Fans of G.K. Chesterton, the great English journalist, novelist, poet, and Catholic convert are gearing up for the 38th Annual Chesterton Conference on August 1-3 in Kansas City. The theme is “The Future of the Family,” and the impressive lineup of speakers includes Dale Ahlquist, Rod Dreher, Joseph Pearce, Kevin O’Brien, Carl Olson, and many others.
I’ll be there, too, giving a talk on “Chesterton as Husband . . . and Father.” If you’re at all interested in Chesterton, or just want three days of intellectual stimulation, spiritual edification, pure delight, you should definitely sign up.
But speaking of the conference, here’s a neat story: a couple weeks ago, conference organizers were surprised to see a new registration come through for one “Thomas Collins” living in Toronto, Canada. The name sounded familiar. But, wait, it couldn’t be, right? It couldn’t be Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, could it?
Well, organizers reached out through the email provided and sure enough, it was the Cardinal himself! He said he had long wanted to attend one of the annual Chesterton conferences, but until now had been blocked by other commitments. Yet with a free weekend in early August, he decided to sign up! So he went to the website and registered.
That means now, in addition to the other great speakers, Cardinal Collins will also be in attendance. He agreed to both give a talk on Chesterton and celebrate Mass. How often do you get to hear great talks about Chesterton and celebrate Mass with a Cardinal? Even more reasons to join us.
After learning of these developments, I emailed Cardinal Collins and discovered he’s a longtime Chesterton fan. He agreed to sit down with me to discuss the many ways Chesterton influenced his faith and episcopacy. Enjoy the interview!
How did you first come across G.K. Chesterton?
CARDINAL THOMAS COLLINS: I first came upon Chesterton when I was in high school. I’ve always loved reading, and somehow I got a book of his essays, with all the famous ones. I was just amazed: such insightful wisdom, expressed in such a lively way. It really made me think. I was hooked, and have been reading him ever since.
I’ve also tried to build up a collection of books by and about him, such as the magnificent Ignatius Press Collected Works editions. Those volumes are physically beautiful and durable , which is an appropriate tribute to a man who is a literary, spiritual, intellectual (and physical) giant, but who has been wrongly dismissed as a writer of mere ephemera.
Which Chesterton books have you read, and which are your favorites?
CARDINAL COLLINS: I have read and reread many of the essays, and a few of the poems, such as “The Donkey” (spectacular) and “Lepanto.” I have struggled through the “Ballad of the White Horse.”
(Editor’s note: if you want to tackle either “Lepanto” or “Ballad of the White Horse,” be sure to get an annotated version which will clarify many of the historical references. For “Lepanto,” get the Ignatius Press annotated edition, and for “Ballad of the White Horse” pick up either the Ignatius Press annotated edition or—my choice—the Seton Home Study School edition.)
I think I have read all the Father Brown stories. My favorites are “The Blue Cross,” “The Queer Feet,” and “The Hammer of God.”
I have read and been puzzled by The Man Who Was Thursday (written, as Chesterton said, by the man who was thirsty).
I’ve really enjoyed Orthodoxy, and frequently come back to it, and Saint Thomas Aquinas.
The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton is great too.
Among Chesterton’s many ideas, which have most shaped your life?
CARDINAL COLLINS: Chesterton is just so sensible, and I have been really influenced by his perceptive revelation of the shallowness of the modern world, so full of illusion.
What he wrote about government and big business destroying the family is as relevant today as when he wrote it.
I have valued greatly his sense of wonder at the world around us, and the beauty of things, simple tangible things.
I appreciate his idea that we need to be attentive to what is local.
In terms of how to communicate, I love the way in which he is both clear and charitable, and how he communicates serious ideas in a humorous way. But clarity and charity are fundamental.
Has Chesterton shaped your priesthood or episcopacy in specific ways?
CARDINAL COLLINS: The Father Brown stories certainly have influenced my vision of the priesthood—and Chesterton wasn’t a Catholic when he wrote some of the best of those stories. It’s interesting (and I think Chesterton would have appreciated the irony, if not paradox) that some of the best literature on the Catholic priesthood is by non-Catholics, such as Willa Cather and Taylor Caldwell.
As a priest and especially a bishop, I have marveled at how he communicated the faith boldly and effectively to the secular world, and always with charity and wit. In some ways he is like an episcopal hero of mine, St. Francis de Sales.
Chesterton is also very plain and direct, and that is how bishops must be: no bafflegab, no obscure subtleties. He is profound, but he doesn’t have a lot of layers, and that is good. What you see is what you get.
Why do you think Chesterton’s voice is so needed today? What do you think he would say to our culture?
CARDINAL COLLINS: Our whole culture is caught up in illusion, to a degree that might have astonished even Chesterton, though perhaps not since he saw similar trends in his day.
In my country, for example, lethal injection is being offered as a way to supposedly “medically assist” people who are dying. That “assistance” will soon be offered to others, beyond the dying. We currently have no law against abortion in Canada. And some people think they can alter their gender by an act of the will. To this end, young people are being injected with powerful hormones in a vain attempt to manipulate their gender.
In such a fog of illusion we need clarity, wisdom, and common sense. We need G.K. Chesterton.
I invite you to join Cardinal Collins, me, and hundreds of other Chestertonians in Kansas City on August 1-3 for the 38th Annual Chesterton Conference. Just click here to learn more and signup!
Also, whether you’re able to attend the conference, be sure to watch our G.K. Chesterton episode from CATHOLICISM: The Pivotal Players, which offers a beautiful introduction to the Apostle of Common Sense.
Or pick up our Word on Fire Classics edition of Chesterton’s most famous apologetics book, Orthodoxy, featuring a Foreword by Bishop Barron.