I came back to the Church some 10 years ago, after a sojourn in the outer rooms of the Christian mansion. Being a journalist, and because I wanted to sing out the good news, I wrote about it in a newspaper column. There were numerous notes and letters; some predicting a future in hell or some earthly nastiness, but most of them kind and helpful.
One of the most surprising came from the archbishop of Edmonton. It was simple, informal and overwhelmingly friendly and supportive, written, it explained, from the archbishop’s office. Which, the writer told me, was a Tim Horton’s across the road from the cathedral. I had just met Thomas Collins, soon to be our newest cardinal, thank God.
Since he became archbishop of Toronto, we have met for coffee every couple of months and I see him at various public conferences and events. I don’t flatter myself that I have some special place or status — anyone who knows Collins realizes that there are few more accessible and approachable prelates, and the number of people he meets is quite staggering. One priest who worked with the archbishop told me that it was all he could do to stop him giving out his personal phone number to well-wishers, especially young men who showed any interest at all in a religious vocation.
Since taking office, Collins has fundamentally changed the atmosphere and flavour of Ontario Catholicism and, by extension, the entire Canadian Catholic Church. Which is not to criticize any of his predecessors — he would loathe the idea — but to acknowledge that a good newcomer can achieve great things in any situation. There are some people who complain that it is has never been so difficult to be Catholic, but we need to remind ourselves that the chalice is half full rather than half empty. We have had two of the greatest popes in Church history, and a new generation of archbishops across North America in particular who are precisely attuned to the new orthodoxy and to the pressures of the contemporary world.
Those demands are not always appreciated by those in the Church who want immediate change. There are no theological magic wands, no episcopal panaceas, and in religion as well as in politics, the polarized right and left seldom grasp the nuances and complexities of the real rather than the imagined world. Of course, for example, there are Canadian political leaders describing themselves as Catholics who cause scandal, and of course there are teachers at ostensibly Catholic schools and colleges who teach heresy, but 21st-century archbishops walk in mazes rather than parks. It’s simply not as straightforward and easy as it once was. Thomas Collins knows this as well as anyone. Goodness, he lives it every day.
As a cardinal, His Eminence will be a prince of the Church, with a special relationship with the Pope and the Vatican and an intense significance within Roman Catholicism. But the power and the communication also flow in the other direction, in that he is a conduit for Canadian Catholics, for their views, fears, ambitions and beliefs, and this particular cardinal is wonderfully qualified to act in such a vital role.
The next decade is going to be an extremely difficult time for Christians, with long-held assumptions about the fundamental nature of society, family and morality being routinely challenged, and people of faith and in particular Catholics being subjected to often ugly critique. We will sometimes be condemned by people who want not dialogue and co-existence but absolute victory and a sense of triumphalism and oppression. It’s certainly not the gauntlet of communism and fascism, but it is the glove of liberalism and relativism. And while they are clearly different, they both knock their opponents down with a clenched fist.
Catholicism is being and will be attacked by decadence on the one side and materialism on the other. In other words, we should look neither right nor left, but look up. We’re helped to do so by the great Christians of the past and by the great leaders of the present. Congratulations Cardinal Thomas Collins, and God bless you in all that you do. God bless all of us too.
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