Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic
TORONTO — As archbishop of Toronto for 16 years, Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic oversaw the transformation of Canada's largest diocese into a multicultural, multi-racial home to 1.6 million Catholics.
But while acknowledging the challenges, Ambrozic once said his main challenge was simply to be true to the Catholic Church.
That is how the cardinal is being remembered today, as a man unwavering in his beliefs and unfailingly true to the Church he served with faith, grace and distinction through 56 years of priesthood.
After a lengthy illness Ambrozic died peacefully at Providence Healthcare Toronto on Aug. 26 shortly after receiving the sacramental anointing from Archbishop Thomas Collins, the cardinal's successor as archbishop. The cardinal was 81.
The funeral Mass for Ambrozic will be held Aug. 31 at St. Michael's Cathedral.
Collins praised Ambrozic as a dedicated priest and brilliant Scripture scholar. He called him "a man who loved to learn, to teach and to spread the Gospel message in so many ways."
"Cardinal Ambrozic was a spiritual shepherd who cared deeply for all who were entrusted to his pastoral care, and we commend him in our prayers to our heavenly Father," Collins said.
Ambrozic served as archbishop of Toronto from March 1990 until his retirement in December 2006. He was named in 1976 by Pope Paul VI as auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Philip Pocock.
He was a fervent advocate of Catholic education and had a particular interest in St. Augustine's Seminary, where he taught Scripture for several years and served as dean of studies from 1971 until his appointment as bishop.
In 1986, he was appointed coadjutor archbishop, meaning he would succeed Cardinal Emmett Carter on his retirement. In March 1990, he was made archbishop and, in 1998, a cardinal.
In a highlight of Ambrozic's time as archbishop, Pope John Paul II came to Toronto for the 2002 World Youth Day.
During Ambrozic's time, the face of the Church in Toronto changed dramatically. Fuelled by a flood of immigrants, the Catholic population grew from 1.1 million in 1986 to more than 1.8 million today.
To respond to the needs of the growing Catholic population, he oversaw the construction of 25 new churches.
Ambrozic was a private person with a reserved personality that the secular media sometimes interpreted as aloofness. He was a fierce defender of the faith and was unafraid to combat cultural trends that threatened the underpinnings of family and Church.
His views were often criticized in the media, which painted him as unwilling to change. But in his position as one of Canada's Church leaders, he staunchly defended the teaching of the Church and was undaunted by his critics.
He once attributed his durability to "simple natural stubbornness," a clear sense of his own identity, daily prayer and "wonderful friendships with priests."
Ambrozic was born Jan. 27, 1930 near Gaberje, Slovenia. His father was a small farmer and grocer, an independent and outspoken man who took his religion seriously.
More than piety, however, Ambrozic was shaped by his father's sense of leadership, one that stemmed from the man's abiding faith. He was the second of seven children, the eldest of five boys. As such, he felt an obligation to help the family survive in the leaner times that followed the Second World War.
CNS PHOTO | NANCY WIECHEC
One of the highlights of Cardinal Ambrozic's Term as Archbishop was welcoming Pope John Paul II to Toronto for World Youth Day 2002.
The war brought strife, violence and destruction. It was a time of terror that made its mark on the future cardinal. His father, being an opinionated Christian Democrat, was hated by both the Communists and the fascist collaborators of Nazi Germany.
Once the Nazis were defeated, the Communists controlled Yugoslavia, violently and systematically cleansing the country of all who didn't fit their plans.
In May 1945, the entire Ambrozic family fled to Austria. For the next three years, life was a series of displaced persons camps. Somehow the young man completed his high school education.
Canada beckoned, however, thanks to an uncle who was a Franciscan priest, a friendly bishop in Toronto and some Carmelite nuns. The sisters were asked to sponsor the Ambrozic family and readily accepted.
On arrival in Canada, the elder Ambrozic got a caretaker job with a summer camp and the family moved to the spot near Markham, Ont.
Young Ambrozic, as the oldest son, expected he would be needed to support the family. But it wasn't necessary, so he began to consider his future. At the back of his mind was the priesthood.
"Certainly it wasn't any kind of divine revelation. You go to the seminary because you want to try it out," he said.
Though he originally saw himself as a scholarly priest, parish life grew on him. But he was called back to Toronto to teach Latin at St. Augustine's. The official language of the Church is one of four ancient languages he could speak.
Then studies called. He was off to Rome for postgraduate work at the Angelicum, where he received a licentiate in theology, and the Pontifical Biblical Institute, where he obtained a licentiate in Sacred Scripture.
Life in the birthplace of Europe in the 1950s was wonderful. When he wasn't studying, there was a cozy coffee shop around the corner that "served the best coffee in Rome."
When his studies ended, Father Ambrozic returned to Toronto to teach Scripture at St. Augustine's from 1960 to 1967. He would later teach New Testament from 1970 to 1976 at the Toronto School of Theology.
Besides teaching, he found time for academic writing, publishing one book on Mark's Gospel and another on the Canadian Catechism.
In May 1976, Pope Paul VI called and Ambrozic became an auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Pocock.
Though it was an unexpected honour, he took to his new job dutifully and energetically. In 1984-85, he made pastoral visits to all 43 Catholic high schools in the archdiocese to strengthen and support religious education.
Ambrozic said, throughout his career, he never doubted that he answered the right call. "I went into it with a very clear idea of what I was into," he once said. "I never felt I made a mistake."