As a member of the Roman Catholic Church’s elite College of Cardinals, Aloysius Ambrozic found himself in an exclusive yet uncomfortable place: In a spotlight that came with the job but which he could never quite get used to.
By most accounts a modest and shy man, and a complex one – more than just another conservative appointed to the Church’s upper echelons – Ambrozic was, by virtue of his smooth ascent, the focus of much attention. He loved being a priest, bishop, archbishop and cardinal, but those around him got the feeling he would just as soon have done it all away from the glare and hype.
And while willing to hear dissenting views, remaining respectful throughout, Ambrozic was an unmistakable and unshakable theological traditionalist who opposed gay marriage, the teaching of sex education in Catholic schools and the ordination of women. At the same time, he took to heart the Church’s teachings on social justice.
He imbibed politics but was likely scarred by them to some degree. His exposure to the worst excesses of fascism and communism in Eastern Europe aligned him nicely with another prelate who had similar experiences: Pope John Paul II, who named Ambrozic a cardinal in 1998.
The Archbishop of Toronto from 1990 until 2006, Ambrozic died Aug. 26 after a lengthy bout with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder. He was 81. His death leaves two Canadian cardinals, Marc Ouellet and Jean-Claude Turcotte, both of Quebec.
A priest for 56 years, Ambrozic was recalled as a wide-ranging and rigorous intellectual with a common touch. Though he may have appeared in public as stern, standoffish, even gruff, friends and colleagues report a man who was kind and personable. It largely hinged on how many people were around him, as he could easily withdraw depending on the size of the crowd.
“Cardinal Ambrozic was a private person who had a reserved personality that the secular media sometimes interpreted as aloofness,” the Catholic Register reported last week. “He was a fierce defender of the faith and was unafraid to combat cultural trends that threatened the underpinnings of family and Church. His views were often fiercely criticized in the media, which painted him as unwilling to yield to change. But in his position as one of Canada’s leading authority figures in the Church, he was unyielding in professing the truth of the Church and was undaunted by his critics.”
In a telegram to Toronto’s archdiocese, Pope Benedict related that he was “deeply saddened” by Ambrozic’s death. The pontiff recalled “with gratitude” the cardinal’s “dedication and service to the Church in his adopted country.” (Not without a sense of humour, Ambrozic doubtless would have chuckled at a comment posted on the archdiocese’s website: “What’s a telegram?”)
“First of all, he was utterly given to God,” said Suzanne Scorsone, former director of communications at Toronto’s archdiocese. “Everything else proceeded from there.
“But people who did not see him throw his head back and laugh did not know the whole man,” Scorsone continued. “I can remember when my children were young and he held their hands. They’d walk up his legs and slip over while he smiled and laughed and joked with them. He was tremendously warm with people and he could do amazingly charitable things.”
Such as fund bursaries for university students and sometimes seminarians out of his own pocket. The recipients “never knew where the money came from,” Scorsone said. “To this day, I don’t think they know.
“But he was never one for trumpets. He was a shy and private person. He found the spotlight an uncomfortable place to be. That’s the way he was wired but, in part, it was also because of his experience during and after World War II. He had seen the cult of personality and he found that personally abhorrent, a form of manipulation and a tool of oppression. That was the echo for him.”
Aloysius Matthew Ambrozic was born on Jan. 27, 1930, in Dobrova, Slovenia, the second of seven children, and the eldest of five boys, of Aloysius Ambrozic Sr., a farmer and grocer, and his wife, Helena Pecar. He was 11 when Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis powers, with Slovenia sliced up among Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Hungary. More than 63,000 Slovenes were shipped to Nazi concentration camps.
Within weeks, a liberation movement sprang up, and following a civil war that rained terror, the communists won a peace that was no less brutal and violent for their cleansing of those who didn’t fit. Among them was the senior Ambrozic, who had been an outspoken Christian Democrat and was hated equally by both sides. “More than piety, Ambrozic was shaped by his father’s sense of leadership,” the Register noted.
In May, 1945, the entire clan fled to Austria and a string of displaced persons camps. Amid that chaos, Ambrozic managed to complete his high school education.
Three years later, sponsored by Carmelite nuns, the family arrived in Markham, Ont. Ambrozic senior found work as a caretaker at a summer camp while his son enrolled in seminary. There had been no flashes of light or spiritual epiphanies. “You go to the seminary because you want to try it out,” he once said.
He studied at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto, was ordained in 1955, and spent his first year as a priest in Port Colborne, Ont. The years 1957-1960 were devoted to postgraduate studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.
Returning to Toronto, he taught scripture at St. Augustine’s for seven years, then earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Würzburg in Germany in 1970.
A formidable Bible scholar and recognized authority on the Gospel of Mark, he was professor of New Testament at the Toronto School of Theology until 1976, when he was named auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Toronto. Serving alongside Archbishop Philip Pocock and Cardinal Emmett Carter, Ambrozic helped shepherd the rapidly growing ethnic communities in the archdiocese and was especially attuned to issues of migration and displacement.
“He valued Canada enormously as a place where people would treat one another with justice and respect,” Scorsone said. As someone who had sought asylum here, “he saw Canada as a refuge and as a place where people could be who they were and simply be as human beings.”
His time as archbishop was one of rapid growth. Ambrozic oversaw the construction of at least 25 churches to serve a booming, multi-ethnic, multilingual Catholic population now nudging two million, stretched across the massive, 13,000-square kilometre diocese. Today, mass is celebrated for 36 ethnic and linguistic communities within the Church boundaries.
Among his highlights as archbishop was the largest gathering of Catholic youth in Canadian history on World Youth Day in 2002, which culminated in the celebration of mass by Pope John Paul II at Downsview Park for more than 750,000 pilgrims.
His elevation to the College of Cardinals gave Ambrozic a vote in the conclave of 2005 that elected Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. (Ambrozic’s ballot is “sealed forever,” said Scorsone, but he and Ratzinger enjoyed “mutual trust and regards.”) Recognizing his background, the Pope appointed Ambrozic to Vatican committees dealing with immigration, culture, worship and the economy.
“In all candour,” chided dissident Catholic journalist Ted Schmidt, “we must see Ambrozic as a Pope John Paul II appointment, a fruitless attempt to stem the progressive tide of the Second Vatican Council … Ambrozic perfectly fitted the mould of a rigid dogmatist who was not interested in listening to what the Spirit might be saying to the 99 per cent of Catholics who were lay people.”
It’s no secret Schmidt and Ambrozic butted heads on several occasions, “but I never felt a personal animosity or bitterness on his part,” Schmidt said.
Ambrozic “never forgot his peasant roots in war-torn Slovenia,” Schmidt wrote for newcatholictimes.com. “He could never work a room and glad hand. He said what was on his mind. An excellent scripture scholar, he was most at home as an academic, well read in high European culture. Personally kind and not without a sense of humour, he served the Church which provided him with a post-war home with fierce loyalty.”
Catholic thinker Michael Higgins had several encounters with Ambrozic over the years, “most of them amicable.” In the 1980s, while at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., Higgins helped found the ecumenical journal Grail, and invited Ambrozic to participate.
“He declined, quite vigorously, actually,” recalled Higgins. “He thought it was a kind of left-wing set-up. He had been very concerned about the progressive teachings on sexuality that were going on in the psychology department at St. Jerome’s at the time. So it was a bit of a rocky relationship.”
Though the two were not on the same page “on many issues,” Ambrozic knighted Higgins into the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a Catholic lay order, in 2004.
What struck Higgins was Ambrozic’s fair-mindedness. “If you could substantiate your argument, he would listen to your respectfully. That doesn’t mean he would be persuaded or agree, but he never seemed to personalize things. He was always scrupulously fair.
“And he was an aggressively intelligent and consistently conservative Catholic thinker. There aren’t a great number of bishops in the world who are intellectuals, and he was one. My sense is he was a more complex figure than many thought, and in many ways, hasn’t been captured well.”
One reason for that was a strained relationship with the secular media. “He just never managed to get comfortable in his skin when it came to journalists,” Higgins said. “That was shyness, but also a difficulty condensing things into workable soundbites.”
What had left Ambrozic “scorched” and deeply suspicious about the press was a 1993 Toronto Life profile written by the controversialist journalist Michael Coren. In it, Coren quoted Ambrozic as using the words “frigging” and “bitch” and calling the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco “a conservative Roman Catholic and not a bad fellow.” The Church circled its wagons around Ambrozic and Coren was deluged with hate mail. Though a faithful Catholic who struggled with printing the remarks, Coren stuck to his guns, saying Ambrozic had been “vulgar” in their talks, and he rebuked his co-faithful for expecting him to “lie.”
Ambrozic’s “greatest gift” to the archdiocese was his preservation of its history, said Mark McGowan, former principal of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. “He heavily promoted books on the history of the diocese,” one of which has yet to be published. “He had a deep and passionate desire that the story of the Church in the Toronto area be told.”
McGowan was principal of St. Mike’s for nine years. “One great gift he gave us is he let the academics run the college. He was always there in the wings as chancellor, but he trusted us, and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.”
Kitty McGilly, a friend for 30 years, said ordinary folks attending Ambrozic’s funeral mass last Wednesday “came out of the woodwork” with stories of how the prelate had helped them over the years, whether financially or with visits that boosted morale.
One anecdote McGilly knows came from a priest in Hamilton, Ont. who frequently brought communion to the home of a very elderly woman. One day, the woman told the priest, “no need to come on Fridays. A priest friend comes that day.” The Hamilton priest happened to drop in on her and he met the priest friend. It was Ambrozic, by that time a cardinal. The woman had helped the Ambrozic family when they first came to Canada, “and he never forgot it,” McGilly said. “He never forgot a favour.”
Ambrozic leaves his siblings Matthew, John, Anthony, Jerry, Frances and Helena, and many nieces and nephews.
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