By Tanya Connor
John Collins, who has brought his knowledge of Thomas Merton to prison and the diocese through The Catholic Free Press, received the John Cardinal Wright Award from Bishop McManus April 21 at the Chancery.
As Mr. Collins spoke, it seemed he could link the famed Trappist monk to anyone or anything.
“I’ve read John’s columns in The Catholic Free Press with great interest,” Bishop McManus told Mr. Collins’ family and friends and diocesan employees who had gathered for the presentation. The bishop talked about a professor he had, who was a novice of Merton’s.
Then he told how he came to give the award to Mr. Collins, after receiving letters from prisoners and others, proclaiming their esteem for the 85-year-old who had introduced them to Thomas Merton.
The prisoners were from, what Mr. Collins says, the only prison chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society. He started that chapter at MCI-Shirley after ending the one he led for 11 years at his parish, St. Mary’s in Shrewsbury.
Mr. Collins had started discussing Merton’s writings with the prisoners there a couple years ago. They learned about him through The Catholic Free Press and asked him to come speak.
Bishop McManus asked how he became enamored with Merton.
Mr. Collins said that when he was in the service books were donated for the servicemen. He got Merton’s, “The Sign of Jonas,” and was enthralled. Now he’s written his own book, “A Korean War Memoir.”
Merton’s writings meant a lot to him when his wife died, he said. He recalled how Merton embraced a Pieta statue when his brother died.
Mr. Collins said that in 2001 he was invited to give a paper at Bellarmine University, which has the largest collection of Merton materials.
“About the same time I started writing for The Catholic Free Press,” he said. (He “retired” from that in December 2015.) “Mary Donovan (a fellow parishioner) encouraged me to write. … I think it was 125 columns.”
“Who’s counting, John?” teased Bishop McManus.
Mr. Collins said he also wrote close to 30 articles for scholarly journals.
He told about starting the Merton Society chapter at MCI-Shirley and said, “That’s been a real joy for me. … Prison was a very important part of my life, and I took it right out of Matthew 25,” where Jesus says those who visit the imprisoned visit him.
Mr. Collins said he was supposed to go to the monthly gathering at the prison the previous day, but had medical problems. (His family took him out of Fairlawn Rehabilitation Hospital long enough for him to get the award.) His daughter-in-law Nancy Hughes Collins, who’s been helping with the prison chapter, did a good job without him, he said.
“If Thomas Merton was alive today, he would have a very high opinion of Pope Francis,” Mr. Collins said, mentioning the Year of Mercy the pope called and Merton’s focus on compassion.
“John, you worked in schools and you worked in prisons – any significant difference?” Peter Castaldi, asked, drawing laughter. (They worked together when Mr. Collins was superintendent of Shrewsbury Public Schools and have remained friends.)
“When I was at St. John’s Prep we used to refer to it as a prison,” Mr. Collins quipped, speaking of his high school in Danvers.
More seriously, he said many high school students are not highly motivated, and many prisoners once were not, but now want to read and learn about their faith. He said he learned about the importance of education by working in schools and with people.
While audience members cut the congratulatory cake, Mr. Collins informed Bishop McManus that Thomas Merton and Cardinal Wright corresponded.
When the bishop asked if Merton ever wrote about spiritual darkness, Mr. Collins responded in the affirmative.
“That’s what happens to a lot of people,” Mr. Collins said. “You hit a wall and everything is cold and you don’t have any feeling for God.” That’s when you are probably closest to God, he added. Merton would say, “Just know God loves you.”