. He studied Theology at a Seminary, while getting a Masters in English at Western University. The work started piling on, but like myself, Thomas liked a challenge. In his words, "the more I study, the more I enjoy what I'm studying". I couldn't put it better myself. School wasn't over for him then though. After London, Thomas was off to Rome for three years to continue his education, at around thirty years old at this point. Thomas studied the bible at the Pontifical Bible Institute, and a Doctorate from the Gregorian University. It was while overseas that times as a student became difficult. As his explained it, "I studied a summer of Greek, summer of Hebrew, summer of Greek and Hebrew, summer of German", it all just became too much, and by November of his third year, "I was just shaking." Making it home for Winter Break, and speaking to his bishop, he was told he just needed a break. His three weeks were spent at home, catching up with his mother. At the time, the future Cardinal didn't realize just how much this quality time meant. His mother was much more ill than he knew, and passed away from leukemia a few days after he next returned home. 
     After various positions in churches of Southwestern Ontario, at age 50, Thomas Collins was named a Bishop, on May 14th, 1997. At this ceremony, Thomas was allowed to have two priests present. One of them was one of the easiest choices he could of ever made- Father Newstead, the one who set him on this path.
                                                     The Archbishop explains his time in Rome
                                                                Photo by Victoria Alexander

     Only a month after being named a Bishop, Thomas received some news. He was being relocated, and was named the Bishop of St. Paul, Alberta. I asked if it was difficult to make this sudden move, one province for the majority of your life, then a sudden move with minimal notice. He informed me that tears were in fact shed, tears from his heart. Friends would be missed, and his two sisters who still live in Guelph more so, but his brain told him this was the right thing to do. As a Priest, I was told, you make an oath of obedience to your Bishop. As a Bishop, you make an oath of obedience to the Pope. If the Holy Father asked for this to be done, then he knew this was what he needed to do.The little town of St Paul had a sign that Thomas remembers to this day. It read- "A People Kind of Place", in which it really was I have been told. He was ready to start his new life. Things were made easy when he made new friends and colleagues, and the whole time he was there, his sisters would always fly down to be with their "baby brother" for Easter and Christmas. It ended up only being a year and a half that he was in St Paul, as he received a phone call one day over coffee. While sitting with his staff (only about three people), he received a message from the Nuncio in Ottawa. The Nuncio, I was informed, was the Pope's representative in Canada. Pope John Paul II had a new plan, a higher one, for (at the time) Bishop Thomas Collins. In 1999, he was named Archbishop of Edmonton, which in short means he was the head Bishop for the Metropolis of churches around the Edmonton area, if I understood correctly. Within a week, he was gone from the town of St. Paul. 
     Again, Edmonton wasn't that long either. Yet, in the time he was there, after 26 years and 168 days as Pope, John Paul II passed away, to be succeeded by Pope Benedict XVI. Therefore, in 2006, it was Pope Benedict XVI that had a message for the Nuncio to give to Bishop Collins. He was to return to Ontario, and become the Archbishop of the largest and most populous city in Canada, Toronto. Travelling was all part of the job, as with one who is in the army, likened the Archbishop. Sometimes, this could be in the most extreme circumstances. An example given by Thomas being Pope Francis. Like Pope Francis, Thomas entered the Sistine Chapel and could of been the one named Pope, yet Thomas had the chance to return home, and Francis will now never be able to call Argentina home again. In the words of Thomas, "once you're a Priest, you're a feather on the breath of God." The people at the Archdiocese of Toronto (where the Cardinal's office is) are like a family to him now, and he's happy to say he things this is his last stop. Unless he becomes the Pope, I joked. 

Thomas Cardinal Collins in a Maple Leafs sweater- St. Peter's Square, Vatican City
Photo from The Canadian Press

     As can be seen in the photo above, the Cardinal likes having fun. What I'm sure can't be grasped from the photo is that this was taken on days before Pope Benedict XVI would be naming Bishop Thomas Collins to the College of Cardinals, as I mentioned, only the sixteenth Cardinal in Canadian history. According to recent numbers, there are roughly just over 200 Cardinals worldwide (with Cardinals Collins, three in Canada), with the role of advising the Pope when he calls on them, and electing a new one upon the death or stepping down of the current Pope. To Thomas Cardinal Collins, it was an honour. As I've mentioned, I'm not religious, but I can fully understand the pride Thomas Cardinal Collins must have felt. Receiving the red hat and red robes of a Cardinal, and the Cardinal's ring given to him by the Pope, was one of the greatest experiences in his life. But, even though you're entitled to vote for a Pope (as long as you're under 80 at the time of the Pope stepping down or passing on), the opportunity doesn't often arise. In the case of recent Toronto Archbishops who have been named Cardinals, Cardinal Archbishop James Charles McGuigan (1894-1947), had the chance to be part of the conclave which named Angelo Roncalli as Pope John XXIII, Cardinal Archbishop Aloysius Ambrozic (1930-2011) had the chance to name Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, whereas Cardinal Archbishop Gerald Carter, one of the most respected religious leaders in Canadian history, never had the chance to partake in a Papal conclave. After only one year as a Cardinal though, Thomas Cardinal Collins did have the honour (as mentioned), and was one of the 115 who had the chance to name, in my eyes, one of the coolest people of 2013 (and Time Magazine's Person of the Year), Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Benedict.

 Cardinal Collins with Pope Benedict XVI
Photo from The Catholic Register

     But, of course, I said I still need to touch on Christmas, and Angry Birds, which is how I wanted to wrap up. Right as my time with the Cardinal Archbishop was wrapping up, I asked what he felt about how non-religious interviews such as myself celebrating Christmas, commonly known as a Holy Day, and how he celebrated it himself. Well, he told me news that I found relieving, it really didn't matter to him if I celebrated, or not. To him, celebrating brought all of us closer to the Holy Day, and to each other. With that, although it's become rather commercialized, he hopes that some may take the time to think of the word, "Christmas", and it's breaking apart into "Christ's Mass". Maybe, some people may be encouraged to listen to that message one year, which would make the Cardinal very happy. Although I'm not sure my views on Christmas would of changed, I'm glad to hear that the Cardinal supports my families celebration of Christmas. Since the Pope trusts him, I'll take his word that's it's okay for me to celebrate today. Yes! It's Christmas as I'm writing this last paragraph. It's snowing out, as I hoped for, and my dad just brought me a steaming cup of tea.
      It's cool to know what the Cardinal is doing right now too. Last night, as he informed me, he celebrated midnight mass in Toronto, finishing his night rather late. After that, he heads to Guelph to the home of his sister, and takes a long nap on the couch. Something I can easily relate to. About this time, I think the Cardinal would be waking up from his name, and getting ready for dinner with his sisters' families. Then, they'll exchange gifts, and enjoy their time together. Happy to be all back home together, in the same province again. Big sisters, and little brother.
       As I was leaving the Archbishops office, I was glad to have learned more about religion, and happy to have been able to meet with such an influential person. I sincerely hope I have the chance to sit down with the Archbishop again, as I feel we have many more stories to share with each other. Including, yup, Angry Birds. I couldn't help but notice the Angry Birds stuffed animal in his office (it was the red bird). That, in my eyes, was the best way to end the interview. I'm not allowed to tell the College of Cardinals or Pope Francis, I was told, but that bird may be his favourite cardinal. He placed the stuffed animal on his shoulder, and whistled the Angry Birds theme. It was officially decided then.
      Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, is a very, very, cool guy. 

With that, the Cardinal and I bid farewell.
Photo by Victoria Alexander

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