Cardinal Thomas Collins, archbishop of Toronto, is back home in Canada after an intense, historical time in Rome.
These days, he says, have given him a deeper appreciation for the gift of Peter to the Church — an experience of that “gaudium magnum” that flows from the fact that “habemus Papam.”
“The words of the the cardinal on the balcony express it perfectly,” Cardinal Collins explains. “‘I announce to you news of great joy: we have a pope.’ What a blessing that is, and perhaps we Catholics do not appreciate it enough. We need to do so more.”
This was the first conclave for Cardinal Collins, 66, who was named a cardinal in 2012. ZENIT asked him to share his experience with us.
ZENIT: As you head home from these intense days, what are your reflections?
Cardinal Collins: The time in Rome for the farewell to Pope Benedict and the election of Pope Francis has given me an increased appreciation for the divine and human dimensions of the choice of the successor of St. Peter. These have been days of grace, as Pope Francis said in his homily to the cardinals. With all the ceremonies and speeches and discussions among cardinals, the effect of divine grace has been undeniable, even among some who came from the secular context and were astonished. At every moment I and the other cardinals were conscious of the prayers of people around the world, who truly in that profound way participated in the conclave. It is fitting indeed that in the majestic procession into the Sistine Chapel the cardinals chant the Litany of the Saints, and then Come Holy Spirit. This divine foundation of the conclave utterly confounds the secular commentators.
At the same time it is a fully human experience, in which cardinals use the power of reason and the wisdom gained through a lifetime of experience to discern who should be chosen as the successor of Peter. One thing that I came to appreciate for the first time, especially during the week of General Congregations, which included all of the cardinals, including those over 80, is the massive treasure of wisdom and prayerfully reflected on experience and insight in the College of Cardinals.
And the human dimension of the papacy itself is also clear. We have been blessed with a series of superb popes, exemplary as successors of St. Peter, but humanly very different in style, personality, and individual characteristics. We are the richer for that, as no one pope (or bishop, or parish priest ) can do everything or stress everything, so as the different facets of pastoral (or Petrine) ministry are offered to us by one limited human apostle after another, we eventually receive it all.
ZENIT: In the process of electing a pope, the Holy Spirit is a protagonist, but so are the individual cardinals. How would you describe the Holy Spirit’s role in your own personal experience of the conclave? Was it unique, or similar to the way He inspires you throughout life?
Cardinal Collins: In every thing we do we experience the subtle inter-action of grace and nature. God acts among us, guiding us, and inviting us to listen to his word, but never overwhelming or forcing us. The election of a pope is like that as well. It is not at the level of divine inspiration, and the cardinals are not puppets in the hands of God, who forces them to elect the one he wants. That is not how God acts, even in the inspiration of Scripture. And, as Cardinal Ratzinger once wisely remarked, we do have some pretty unworthy popes in our history that it would be hard to imagine are God’s choice. No, as in all of life, the hand of God acts more subtly. But when an individual, or the College of Cardinals, utterly docile in prayer and adoration to the will of God, and assisted by the earnest prayers of others, and using all the natural powers of reason and experience – when such an individual or group makes a discernment, you can trust that to lead us on the path to the Father.
ZENIT: Now we have a Pope from the Americas. Do you have particular hopes for this pontificate?
Cardinal Collins: Pope Francis will bring to all of us in the universal church, in his new role as Bishop of Rome and Successor of St. Peter, the fruits of his many years of pastoral ministry in Argentina. He has been very much involved with the proclamation of the Gospel in South America and beyond. That particular treasure of personal experience will no doubt affect his ministry as Pope, but he will care for the whole Church, and every part of the Church has its own problems and opportunities for evangelization.
ZENIT: In his first few days, Francis is already showing us glimpses of how he will carry out his role as Successor of Peter. What in particular has caught your attention?
Cardinal Collins: What really struck me the first evening, and in the days following, is how utterly rooted he is in being a local bishop. The first thing he did, as Bishop of Rome, was to visit a Marian shrine beloved by the people of his new diocese. And on the balcony you could sense that bond of prayer and love between bishop and people. He showed that in Buenos Aires, and will show it in Rome, and in his special relationship to the universal Church as Successor of St. Peter for, of course, as Bishop of Rome he is not simply a local bishop, but is also responsible for the whole Church.
ZENIT: Now as you return to your ministry at home, would you say that these last few days have changed you?
Cardinal Collins: As I resume my episcopal ministry in Toronto again, after being away for several weeks in Rome for the conclave, I am eager to be home again and immersed in the life of my diocese, as I am sure all of the cardinals returning home for Holy Week are. But I have been changed by the awesome experience of participating in a conclave, that sacred trust confided to the College of Cardinals. These weeks have deepened my appreciation for the gift of Peter to the Church. We are so blessed in the Petrine ministry itself: The rock of Peter stands serenely in a world of shifting sands. And we have been blessed by the popes we have received over the last many years. Each different, each holy and wise, truly a Holy Father. We almost tangibly sense the lack during the “sede vacante” period. The words of the the cardinal on the balcony express it perfectly: “I announce to you news of great joy: we have a pope.” What a blessing that is, and perhaps we Catholics do not appreciate it enough. We need to do so more.
In these past few weeks we can see how the gift of the papacy seems to be appreciated, in some amazing way, by a secular world grown deaf to the voice of faith. But faith and holiness exercise a strange attraction in a cynical world. All over the world, in these last weeks, people of all faiths and of no faith have been powerfully moved by the profound spiritual experience of the farewell to Pope Benedict and the choice of Pope Francis.
I return to my pastoral ministry in Toronto deepened in faith, and full of joy, and grateful for the gift of Peter that God has given us.