Saturday, January 7, 2012

Cardinal Collins and my Year in the Seminary

Being such an admirer of Archbishop Prendergast I could not help being a little disappointed when the inevitable became an actuality, that is, of course, the official announcement that came from the Holy Father that His Grace, Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto, would be elevated to the Cardinalate. This was kind of the last stage in my intrigued attention to the rise of this priest in the Church in Canada. If you think I am setting the stage to say something insulting to His Grace, you would be way off.

I spent the 1995/6 academic year in St. Peter's Seminary in London, Ontario. Why have I never spoken about that year here at thetheologyofdad, you might ask? Mainly because I don't wish to say anything disparaging about the Church. Suffice it to say that amongst the faculty, etc., certainly Fr. Collins was by far and away the highlight for me. I'd even go so far as to say that in the midst of a general and profound disappointment in the academics there, he was the only bright spot. He is a gifted teacher. Not only that, I shall never forget that he did two things for me: agreed to help me with Latin (since none was offered at the seminary, to my great disappointment. I had no idea at the time how 'political' Latin was!) and, secondly, he voluntarily offered a course one evening a week to those interested on a subject that set me off in a direction of study that I still continue on to this day: 'Patristic Exegesis'. (I'd like to think that he would be proud when and if he ever found this out.)

But for a great many years since then I had nursed wounded feelings toward him. The reason is simply this: though he was a great man interiorly I thought he was a weak leader, a man who was personally definitely orthodox, but one who allowed himself to be pushed around by a faculty and staff who were not. Some have since wanted to challenge this view I had formed of him (Archbishop Prendergast most of all!). One thing that had been observed was that he was a priest from Guelph (Hamilton Diocese) running a seminary in London where the rest of the faculty were all Londoners. The significance of this fact took a long time to sink in. The Diocese of London was in desperate shape back then, to say the least, and I am not convinced it has significantly changed since, but it was certainly very bad then. I'll never forget reading the advertisement of the 'Mass for Gaia' that was being planned that May (1996), if I remember correctly.

I had thought that Fr. Collins and I had formed a sort of friendship, and so was crestfallen that Palm Sunday, just as the seminary year was wrapping up, when I found a handwritten note taped to my door. It was the Rector asking to see me that afternoon. When I went to his office he informed me that the faculty had decided that due to my relatively young age (21, definitely the youngest in the theology program and that time) I should take a year off. If this had come out of the blue I would have considered it on its own merits, or at least thought that the extremely liberal faculty members had scored a small victory. Yet a few unusual events had preceded this final one.
About a week or so earlier, at the weekly 'Rector's Talk,' Fr. Collins spoke about 'particular' or 'exclusive' friendships. I thought it was an interesting topic, but didn't think too much about it, until in a brief exchange with him later that evening, he brought it up and seemed to want to apply to me! I was mystified. I had said that Fr. Collins was the highlight of the year for me in terms of the academic life of the seminary, but the actual highlight bar none of my year there was the time I had spent with my fellow seminarians, how many wonderful friends I had made that year. Our 'group' (roughly ten men with whom you shared a wing of the building) in the seminary had a particularly fun dynamic; I found it very positive and life-giving. Yet the rector was not in this case referring to my friends in my 'group'. He was referring to someone I had befriended from another group. The irony of the whole thing - and this was something that I had not found out until about the fifth year of my marriage - this man, who was the emcee at my wedding, 'came out of the closet.' But he was not asked to take a year out of the seminary, the guy who now has five children and who has been married for 12.5 years was. In fact, this fellow was never impeded in any way. He eventually left on his own accord just before diaconal ordination!

The thing was, it seems, another friend of mine, who I subsequently found out had disordered, jealous feelings toward me (yes, I am a man-magnet, in case you didn't know) had gone to the Rector and had told him that he thought this other guy and I had an "unhealthy friendship." I think it was this confused young man's tattle-tailing to the Rector that set all of these events in motion. So, in other words, Fr. Collins had been manipulated by a seminarian he had trusted. What would you have done in that situation? Understandably this decision of the Rector hurt me greatly. How do you prove you are not gay? I had not even been sure that I even wanted to come back to the seminary for another year until a few days before that. (I was still contemplating joining an order.)

If you had asked me the summer of '96 what I thought about Fr. Collins I would have said that I liked him very much but that he was a weak man. I would have been horrified to have found out that one day he would be a Prince of the Church! In fact, even his first appointment, this as coadjutor bishop of St. Paul, Alberta, was a bit of a surprise to me - but that was as second hat in an unimportant diocese, so it was not such a big deal. How much harm could he do there, I thought. Of course, his meteoric rise in the decade after that has forced me to reevaluate my '96 impression of him, and again, so have Archbishop Prendergast's words. Archbishop Collins has had an impressive record since then, especially in Toronto. I have been continually impressed by what I have seen (not that I see all that much from Barry's Bay). He is no Prendergast, but perhaps the next best thing?

Since then our paths have only crossed twice, in any significant sense: I am obliged to him for having written a letter of recommendation for me in my application to the MA Program at St. Michael's College (the least he could do, my wounded heart reasoned!) Secondly, it is his name signed on my PhD. certificate as he was and remains Chancellor of the University of St. Michael's College.

The outcome of my year in the seminary left a bad taste in my mouth, and Fr. Collins was a part of that, of both the good and the bad.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with him both now and always, and may his elevation to the Cardinalate be a great grace for both Toronto and for Canada as a whole!

Now that I am on this seminary topic, so much more needs to be said. This perhaps should be considered but chapter one.


  1. I have yet to see a man of real steel in this Church, though I do think Archbishop Prendergast is in the running. I find that there is a lot of weakness in the Church.

    When I sit back and think about why this is, I often find it has to do with relationships. When you have a relationship with someone, I find you're less likely to lay down the law. I think this is what happens in the Church. The "professional Catholics" all become close to one another and then when it comes down to stepping on toes, they don't want to do it because of friendship. It's just speculation on my part.

    Jesus picked a "weak leader". Consider Peter and his denial of Jesus. In one sense, who could blame him: he was faced with possible death by admitting his association with Jesus. What galls me is that a lot of what the leadership is called to do doesn't involve the threat of death. Maybe lost government support or popular support.

    People do grow. Maybe he's learned to have more of a backbone, to be more discerning of such matters.

  2. I encouraged Dave to comment but he is insistent on remaining a lurker. He agreed with your impression of Collins which was his when he dealt with him in Edmonton. I could only imagine myself in Collins' shoes; God bless him. Also, Dave wants the second chapter of the seminary series.

  3. Thanks for your comments. People do grow. I just think about how much I've changed in ten years - in two years. There are always two sides to every story, and you can see possible re-readings if Collins were to respond: such as, the rector has no fiat, it is a vote-based thing. Who knows? I find it so interesting that I expected him to be a faultless father, and with such high expectations, failure is basically inevitable.

    Part two is coming as soon as I throw off this flu.