Pope Benedict presents a red biretta to Cardinal Thomas Collins at the Vatican Feb. 18.


Pope Benedict presents a red biretta to Cardinal Thomas Collins at the Vatican Feb. 18.

March 5, 2012

About 150 Canadians, including an Edmonton contingent, ventured to the Vatican to see an old friend receive his red hat.

Senator Betty Unger arrived in Rome Feb. 16, two days before the consistory, a ceremony to formally elevate 22 men as cardinals, including Thomas Collins. Unger knows Collins, 65, from his tenure as archbishop of Edmonton, from June 1999 to December 2006.

She travelled as part of the Canadian delegation, which was special because they had reserved seating about five or six rows from the front.

As a former registered nurse, former WCR board member and Alberta's newest senator, Unger has many memorable life experiences.

But her trip to the Vatican she referred to as, "one of the greatest highlights of my life. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it's an experience I will never forget.

"It completely overshadows my swearing in (as senator), which of course was exciting for me at the time. To go to the Vatican and be a part of the consistory is the stuff dreams are made from."

Of Collins, Unger said, "He is just such a wonderful man. It was such a privilege to be there and see him honoured by the Church, and see him joining the College of Cardinals."


On a sunny Saturday morning, Feb. 18, Collins knelt before Pope Benedict above the tomb of St. Peter as cardinals before him have done for centuries. The pontiff placed a scarlet biretta on the head of Collins, welcoming Toronto's archbishop as a cardinal. Collins is now the 16th cardinal in Canadian history, and only the fifth from English Canada.

"I was really impressed with how strong he (Pope Benedict) seemed when he gave his homily. Even saying Mass his voice was strong," said Unger.

Collins professed the cardinal's oath at St. Peter's Basilica, pledging to be faithful, obedient and to act always in the best interest of the Church. He also received a gold ring and a scroll bearing the name of his honorary parish, San Patrizio Church, in an upscale Rome neighbourhood.

Following the consistory, Unger had greeted other new cardinals. She chatted with the Cardinal John Tong Hon from Hong Kong, and also met Cardinal Timothy Dolan, from New York, and one of the new cardinals from Germany.

"Collins circulated the whole time, and there were opportunities to speak with him or listen to him speak, great photo ops as well. The three Canadian cardinals being in the same place at one time, I was told, is quite unusual," said Unger.

Collins celebrated Mass on Monday morning, Feb. 20 in front of St. Peter's tomb. Both Sunday and Monday, after the formalities were finished, the Canadians were taken on "absolutely unbelievable tours of the Vatican," including the amazing Sistine Chapel. Guiding them was Anne Leahy, Canadian ambassador to the Holy See.

Also in attendance from the Edmonton Archdiocese were Father Greg Bittman (archdiocesan chancellor), Father Adam Lech (rector of St. Joseph's Basilica) and Msgr. Jack Hamilton (vicar general and pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Sherwood Park). Finance Minister Jim Flaherty led the federal government party.


Louis Belzil, an Edmonton lawyer and basilica parishioner, was also at the consistory with his wife.

"I think it's a very positive development for the Church. Cardinal Collins is very much focused on the welfare of the Church, and that's a good thing for all Catholics," said Belzil.

While working on the board of Newman Theological College, Belzil had the privilege of working with Collins. Seeing him again in Rome was a special moment. "It was an exciting series of events. The celebrations were very upbeat, positive and joyful," said Belzil.

He exchanged kind words with Collins and had his photo taken with him. He also toured the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. "There were many highlights. I was really struck by the energy of all the national delegations, the cheering and the excitement during the papal audience, and also when the pope was speaking from his window after Sunday Mass," said Belzil.