NOTE: We haven’t posted an interview in over a year for two reasons: (1) We took a sabbatical. It’s exhausting being love in a world that seems to prefer hate. But now’s not the time to wither; it’s the time to be more loving, to build sturdier bridges, to ask, “How may I help you?”, and (2) we lost our wonderful professional transcriptionist. So transcribing each interview takes us much, much longer than it used to.
But we’re back…ready to love, build, and ask.
In June of 2018, The Only Love Project’s Bill Murphy (BM) conducted the following interview with Fr. Patrick Collins (FP) at his beautiful home near Lake Michigan.
And when I write “beautiful,” I mean it. We sat on the deck that overlooks a lush, well manicured lawn and flowers, a slight breeze tinkling the wind chimes, the sound of running water from nearby fountains gurgling and bubbling.
It was an idyllic spot for the conversation that follows.
And what follows is an eloquent, fascinating interview not only about love, but also about the life of one of the most genuine people I’ve ever known. Enjoy!
BM: What would you like others to know about you?
FP: Well, I’m almost 82 years old, and I was born in Peoria, Illinois, raised in a small farming community called Wyoming.
I was a Protestant when I grew up; I became a Catholic during my first year in college. I was at the University of Illinois studying music. I was an organ major and a piano minor, and I took instructions from an assistant priest with the Newman Foundation, named Edward O’Rourke. When I finished my music degree, I went to the seminary and was ordained a priest of the diocese of Peoria in 1964. Some years later, Edward O’Rourke became my bishop. So we worked very closely together for 19 years.
I tried to make the Peoria diocese a very Vatican II kind of diocese—collegial, collaborative, consultative. Bishop O’Rourke told me that he wanted a synod to restructure the diocese, and he appointed me the chairman of the committee to do the synod, and he said, “I will sign anything the people of God of this diocese want, as long as it’s in line with the Gospel, Vatican II, and the code of cannon law.” And he stuck to it. We had wonderful, collaborative meetings in every parish, writing documents—lasted 19 months. It was a wonderful experience of church in the diocese of Peoria. I did a number of things. I was assistant at the cathedral for a while and directed the choir there. I was vice chancellor and worked closely with Bishop Franz. Then I did my doctorate at Fordham in historical theology. When I came back, I was chaplain and Bradley University, the Newman chaplain there. I went on from there to be vice president of campus ministry at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and I taught theology there, as well. Then, I came back to Peoria and was director of worship and music for the diocese for eight years, before I went back to the cathedral as rector in 1987. And I was there until 1990 when I left the diocese to give retreats, to do research, to write, and to become more of a person of prayer, I think. And so, for about 27 years, I worked in and around the diocese for Peoria, and for about 30 years now, 28 years, I guess it is, I’ve been freelancing and teaching retreats, writing, praying. So I think that’s about all I could want to say.
BM: You were raised a Protestant and you became a Catholic? How did that happen?
FP: I think there were three things that happened. I was in high school, playing the organ in my congregational church as a substitute organist, when the Catholic organist needed a substitute for a month in the summer. And so I learned to play the daily requiem mass at the Catholic church. And I really fell in love with the beauty of the old Roman rites and the Gregorian chants. That was one influence.
FP: Another influence was my best friend since five years old was a Catholic. He was one of six children. His father was our town dentist. His mother was my mother’s best friend. And they were just an outstanding example of living the Christian life. So their example was important to me.
BM: Oh, excellent.
FP: And the third thing was studying the cohesion of the Catholic catechism, the questions and answers. I was looking for answers to questions. I think at age 16, 17, I was looking for answers to questions and the catechism provided that. So, the beauty of the liturgy, the witness of this family, and the cohesion of the Catholic catechism probably were the main instruments moving me to the Catholic church.
BM: Why did you have such serious, deep questions as a 16-year-old?
FP: Well, 16 or 17. I was 17 when I graduated from high school. I had started when I was five in grade school. One of my friends was a Catholic who read Thomas Merton’s book Seven Storey Mountain. And he gave it to me to read, and I gave it back to him and thanked him very much. He said, “What did you think?” And I said, “Very interesting story.” And he said, “Well, when are you going to do it?” And I said, “Do what?” He said, “Become a Catholic.”
FP: And he said, “Well, you better, because only Catholics go to heaven.”
FP: He and I are still in good touch with one another. His son died this week, in his 50s.
So we’ve been in touch about that, in California.
BM: Would you consider yourself to be a spiritual person?
FP: Oh, very definitely a spiritual person. Living in kind of a life of solitude and silence here in my home, which I call Hermitage Nova Vita. Gardening, praying, singing the office, reading, having hospitality with friends, and a way of living out a deeper life of spirit.
BM: What is Hermitage Nova Vita?
FP: I’ve found new life here. After 27 years of being active in Diocesan stuff, university stuff, I backed off from all that, found a place to sink in to the center of myself and work on what Thomas Merton calls “discovering your true self.”
BM: Next question is this: Most religious traditions speak of the value and necessity of love. For example, the Dhamapada tells us, “Only love dispels hate.” The Bible says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” The Jewish tradition says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What, if anything, do those words mean to you?
FP: Well, I think love is who God is, and the more we practice love, the more we sink into a communion with God. Self-sacrificing, caring, generous love of other people. So I believe love is the core. Love is what lasts. Love is what never dies. One of our gospels says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die at all.” How could you never die at all? Well, love, that you’ve become, never dies because love is God. God is love. And those who live in love live in God, and God comes alive in them.
BM: There’s a statement that people make sometimes when you say, “God is love.” They come back with something like, “Yeah, but he’s also justice. So you gotta kind of watch out. He’s not too loving, he’s going to punish you somewhere” kind of thing. How do you reconcile love and justice in the same being?
FP: Oftentimes we are not loving people, and that’s where forgiveness needs to come in, justice comes in. But one of the Scriptures, James, says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” And I find a lot of comfort in that. “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Judgment, yes. But mercy first. Mercy last. God’s forgiveness is the way God’s love works. So we live lives that try to live into love, but we don’t always make it. We miss the mark, oftentimes. We’re not loving. We’re self centered. Follow our false self rather than our true self, which is love. And sometimes, we get paid back for that in this life. We pay the price for not being loving various ways. Surely in the next life, God’s judgment has the final word. But the final word is always mercy. And justice is giving people what is their due. We look at the world in which we live, and so often, there’s so much injustice, structural injustice in the systems that govern our lives. Political, social, economic systems are structured to be unjust—to give some people advantages and take advantages away from other people. Deprive people of the necessities of life. And that’s the injustice that has to be countered by love, love that’s self-sacrificing, giving. Love that tries to challenge the injustices in our society. Any way you can, by voting, by speaking up, by joining groups that stand for justice. So you can’t have love without justice, not just in God, but in ourselves and in our society.
BM: What if you had love without justice? What would that look like?
FP: Well, I think that’s what we have in the world right now—love without justice. I work for a group called Cross Catholic Outreach. We exist because of the injustices in the world. We try to raise money to help the poorest of the poor who are often poor because of structural systems that deprive them of their basic needs. And so we work to fill in the gaps, if you will. Somebody described to me one time what he called upstream ministry and downstream ministry. Let’s picture that you and I are sitting here by a stream, and there are bloodied bodies floating by, and we feel sorry and compassionate for them. So we get in the water, we pull them out, we bring them in to the shore, we patch them up, we feed them, we give them water, we send them back upstream where they came from, and lo and behold a few days later, the same people are floating by all beat up and bloodied. That’s the ministry of loving charity, is pulling them out, patching them up. Upstream ministry is justice. You go up to correct the systems that are bloodying and brutalizing people. So upstream is the ministry of justice and peace. Downstream is the ministry of charity. And both are necessary to be, if you’re going to be a person of Christian faith. And I would say Buddhist and Hindu and Jewish faith as well. Upstream and downstream ministry. That makes a lot of sense to me.
BM: Yes. The next question is one of my favorite ones on my list: What role can love play in the world today?
FP: I think that love can motivate people, move people, to try to correct the injustices that are so prevalent in our systems. I think it’s only love that would motivate people to want to help others who are affected by the injustices of our world, whether it’s in your neighborhood, your nation, other nations, at work, the place where you work—there are always injustices that seem to pop up. And love would prompt one to speak out against those and try to correct them if possible. The problem is, keeping your mouth shut. When you see things that are unjust and you do don’t anything about it, that is a failure to love. Love calls us to speak out against injustices and try to correct them, not to just put your head in the sand and be quiet. That’s where prophecy comes in, I think. People who speak out, like Daniel Berrigan, for example, and Thomas Merton, who speak out against these injustices are prophets, speaking God’s Word. God is for justice, not injustice. People who see injustice and speak out are in my view, prophets of our day.
BM: What if the not speaking out part is due to a different definition of justice or injustice? Justice is one of those slippery words to define because people have different opinions about what it means. How do we know what’s real injustice and what isn’t?
FP: That’s a good point. How do we know what’s real injustice, because we do indeed differ. I mean, look at the world today, and the United States under the leadership of President Trump. He and his following have very different views of justice and injustice than those who are not in his favor, who don’t favor him, so you’re right, there are varying views of it. I think you just have to keep knocking on the door. Keep your mouth open, keep talking, keep banging away, never give up pointing out where injustices lie. And you can certainly do it with voting. But there are indeed different views of what justice requires.
BM: Would love come in especially handy, then, if let’s say you have two people, each with a different view of justice, wouldn’t love be sort of the thing that helps them like, build the bridge between those two?
FP: Love could build the bridge between two views of injustice I supposed. But we have to stop insulting one another.
BM: [laughs] Yeah.
FP: We need to listen to one another.
FP: I have a friend who differs a lot with my politics and so on. And the other day I said, “Jim, I know now why I have a hard time with some of the things you send me, because usually you’re insulting somebody. You’re giving them a bad name, you’re making fun of them, their intelligence, their goodness, their morality. You’re making judgments all the time about people. And until we can talk about what we, ideas and not judging people, we won’t bridge that gap.” Love does not allow that. Love doesn’t talk—Love doesn’t make fun of people, doesn’t insult people’s intelligence. Just because someone differs from me doesn’t mean they’re stupid or evil. But my friend always puts that dig in of someone who has a different view than he does. He hasn’t responded to that yet. I think maybe I made him think.
BM: You said earlier about learning to talk to one another. Let’s mention the swearing and threats of violence coming out of Hollywood these days. Robert DeNiro, for example. It would seem like both sides of this equation have to sort of stop doing all that before they can even begin to talk.
FP: Yep. I think so. They have to stop the belittling. And President Trump does it all the time, and people do it right back. But we have to be able to talk the issues, not personalities. And as long as we’re belittling one another, we can’t really deal with the issues. We just insult one another.
FP: It’s just getting worse and worse. It seems like President Trump sets it up, just by the way he insults people. Calling Hillary “Crooked Hillary” and making, always giving some diminutive, disgusting name to people who he doesn’t like. And then, what’s the response? Well, people do the same thing right back to him. So it’s bad news.
BM: If love has such a role to play, you say it’s so important, what stops people from being more loving and compassionate?
FP: I think I’ve learned from Merton something about true self and false self. True self is the God self in all of us, and if we honor that presence in everybody, our relationships will be loving because we will love the God in the other person. Love the divine core that they are. The false self is the separated self, the self that doesn’t experience and see and believe the connection between me and thee. It’s all about me. The false self focuses on the ego, me, rather than we. And I think until we can get over that dichotomy between me and thee, and realize it’s all about we, the true self is connected. The false self is disconnected. The false self is over against the other. The true self is living within the other. That’s our God self, where we came from and where we’re going, and what we need to live into. The false self is selfish, centered on me. I think that’s the—
BM: Then what’s the solution? If what you’re saying is correct, how do people fix that?
FP: Well first of all, I think they need to be told that that’s a way of seeing us in our relationships, true self, false self. You know, you need to explain to people that that’s kind of the Christian way of seeing things. I don’t know that we do that enough. I think a lot of priests are afraid to talk that way, because they’re afraid they will alienate their people and they will sound like they’re coming down for one political party rather than the other. So I just don’t think we’ve spent enough time talking to people, informing people, educating people about this true self/false self issue. I don’t think that’s something we preach or talk about much in our churches. I have one priest friend who’s very much in line with progressive thought and liberal politics and so on, very much in terms of justice causes. But when he was a pastor of a fairly well-to-do parish, he refused to talk about those things in his homilies, because he would alienate some parishioners, conservative parishioners, who would then stop giving to support his school. And to keep his school open, he kept his mouth shut. And that always made me sad, because it was compromising his integrity. And he’s a wonderful, wonderful priest. One of the best. But, he just was not able to be at his best because of fear he would alienate his parishioners and make them stop giving money to support the school. So I don’t think we really preach and teach that very much.
BM: Well let’s say everybody’s reading along right now and they think what you’re saying has made a lot of sense. Next question is: Do you have recommendations regarding how someone might cultivate a spirit of love over the long term, but also put love into action right now, so he or she can make a positive difference right away?
FP: I think this insight that we’re talking about, that God is love and we live into love by learning to love God back, really happens best in prayer. You can listen to it in a classroom or a pulpit, you can hear about it, but you have to experience it. And that comes with deep prayer. God is love, which means God is our friend. And friends hang out together. You have to hang out with each other to develop that love. So I think it’s prayer that helps us see beyond the me to the we. When you read the Psalms or pray the Scriptures, that’s what the message is about. And you, that resonates in your soul, in the core of your being, the Word of God that you pray with, to the point where you begin to become the Word you’re praying. And you also see your own flaws in the light of that Word. But you get more and more in line with what the Word of God is up to in the world. And it happens by hanging out in prayer, not prayers, not saying prayers, but prayer. Being in communion with, the way you would be with someone you love. That’s where it all begins to change, and you begin to see the world as God sees the world. And take action now, in the world to make it like God sees it, and not the way people see it who don’t see it the way God sees it. [laughs]
FP: And I think the main world is connected. Creation is connected. Everything in the world is connected. People are connected, and where the connection breaks down is where injustice happens, where love fails, where people are hurt. So I think prayer is the key, at least it has been for me, to see the connection, to spur me on to try to make a difference.
BM: Just a question about that a second. People claim they are doing that, praying about stuff, reading the Bible, and yet coming up with vastly sometimes polarizing differences in outcome. How would you examine that and see what’s going on, if both sides, or all the sides are saying they’re doing that, but the outcomes are so different? Who wins then? And why so many different outcomes from doing the same thing you said you’re doing?
FP: Let’s take the issue of climate change, which I think is a matter of justice. Predominate majority of scientists say we are the principal contributor to the increase of carbon dioxide in the system, and that we have to change that. People who have scientific views like one of my friends, refutes all the arguments of the 97% of the scientists who say we’re contributing, we’re the main contributor to that. He refutes it scientifically. I think between the lines, he has a hidden agenda, which is money. I think he really is threatened by the fact that if we change our system, and go from coal and fossil fuels to other kinds of energy, that he will lose money, and our economic system will crumble, because it’s built upon supporting fossil fuels and coal, not alternative forms of energy. So I think his real hidden agenda is not just scientific reputation of the 97% of scientists who consider the problem, whether he knows it or not, I think that that’s a hidden agenda, a hidden motive, maybe unconscious. I’ve challenged him several times on that. “Are you sure that you’re not really coming out of a hidden agenda here?” Of course, he doesn’t think so, but I think so. We’re often captivated by hidden agendas. We think we stand for one thing, but behind that is really something else that we may not even realize and see. So I think that’s probably one reason why we come down in different places on issues like this. Hidden agendas, unconscious.
BM: How would we know that, though?
FP: One of my best friends thinks that capitalism is the best thing since sliced bread, and anybody who criticizes capitalism is just not very smart, not very wise, off base. And so I will say to him, “Well, Socialism obviously doesn’t work, Communism hasn’t worked, the best system that we’ve come up with is capitalism. But it needs to be tweaked, because it ends up making 1% extremely rich and others not so rich, and others very poor. And there’s something wrong with that system. That doesn’t mean we have to put in place a new system, but we need to fix the system that’s there.” And he doesn’t agree. He doesn’t think that capitalism needs any tweaking. And I talk to him about inequality of income. And he says, “Well it’s always been unequal. It’s not supposed to be equal, that’s just the way it is.” But it’s not meant to be this unequal.
FP: Some people are extremely unequal.
FP: And that’s not right in God’s eyes. Everybody’s meant to have what they need to survive. And that’s not the case in the world today, whether it’s in the United States or very poor countries in Africa.
BM: This next question I think will be one that people will be interested in hearing, given what you’re telling me: Who do you look up to the most when you think of the power of love?
FP: Oh! Well in some ways, I think of my best friend since five years old, who I just buried last week. He was a person whose life really centered on love. He was a priest for 27 years, and he really gave himself, hook, line, and sinker, to being a priest. Especially working with the underprivileged, protesting the Vietnam war, working with conscientious objectors, lying down in the road at the arsenal in Rock Island, Illinois, to protest the war, protest tanks. And he turned his rectory into a Catholic worker house, and he lived in two rooms in a worker house. After about 27 years, he realized that his call was really to marriage, so he left the priesthood and very happily married a beautiful woman to whom he was married and related to for about 30 years. And again, he worked with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. He started by taking blankets to guys who were sleeping under bridges in Denver. Then he worked his way up, after 20 years or so, to be the director of the addictions counseling division of the Colorado Coalition for the homeless. But Jack would always just give himself to others, not in any very overt or “look at me” kind of way, but just if there was somebody in need, Jack realized he was supposed to do something about it. So Jack was a major influence to me, and he was one of the main reasons I became a Catholic, he’s in the family that inspired me so much to become a Catholic. So Jack would be one. We’re talking this year about Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. I think their strong witness, even to death, inspired me to justice, movements of peace. Somebody like Pope Francis, seems to be all about love and service, challenging the rest of us to be about love and service. When I was young, a young priest, Pope John the 23rd was an influence like that. So yeah, there are just lots of people whose lives witness love and justice, for me. But Jack would be a major influence on me. Jack always challenged me to be more sensitive to other people. And sometimes I was not, and he would let me know when I was not.
FP: So I learned something from Jack about the sensitivity that’s involved in being loving.
BM: How did you follow suit, then, and be more like Jack? Did you do any kind of things that he did? How did he inspire you?
FP: Well, when he died, I was wondering if he would send me a sign, that there’s a there and he was there. And I took something that happened right after he died as a kind of a sign. An acquaintance of mine who lives in Pakistan, a young man in Pakistan was a seminarian for a while and left the seminary. Well, right after Jack died, he told me that his family was in danger from extreme Muslims. They had murdered his brother, they considered, the Muslims had considered him blasphemy. And the law somehow required that they murder the rest of his family. So they were in hiding in a convent in Pakistan, and he wanted $2600 to get four airline tickets to fly to Sri Lanka, where they could apply for asylum. And I thought to myself, “You know, that’s the kind of thing that Jack would have done. He would have gotten it himself or given it himself, or found people to help him do it.” So that’s what I did. Problem was, he flew to Sri Lanka to get asylum, and he was arrested. His family was put in jail, and they sent him back to Pakistan, so all the money that I gave was lost. But it wasn’t lost, because I gave it. That was the important part. He’s still in hiding. He wants to get to the United States, now. We’re trying to figure out somehow he can get here on an educational visa. We’re trying to get him here. But that’s the kind of thing Jack would have done, so I thought maybe that’s Jack saying to me, “Pay attention. Be involved. Do something.”
BM: That’s wonderful. The last question is: Do you have anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked?
FP: [laughs] I guess when I think about love, I think about the love that’s projected from Hollywood. Warm, fuzzy feelings, sex, not real, selfless giving to others. The kind of love that is fulfilling your own need, the kind of love that’s self-gratifying. So I think when you talk love in our society, we may be misunderstanding the deep love that we’ve been talking about here, because you can just think about soap operas and that kind of self gratification, physicality.
BM: I’ve found that 1 Corinthians 13 contains the most profound, concise definition of love I’ve ever seen, from any sacred literature anywhere. People always want to know what love is. So I point them to 1 Corinthians 13 and say, “Love is this. It actually says, ‘Love is’ and lists all the things it is.” Then I say, “Ok, look at the life of Jesus, loving unto death, laying down his life for others. There you go, there’s the definition in words, there’s the definition in actions. What else can I tell you?” [laughs]
FP: That was the second reading at Jack’s funeral, which his wife selected.
FP: Yeah, the first one was Micah 6. Well, you know those things, walk humbly with your God. It was just three sentences, the first reading from Micah, the three sentences. And the Gospel was the Beatitudes. Well I was praying with them, because I was working on the homily. I’d like to send you the homily, by the way.
BM: That would be great.
FP: I think you might appreciate reading it. But anyway, I was praying with the Beatitudes, and it occurred to me that Jack embodied every one of them in some way, in my memory of him. So when I proclaimed them last week at the funeral, I began by saying, “I’m going to read these very slowly. And I’d like each of you to try to remember how Jack embodied this one.” So I just read one, and then I was quiet. And then another one, and then quiet.
BM: Yeah. Wow.
FP: Yep. His wife’s having a real hard time letting go of him. She was the one who found him, he just didn’t wake up in the morning. She’s ten years younger, she’s 71, I think. But she’s so lonely without him. They were just tight.
BM: Oh yeah.
FP: They lived their life together.
BM: Here’s a question I’m going to ask that I’ve never asked anyone else I’ve interviewed: How do you think, and for what, do you think you will be remembered?
FP: [laughs] I’ll have to leave that to the memory of others. I have no idea.
BM: [laughs] Fair enough.
FP: Probably music and singing, that would be one thing. Oh, I think friendship. I’ve been told many times by many people that one of my positive characteristics is working very hard at friendship and connecting friends. So I think I’d probably be remembered for working hard at friendship. Being an only child, when my mother was dying, she said to me that, “There are two reasons I don’t want to die. One is you’ll be so alone, and the other is I won’t know what’s going on in your life.” I said, “I think you will know what’s going on in my life, more than you ever have before. And you know I have a lot of friends.” And she said, “Stay close to your friends. They’re hard to make and easy to lose. I know.” I thought, “Who is she talking about?” I could think of this one that had broken, his friendship had broken. But at the end of her life, she said, “They’re hard to make and easy to lose. Stay close to your friends.” So I do that. Probably that and music. I don’t know.
BM: My dad was sort of a homespun wisdom kind of guy, like Andy Griffith in some ways. And he told me once, “A man can never have so many friends that he can afford to lose even one.”
FP: [laughs] That is homespun wisdom.
BM: [laughs] Yep.
FP: An example of reaching out and connecting would be, I’m 81 and Jack was 82. We were born a day apart, but a year apart. He was born December 2, ’35, and was born December 1, ’36. So one day a year, we were the same age. And he would always call on my birthday to say, “We’re the same age today.”
FP: Well, when we turned 60, we decided to give ourselves a birthday party, right here at this place. We invited his family, some of my family and friends, and lots of our high school classmates. We had a catered dinner for 40 here in the backyard. People stayed at motels and stuff, but this was the gathering place from Friday night until Sunday afternoon. When we turned 65, we contacted all the high school buddies and their wives, and we said, “Do you want to do it again?” So we had about 20.
FP: When we turned 70, everybody came back. When we turned 75, everybody came back. When we turned 80, we all met in Peoria. So we’re a group that’s stayed close together all these years. But this was the place where we all met. I was just going through pictures of the meeting, realizing how everybody’s aged.
FP: We all look so much older than those pictures. But this was the place, here on this deck. Pictures of Jack here on this deck, at that table, having lunch. Yeah, this is the spot that we all remember together. We were an unusual class in high school. The guys, particularly, stuck together. About six or seven of us. Now, we don’t always think alike, because those people I was talking about that I disagreed with, well, three of them are of that opposite mindset. We argue all the time on email.
BM: [laughs] Yeah.
FP: But we still love one another. The differences never made us not love one another. Have never cut us off from being in communication.
BM: Wow. I guess that’s about it for our interview.
FP: Well thank you, this was fun.
BM: Thank you.
FP: Nice to talk my thoughts. Sometimes you don’t know what you think until you say it.
NOTE: Thanks to Beth for transcribing this interview. And many thanks to Fr. Patrick for his patience and eloquence. Fr. Patrick is a member of Grand Rapids chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society (web site here), which is where Bill met Fr. Patrick over a year ago.