By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In another emblematic appointment from Benedict XVI, the pope has named an easy-going academic as Archbishop of Toronto, replacing a man widely seen as a lightning rod for controversy in highly secular Canada.
Thomas Collins, archbishop of Edmonton for the past seven and a half years, was named to the Toronto job on Dec. 16. He takes over from Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, 76, a native Slovenian who has been archbishop in Toronto since 1990. Ambrozic arrived in Canada as a postwar refugee in 1948.
In tandem with his May 16 appointment of Archbishop Donald Wuerl to Washington, D.C., the pope’s choice of Collins suggests the prototype of a Benedict XVI bishop in a major see: A leader with rock-solid credentials on Catholic identity, yet personally gracious and pastoral, for whom conflict is the court of last resport.
Ambrozic had a reputation for swimming against the tide, which in some circles made him a contrarian. Over the years, he’s called homosexuals “poor devils,” described the late Spanish strongman Francisco Franco as “not a bad fellow,” complained that fellow bishops found him “too frigging pessimistic” and appeared to refer to the leader of a liberal Catholic women’s movement as a “bitch.” He later apologized for using the words “frigging” and “bitch.”
Ambrozic sometimes struggled with public relations. At a press conference in San Francisco in 1998 with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, for example, Ambrozic was asked about an allegation by Jerry Falwell that one of the Tellytubbies (a band of TV characters in a children’s program) embodied a cryptic pro-gay message, and Ambrozic launched into a rambling 15-minute discourse on faith and society. At the end, the befuddled reporter asked if that meant he agreed with Falwell, and Ambrozic testily called it an unfair question, even though it was the same one that he had started out to answer.
While Collins is outspoken, he is also known as modest and approachable, someone expected to bring a less divisive style to Canada’s premier English-speaking see.
Canadian observers say Collins, 59, may be a good match for Cardinal Marc Ouellet, 62, of Quebec, widely seen as the main papal point of reference for French-speaking Canada. Both Collins and Ouellet hold doctorates in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome, both have an interest in scripture studies (Collins has a license from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and is an expert in the Book of Revelation), both speak multiple languages, both are engaged with the wider worlds of culture (Collins also holds a degree in English literature), and both are seen as deeply traditional, yet gracious and open to argument.
“He’s very much like Benedict, Ouellet, [Cardinal] Christoph Schönborn, and that new generation of leaders,” said Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, who heads the Canadian Catholic TV network “Salt and Light,” and who worked closely with Collins when Rosica served as chief organizer for World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002.
“They are not afraid. They are not in popularity contests, but at the same time they are very sensitive to people and to priests,” Rosica said.
Collins was born in Guelph, Ontario, on January 16, 1947. He was ordained a priest for the Hamilton Diocese in 1973, and was a Scripture professor at St. Peter’s Seminary from 1978 to 1997.
He was rector of the seminary the last two years he was there before becoming coadjutor bishop of St. Paul in May 1997. Six weeks later he became bishop of the diocese replacing retiring Bishop Raymond Roy. In February 1999, he was appointed coadjutor archbishop of Edmonton and became archbishop on June 7, 1999, replacing the retiring Archbishop Joseph MacNeil.
The Toronto archdiocese includes 1.7 million Catholics, 833 priests, 111 permanent deacons, 715 religious brothers and sisters, and three auxiliary bishops.
Collins is known as an inspiring speaker, and Rosica said his record on that score in Edmonton was impressive.
“He did much of what Cardinal Martini did in Milan,” Rosica said. “He would fill the Cathedral on Sunday evenings with young people, doing a Lectio Divina and Scripture teaching unparalleled in Canada. I was with him for several of those sessions and I marveled at what was happening. To quote many of the young people: ‘It was awesome.’”