Among the spectacle of scarlet robes, silk birettas and platinum crucifixes sits a quiet, humble figure, the son of a newspaperman and legal secretary, from Guelph, Ontario.

He is 66-year-old Cardinal Thomas Collins, one of three Canadian cardinals joining his religious brethren in Vatican City to choose the successor to Pope Benedict XVI.

In between his duties as Archbishop of Toronto and preparing for the papal election in Rome, Cardinal Collins sat down with W5 to discuss the papal succession, upcoming conclave, and current issues facing the Catholic Church.

Mixed with sombre fidelity and eagerness, Collins talked about his role in selecting a successor to Pope Benedict, saying “the conclave is always a profoundly important event in the life of the Church and of the whole world. It is the oldest system of choosing a leader that there is.”

“I mean to be a cardinal is an awesome dignity and responsibility,” he added.

Cardinal Collins is just one of the 115 cardinal electors who will take part in the highly secretive papal conclave scheduled to get underway on March 12, 2013 to choose a suitable successor to Pope Benedict XVI.


Since 1846, papal conclaves have been held in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, where the cardinals gather to choose a new leader.

Cardinals under the age of 80 years are eligible to participate in the vote. Cardinals over the age of 80 are allowed to speak in pre-conclave meetings but are not permitted to take part in the papal election.

Once the 115 cardinals are gathered, they are prohibited from talking to anyone outside of the Sistine Chapel and must take an oath of silence to protect the discussions related to the selection of the new pope.

Eating and sleeping at a special residence called the Domus Sanctae Marthae, each cardinal has his own room and washroom. Outside of the cardinals and a few staff, no one else is allowed at the residence during the conclave proceedings.

During the conclave, the cardinals cast secret votes twice each morning and twice each afternoon. A two-third majority, among the 115 voting cardinals, is needed for a cardinal to be voted as pope.

After all the ballots are counted, smoke signals are released from the Sistine Chapel to let the public know the results. Black smoke is released if no new leader is chosen and white smoke is released when a new pope is chosen. Ringing bells accompany the white smoke when a pope is chosen to avoid confusion about the hue of the smoke.

A new cardinal

This is Collins’ first conclave, having only been elevated to the position of cardinal on February 18, 2012. As a child, Collins remembers watching for the black or white smoke when ballots for a new pope were taking place at the Sistine Chapel.

“I’m a kid from Guelph, what am I doing here, like, oh my gosh,” said Collins, adding, “and now to think I’m not going to be one outside waiting for the white smoke and wondering is it white or is it grey, but I’m going to be inside.”

Reflecting on the serious task before him, Collins said: “You see the cardinals chanting the litany of the saints, coming out of the Pauline Chapel and into the Sistine Chapel, and then swearing the oath to be faithful. (Then) when they’re dropping the ballot in, they’re looking right up at The Last Judgement.”

That last reference is to the famous Michelangelo paintings that cover the ceiling. Inside the Sistine Chapel, where the conclave takes place, Collins will be sequestered in prayer and quietude, along with the fraternity of cardinals.

Collins concedes it’s not an easy time to find a new leader of the Catholic Church. Benedict’s successor will face a number of daunting issues including rising secularism in the West, calls for ordained women, and allegations of sex abuse -- a time when the Church is facing controversy and questions.

In his last sermon before heading off to Rome to participate in the conclave, Collins told those gathered at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral: “We think at this time of life in our church when we’re going through all sorts of stormy seas. It’s a typical day in the life of the Church, bouncing along.”

As for choosing the next pope, Collins said: “I think the point is to listen attentively to the voice of the Holy Spirit in prayer, but also to listen, listen, listen to the other cardinals, both those speaking about the faith and about what the Church needs.”

Later, in Rome, just before entering private pre-conclave talks with his fellow cardinals after which they entered into their period of silence, Collins told W5: “There are numerous struggles and challenges that one faces. I think the Holy Father is responsible for caring for the whole Church and therefore everywhere in the Church, every day, there will be, somewhere, immense difficulties.”