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Thursday September 8, 2011

I REMEMBER / CARDINAL AMBROZIC

Reginald Stackhouse, principal emeritus and research professor at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, remembers Aloysius Cardinal Ambrozic, who died on Aug. 26.

When news of the late Archbishop of Toronto's death was announced, I mourned along with so many of his flock because I had lost a friend.

To some that could seem next to unbelievable because this "Prince of the Church" was known as such a conservative that his appointment to the College of Cardinals by John Paul II seemed the most obvious one that a right-wing Pope could have made.

So how could such a prelate as he have a friendship with such an unreconstructed Protestant as I?

It was because neither of us assumed labels could tell us all about another human being, and for over 30 years that was how we carried on a mutually valued relationship, lunching together in clubs without either being inhibited by the thought he might be alarming people unaware that two clerics of such different traditions could socialize so congenially.

It had started years before when we found ourselves as newly appointed, young academics on one of the committees the then newly formed Toronto School of Theology had in plenty.

He was teaching New Testament for St. Augustine's Seminary and I had just been appointed to Wycliffe College, then and still a major centre of Anglican evangelical theology.

In the way that sometimes happens with men, the two of us just "hit it off" on that first meeting and we stayed that way despite our following different career paths, he rising to the top tier of his church's hierarchy, I becoming the first priest to sit in the House of Commons. We just never allowed doctrinal differences to interfere with personal friendship.

It surprised some of his followers enough for one of them to comment in wonderment to me: "You know His Eminence disagrees with what you wrote about stem cells ..."

This same man was then even more surprised when I replied, "Of course, I know that. If I agreed with him, I'd be a member of his flock."

At one of our last lunches, he told me of his impending retirement for health reasons, and I commented I had been disappointed he had not become the first Canadian pope. If he liked the thought, he did not show it, but the more's the pity because he had all the qualities that unique office could have demanded.

Multilingual, scholarly, diplomatic, European-born but Canadian matured, a product of a refugee camp but sophisticated in demeanour - most of all, able to walk with kings but keep the common touch, "Big Al" - as some of his clergy covertly nicknamed him - could have been at home at any level of his church's multitiered hierarchy.

But I am thankful to have been among the many who could honour him by that still most valued title: "friend."

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