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Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins at St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto. (Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press)
Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins at St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto. (Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press)

THE TELL

Canada's newest cardinal is 'a shepherd, not an emperor' Add to ...

As a newly minted red hat – to borrow the Vatican insiders' phrase for Rome's elite – Thomas Collins is well placed to carry on the Catholic Church's traditions of pomp and splendour.

But even as Pope Benedict XVI raises his status to cardinal at St. Peter's Basilica on Saturday, the 65-year-old Archbishop of Toronto seems unlikely to be blinded by his own magnificence.

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“No matter how high he's gone, he's never lost the common touch,” says Rev. Thomas Rosica, chief executive officer of Salt + Light Television, which has filmed the archbishop in old Roman haunts from his student days. “What keeps this guy going is his deep sense of simple joy.”

Take that with a grain of salt, if you wish – humility may be part of the job description, but the princes of the church sit atop a hierarchy where superiority comes with the red headgear.

Yet Thomas Collins may be different from the old norms: His elevation to the role of cardinal is part of a strategy to change the character and performance of the Vatican's leadership class – the 120-odd men who steer church policies and programs while awaiting the opportunity to elect the next pope.

“He doesn't correspond to the stereotypes of a high-level cleric,” says John L. Allen Jr., senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. “He's not a stuffed shirt; he's funny, human, doesn't take himself too seriously. He's also strikingly media-friendly and media-savvy: He doesn't have a chip on his shoulder. At a time when many Catholic bishops have an image of being hostile to the press, he stands out as willing to talk and unafraid of questions.”

So there he was all over Rome last week, showing off bookshops and cafés to the TV camera, Skyping with Toronto students, climbing rooftops to pose for photographs, parading around St. Peter's Square in a Maple Leafs jersey, fielding calls at his Vatican pensione – “I'll get to know a lot of airports,” is how he deflates the presumptions of grandeur that his new title invites.

Back in Toronto, he doesn't live in a mansion but a book-filled apartment at the cathedral rectory in a rough quarter of downtown – and within earshot of the emergency sirens at St. Michael's Hospital. Life's imperfections necessarily intrude. “This is a man who's spent time in the real world,” Mr. Allen says. “He's in touch with people in the street and knows what their questions and criticisms are, in a way that other senior churchmen don't.”

Thomas Collins's background seems more old-school. He grew up in Guelph, Ont., down the street from the towering Church of Our Lady, where he was an altar boy. Even in high school, he read up on the priesthood, and at the University of Western Ontario combined a master's in English with theology studies.

His career followed the typical course of a smart young cleric on the rise, including two stints of coursework in Rome. But there was more to the pious Irish Canadian than an ambitious résumé. His lively nature, ability to synthesize difficult arguments and early-adapter command of social media and technology marked him out in a rule-driven faith that lacked his gifts for reaching the broader range of humanity.

When he became Toronto's archbishop in 2007, succeeding Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, the change in style was remarkable. “Ambrozic was more shy,” Father Rosica says. “Collins is out there. He's got the ability to connect.”

Special breed of ‘company man'

His easygoing personality caught Rome's attention. The 2,000-year-old church is never a perfect fit with modernity, but allegations of priestly abuse have many Catholics retreating into a siege mentality, blaming media messengers while underplaying the problems of a faith that prizes obedience and top-down control.

Archbishop Collins, while theologically orthodox – “a company man,” in Mr. Allen's words, has refused to be boxed in by the church's institutional values. His flexible outlook led Pope Benedict to pick him as part of an apostolic visitation to Ireland in 2010-11, a tricky mission designed to fix a church racked by abuse while offering solace to victims.

What made him a natural choice, Mr. Allen says, was “his willingness to talk about tough questions in a non-defensive way. He's a model for how the Pope and the powers that be would like to see senior church officials engage in this issue.”

That openness is on display as he discusses priestly abuse during a conversation from his Vatican billet. “We have made mistakes in how we deal with it, but I hope we're dealing with it in a better way. It's very natural that people should have been scandalized – all of us are scandalized by a person with spiritual responsibilities who's hurting people. People who do wrong are not representative of what the church is all about, but when a priest goes wrong, we need to deal with it as best we can.”

He says all the right things, but his manner is far from corporate. He feigns nervousness about his made-to-measure scarlet robes not turning up on time, talks passionately about his passion for Dante and the apocalyptic Book of Revelation (revealing his off-centre tastes), asks if you know about the only song to be heard in hell (answer: I Did It My Way), makes sure you know he's joking, and talks with an evangelizer's directness about the political side of faith (“Freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion”) and the appeal of traditional values in a sound-bite society: “If people feel caught up in a rapidly changing world of equivocation and fuzz and fog, my hope is they will recognize the clarity and the beauty of the Gospel and respond to that.”

While he is effectively a CEO overseeing a vast multicultural archdiocese with almost two million adherents – and a crumbling cathedral one adviser describes grimly as “a money pit” – he retains the outward simplicity of a man who is happiest explaining scripture to parishioners.

“There's a need to serve the Lord with gladness,” he insists – the phrasing comes from Psalm 100, and was the motto he chose when he became a priest in 1973.

“He's a guy who loves being Catholic, and it's infectious,” says Richard Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton. “He knows that one of the greatest ways to communicate the beauty of the Gospel is to manifest the joy that it brings.”

Archbishop Collins has ascended because Rome requires more of his high-energy gladness for its New Evangelization campaign.

“The key issue is how to make the message of Christ known in terms that meet today's expectations but still hold true to the core message of the church,” says Francis Morrisey of St. Paul University in Ottawa. “He's loyal to church teaching, but he's not rigid in his faith or aloof in his personality. He's a shepherd, not an emperor.”

His church is less imperialistic, more pastoral. Catholicism isn't looking for converts so much as it is trying to retain the allegiance of its own faithful who resist the Vatican's clerical control. A gregarious man of the people can change Rome's image from aloof to accessible – even as the underlying message remains eternally the same.

John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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