Priesthood, ministry are about more than a role or status, Redemptorist says

Redemptorist Fr. John Collins (Courtesy of Jim Roese)

Redemptorist Fr. John Collins
Who he is: Redemptorist priest and chaplain to Gwynedd Mercy University
Lives in: Gwynedd Valley, Pa.

Sr. Camille: Last year, in a chapel packed with your family, friends and fans, you recently celebrated your silver jubilee as a Redemptorist priest. The intensity of joy and gratitude was testimony to the impact of your ministry on others. We'll talk about that later, but first, I'd like to learn about the family that nurtured your vocation.

What was your childhood like and where and with whom did you spend it?

Collins: I am one of nine children born to my parents, George and Helen. There are nine of us who were born in 10 years! I have a twin sister, and we have always been good friends to one another along the way. Childhood was often busy, hectic, and filled with lots of activity. Nana and my famous Auntie Kay were a great help to my mother with all of us! We were by no means well off, and there were certainly challenges, but I don't remember ever feeling as if I wanted for anything.

What schools did you attend?

The parish grammar school at my home parish, Mission Church, through grade 6, the Boston Latin School from grades 7 to 12, and Boston University for a year before entering the seminary.

Did you have role models?

Yes. Our parish was still the center of life, so many people of the parish, along with the School Sisters of Notre Dame and the Redemptorist priests left many an impression on me.

Can you name anyone who especially encouraged you to become a priest?

A great old gentleman and Redemptorist, Fr. Arthur J. Finn, would often say to me about priesthood, "John, when are you going to stop fighting it?"

What led you to choose the Redemptorist community?

I grew up in a Redemptorist parish and had three uncles who were members of the community. My father's two brothers (Bill and Jack) are now deceased, my mother's brother (Frank) is 81 and semi-retired in our Boston community.

You are cherished as chaplain to the Mid-Atlantic Community of the Sisters of Mercy. How did that come about?

I was working in NYC, primarily in a counseling/mental health ministry, when a Sister of Mercy that I'd previously known from New York told me that Gwynedd Mercy University in Pennsylvania was looking for a chaplain. My community gave me permission to accept the position after interviewing for it. I had previously helped out on some occasions at the Convent of Mercy at Merion, so I was not totally unknown when I started at the university in 2001. I had also known some of the Mercy sisters who founded and ministered at Mercy Center in the Bronx through my years in NYC.

Being associated with and a part of a Mercy ministry at the university gave me many opportunities to establish ongoing relationships and to collaborate with the sisters and their associates on retreats, workshops, and other mission/ministry programs. I am grateful for all the blessings that have come from my life and ministry in Mercy.

What gifts do you bring to them?

I hope that I bring a deep sense of appreciation for their lives of service and their generous and profound witness to God's mercy. I hope that I have conveyed my conviction that I value and honor their experience, that I care to listen, to learn, and to understand their experience, so as to be able to be present, available, and responsive in whatever way might be helpful. I don't know where the church, our country, and our world would be without the grit, the work, the grace, and the witness of women religious. I am deeply grateful for all the ways that I have been blessed by their wisdom and goodness, which has been nourishing, hope-filled, and at times challenging in healthy and life-giving ways.

How do the sisters bless you?

In more ways than I can commit to pen! The sisters' commitment to service and their steely and tender resolve to do the work God through the works of mercy is striking and inspiring to me.

The places and spaces of Mercy sisters' ministry are at the intersection/crossroads of pain and promise, anguish and hope, need and new opportunity, and lost and found. The sisters go and stay where others might be leave and give up. I'm always grateful for the sisters' focus on mission and ministry that is rooted in their prayerful, discernment of the promptings of the Spirit, in light of the Mercy charism and in dialogue with the experience, sense, and signs of the times.

I am so grateful for the Sisters' intentional witness and commitment to prayer, process, and discernment as they seek to live with purpose, fidelity and creativity. It takes no small amount of faith, not to mention hard work, to commit time and energy to the communal processes of discernment, decision-making, shared governance, etc. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to worship with the Sisters of Mercy. The manner of praying, planning, and then "letting it (i.e., the liturgy) go," has made for some very sacred and memorable worship experiences.

Can you describe parallels and differences in the Redemptorist and Mercy communities?

I've often thought that our core spiritualities are in some ways strikingly similar and well-connected. Our Redemptorist motto is "Copiosa apud eum redemptio," which translates to, "With him, there is plentiful redemption for all." We were founded to preach the "plentiful" redemption of Christ to the poor and most abandoned. I see "Mercy" as another word for the "copiosa," the plentiful, abundant love of God (in Christ) for the poor, sick and suffering. In some sense, while the Redemptorist is called to preach mercy "as the principal path of Jesus," the Mercy sisters preach through their witness of doing of the works of mercy. I've always felt right at home as a Redemptorist within the context and community of Mercy.

What other pastoral and professional responsibilities do you have?

In addition to being the chaplain at the university, I am also a licensed clinical social worker who does some work in counseling and psychotherapy. I also do some part-time retreat work.

What aspects of your ministries do you most enjoy?

Liturgy done well is a very powerful and grace-filled experience of life, ministry, community and mystery for me. It is an incredibly mysterious and profoundly grounding experience for me. I enjoy people, hearing their hopes, listening to their concerns, and being present to them on their life journey. It sounds a tad cliché to say it this way, but I enjoy meeting people where they are at and always hope to convey a presence that is caring, concerned and affirming.

Although I would guess there are many answers to this question, I wonder if you would describe one particular time you were grateful that you've chosen the path that led to your silver jubilee.

I have often said through the years that I feel like a very lucky and blessed man and minister because I've had so many experiences in ministry when I found myself thinking and feeling, "There's no place else in the world where I'd rather be than right here right now."

I remember once, many years ago while in the Dominican Republic, carrying a dying baby in my lap in as we drove the child back to her family from the clinic so that she would die at home. It was a dark and rocky road through the night to the village. All I could do was hold her, pray for her, and ask God to bless her family in their sorrow. I knew and felt in that moment that my life and being had meaning and that I was conscious of myself, a call, and God's presence.

In so many experiences, both formal (sacramental, pastoral, liturgical -- related to the "priest" role) and less formal (personal presence, fellow pilgrim, friendships, professional/personal relationships), I've had the experience of knowing and feeling, "I'm meant to be here right now." A powerful recent personal experience was journeying with my father during his last days.

What is your favorite Scripture passage, and does it make in difference in your life?

Isaiah 43:1-5: Fear not, I have called you by name ... you are precious to me and I love you." To know oneself as loved and precious is to not have to live out of fear, which is toxic and debilitating. Fear feeds the frenzy of internal violence that spills out and over to relationships and actions with/toward others.

What is your image of God and has it changed over time? Can you say why?

God as loving and tender mother/father has emerged for me over the years, as I've done a good bit of work in my own processes of reflecting and working through experiences of my life within my family of origin and my ethnic and religious background. As I've also done my own life work and see this as integral to the journey of faith and the call to choose life, I've experienced and found compassion for myself and for others along my path. While I can in a crisis or when old buttons get pushed return to earlier, more strident images of God, I am so much more conscious of a loving, empowering and encouraging presence of the Holy in my being as I've journeyed these years.

What nourishes your faith and your priesthood?

The faith, love, humanity and fidelity of people always fill me with hope and joy. People courageous and wise enough to not throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to life, church, the world or anything that matters to them nourish my faith that questions are the friend of the person of faith, and that if we stay faithful in love and in truth as we speak, as we listen, and as we learn from one another, the Spirit will prevail. This takes prayer, discipline and not a little good humor!

Anything particularly encouraging or discouraging in today's church?

Pope Francis is encouraging in his invitation at the recent synod for all who were there to speak their truth without fear and in his constant refrain that mercy must always come first. I find his challenge to all the "-isms" -- patriarchy, hierarchy, clerical, race, gender, etc. -- a reason for cautious optimism, especially around clericalism. I do think we have a long way to go toward re-integrating the sensus fidelium as part of the Magister (teaching) and not relegating it simply to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the pope and the bishops.

Is there anything you would change, and if so, why?

Language creates reality, and I think this is a real area of concern with real pastoral implications/consequences for the people of God. I also believe that a more equal integration of women into the life and leadership of the church is a matter of Gospel priority and not simply a pinch point of the politics of these times.

How do you relax?

Good meals with good friends, time at the water or a walk in nature, an infrequent round of golf, and watching some sports on TV. I also like some quiet sitting and reading.

Do you have a favorite TV program?

Not really. I used to enjoy "The West Wing"! Love government stuff and politics. I still get a charge out of seeing the White House and saying, "That's where the president lives!"


"Shawshank Redemption." At the beginning: "Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane." At the end: "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things."


Of late, an Irishman by the name of Daniel O'Leary, a priest who works in England who writes meditations at the intersection of spirituality and human growth/development. Already Within, Passion for the Possible, and Begin with the Heart are a few of his works that I've really enjoyed.



How do you pray?

Often with music, the Scriptures, and other sacred texts.

What causes you sorrow?

When people are unseen, unappreciated or devalued and how this can eat away at their sense of competence, value and self-esteem. The anguish of addictions and self-destructive behaviors is poignant. Violence against the self and against the other(s) is heartbreaking and sad.

What causes you joy?

Life; births; my family; my wonderful nieces and nephews; time with friends; another's happiness, success, healing, new beginning; being there as minister/companion in a way that feeds and helps another.

What gives you hope?

The goodness and courage of people, the indomitability of the human spirit, people breaking through to new ground in their lives, and people seeking peace, justice and reconciliation over violence, oppression and revenge.

Is there something you wish I had asked?

How has your experience of priesthood and ministry evolved/changed/developed through the years? Has it been what you thought it would be when you started out? Surprises? Challenges? Disappointments? What do you anticipate?

Obviously, these are my questions as I journey on!

Priesthood and ministry today are much more about presence, companioning, and being than they are about the "role-defined" functioning, doing, and serving of my earlier years. As a priest in ministry to and with God's people, I too am a person and a pilgrim on the journey. I priest and pastor from a deep conviction that ministry is about relationship between and among people who know themselves as people on pilgrimage to God and eternal life.

I'm grateful that I know myself first as John, a pilgrim person who is also a priest. I don't minister as the priest first and leave my own humanity outside the encounter/engagement with people. The experience of preaching the Word, celebrating the sacraments, and pastoral care of the people is incredibly moving and profoundly humbling when I come to those moments that bring my humanity and my "self" to the grace of priesting that the Spirit calls forth in the occasion at hand.

I am especially grateful for the opportunities given me during my time in formation to participate in processes promoting human and spiritual development for future priests and ministers. Roles by themselves don't make for integrated and well-balanced people. If a person doesn't have a well-developed sense of who he/she is and assumes a role that confers status, then that person is highly vulnerable to finding their identity in their role. In my experience, this results in a hurting priest/minister hurting the ones (s)he hopes to help.

The mystery of the call to priestly ministry has become more compelling for me the more I've realized that there is more to it than even how any teaching or theologizing may define or understand it. I think people today, as far as priests and religious are concerned, are much more interested in who we are inside of ourselves than simply our roles, titles, etc. We need to earn their respect and confidence by who we are as people and ministers and how we relate to them as our equal, notwithstanding different gifts and life contexts.

The travails of the sexual abuse crisis have left many with very negative and devaluing perceptions of priests and priestly ministry. This is sad, not always easy, and often difficult. It is also entirely understandable, given the culture of arrogance, denial, and isolation that foments secrecy and a devastating lack of transparency and accountability. The silver lining in this dark cloud is an invitation, maybe even a demand, for honesty, mutual accountability, and integrity in our dialogue, discernment and decisions going forward!

Thanks for your patience and hope this is of some help to your work!

Best as always, John. Hope this addition is of some help, too.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

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