Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 9, 2004
Archbishop tells his own story
Men of Integrity listen as spiritual leader interprets his life path and vocation journey
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Archbishop Thomas Collins has had several moments of focus in his life, the first one being when one of his favourite priests, Father John Newstead, asked him to become a priest.
Collins was in Grade 11 when Newstead popped the question. "I had been thinking about it myself but when father asked I really thought about it," Collins said at a breakfast with members of Men of Integrity, an all-male Catholic organization.
In his address, Collins shared aspects of his life and his journey of faith with some 90 men and a few boys who took part in the Jan. 31 breakfast at St. Basil's Cultural Centre.
He was born in Guelph, Ont., Jan. 16, 1947 to Thomas Sr. and Juliana Collins. He was their fourth child.
After he entered elementary school, his father, a deeply prayerful man who was circulation manager for the Guelph Daily Mercury, became ill and his working career ended. Juliana went to work as a legal secretary.
Over the next 12 years, Thomas Sr.'s health deteriorated until he died in 1967. Collins delayed his entry to the seminary so he could stay at home and help care for his father.
While growing up in Guelph "I was very much impressed certainly by the dedication of both of my parents," Collins told his audience. "Their love for one another was then and is now an inspiration."
Another source of inspiration were the priests of his parish, including Newstead. "He was a relaxed, joyful priest," he said. "He was a tremendous priest. He very much influenced my life when I was a kid growing up."
As a child, Newstead was struck by a serious disease and spent close to a year in hospital.
"He knew what was like to be vulnerable, to be kind of forgotten about," Collins related. "And so every day at 4 o'clock in the afternoon he went to the hospital to visit the sick, just for a moment to share his smile. He was always a joyful presence."
Most priests would do that one or twice a week. "But we all knew he did it everyday without fail until he died. And that impressed me."
When Collins was in Grade 11 Newstead said to him, "You know, Thomas, I think you should think about becoming a priest."
Collins had been thinking about the priesthood on his own but the fact Newstead brought it up gave it a whole new dimension. That was Collins first moment of focus in his life.
He completed high school and then went on to university.
Some of the writings of Bishop Fulton Sheen also influenced Collins, especially Sheen's emphasis on spending time everyday in adoration of the Lord through the Blessed Sacrament. "I really thought about that. It had a great influence on my life."
One time he sent a note to Sheen telling him how much he appreciated one of his newest books and to his surprise, the bishop wrote back.
"And he wrote a very nice little note saying 'Always remember my dear young priest that when you spend time before the Lord on the Blessed Sacrament, the faith required to see the presence of our Lord there is identical to the faith required of the apostles to the see the risen Lord.' Wow!"
In 1969, after completing his bachelor of arts, Collins took Newstead's advice seriously and entered St. Peter's Seminary in London, Ont. He was ordained in 1973.
The second moment of focus in his life came when following a prayer session at St. Peter's the rector said, "Tom, come with me, I want to talk to you."
At his office, the rector said, "We talked to your bishop and we want you to teach at St. Peter Seminary. Do you accept?
"Collins accepted and when he asked, "What do you want me to teach?" the rector replied casually, "We need Scripture this year."
So he went to Rome to the Biblical Institute, which he called "a boot camp for Scripture scholars."
His third moment of focus in his life came when he was finishing his third year at the Biblical Institute.
He thought he wasn't going to be able to complete his studies. And he couldn't bear the implications of failing. "Trying to do a degree in three years is probably a little bit foolish," he admitted at the breakfast. "I began to feel the blood pumping hot within my body. I began to lie awake at night. I remember being able to step out of myself enough to say, 'You are cracking up.'"
He overcame the impasse by going into "a powerful regime of prayer, long walks and Mark Twain funny books."
On his return, he spent many years as spiritual director, teacher, and group leader and formation team member at St. Peter's Seminary.
"I was inspired by these guys who would step forward (to become priests), especially when the priesthood was under attack as it was then," he said. "To this day I'm just grateful for the experience that I had as a spiritual director."
As he went about his daily routine at St. Peter's the phone rang. "I picked up the phone and the secretary said, 'The nuncio wants to speak to you.' The voice on the phone said, 'This is the nuncio, come to see me tomorrow for lunch.'"
Collins was nervous but the nuncio reassured him. "When I call it is either good news or bad news. Don't worry this is good news. The pope wants you to be the bishop of St. Paul, Alta. Do you accept?"
Collins said, "yes" without hesitation but he wondered in silence: "Where is St. Paul?"
"I had a wonderful time as a bishop of St. Paul. They say about St. Paul, it's a people kind of place and it really is."
Then the nuncio called again, this time saying the pope wanted Collins to become archbishop of Edmonton.
"I love being a priest, I love being a bishop," Collins said. But the position doesn't come without problems. "There are many problems. You worry about what is going to happen, how you are going to survive," he said.
"The higher in the hierarchy you go the more you realize that from a human point of view the whole thing is held together with Scotch tape. . . . But it also leads you to realize that by God's grace we are surrounded by the power of God. People like you and all the people of the archdiocese inspire me. Together we take on the world."