Friday, May 18, 2007

"The Priest Is Not His Own"

Up in Toronto on Candlemas Day, I found myself in a hallway of the rectory at St Michael's Cathedral.

Fuelled by the famous Horton's coffee and "Timbits," the new archbishop was up and running, but his permanent suite was still being prepared. In the interim, the 30ft main corridor was, excepting the various doorways that marked it, lined with cardboard boxes, stacked about five feet high along both sides.

Only on seeing the little strips of masking tape with one or two word notes on the sides -- things like "Eucharist," "Newman" and "Politics" -- did it become clear that the boxes contained not socks or knick-knacks, but Thomas Collins' library.

Having served as rector of London's St Peter's Seminary when his call to the episcopacy came, it shouldn't come as a surprise that several of Collins' book-boxes were marked "Priesthood." But even so, he turned to an old favorite -- Fulton Sheen's "The Priest Is Not His Own" -- in ordaining his first class for Canada's largest local church last week. (Like the pontiff who named him there in December, TC is given to the extemporaneous, so an audio version of his homily has been posted; whenever, in a space of minutes, you get to hear ministry described as "being a feather on the breath of God" and clericalism denounced as "a profound lack of appreciation for the majesty of the priesthood," it's a rare treat to behold.)

Speaking of priesthood and vocations back on Candlemas, Collins -- probably the first senior prelate to be interviewed whilst perched on an ergonomic chair -- told me that "if we're going to be who we're called to be, we've gotta live it to the full and do our best, and do it for our Lord," emphasizing "all those countless, countless, wonderful, wonderful priests" whose witness has served "to lead people into the priesthood.

"The reason the guys are there in the seminary," Collins said, "is because they met -- largely, often -- some really wonderful priest, who was just living it to the full."

As for vocations strategy, the subway-hopping prelate came down firmly on the side of an approach he termed as "people, not paper," repeating it to underscore the point.

"That's gotta be the way," he said. "We can always retreat into a bunker surrounded by paper, and we can give ourselves the illusion that we've done a full day's work.... You can hand guys [who've already expressed interest] information on the seminary -- that's fine. But posters, brochures, stuff like that -- I think they probably have zero influence."

In his days as rector, the archbishop -- who said that "hearing confessions" has been the greatest joy of his 34 years of ministry -- recalled that he once asked his seminarians what influenced them to enroll in formation. From the group of 50 or so, he said, "I forget the exact numbers, but it was something like this: 'the example of a priest,' 45 of the 50 said yes. 'I was invited by someone' -- I think that was 40 of the 50. 'Vocation literature,' zero."

"John Paul I used to say how some books are good for keeping doors open and things like that," he said.

It didn't seem like any of those were taking up space in the boxes outside.

Keeping with his prior practice, within days of his arrival as the chief shepherd of Toronto's 1.6 million Catholics, Collins set up a phone number for men considering the priesthood to be able to call him directly.

He gives the digits out from the pulpit at every Mass he celebrates. When that moment arose at the close of last week's ordination liturgy, the crowd responded with a standing ovation.

Archdiocese of Toronto