When President Jomo Kenyatta unceremoniously expelled Fr. Edward Colleton from Kenya in 1971, the Irish Spiritan who had spent the last 30 years living and working in Africa might well have thought his missionary days had come to an end. But Fr. Ted was on the cusp of a new mission. Having come from a place where pregnant woman were honoured and revered, Fr. Ted would come to our country to teach us a lesson about life’s sacredness that the Third World never needed to learn. Having given the prime of his life to those living in material poverty, Fr. Ted would forgo the rest he was due to remedy the spiritual poverty of Canada.
In his first mission in Kenya, Fr. Ted devoted himself to corporal works of mercy; in his second mission to Canada, he gave himself to spiritual ones: the instruction of the ignorant, the encouragement of the doubtful, the admonition of sinners. Often finding himself on the wrong side of an unjust law, Fr. Ted suffered many offences which he forgave willingly; and, often finding himself among a minority of fellow Catholics and brother priests willing to suffer for the pro-life message, Fr. Ted had frequent occasion to bear wrongs patiently, because being outspoken about this issue is rarely rewarded. But in this, too, he found an opportunity for charity: Fr. Ted was not only an apostle of the pro-life movement, but to the movement as well, comforting us in our moments of affliction, consoling us in our hours of despair. Even in this dark hour in which we mourn his loss, he soothes us still: his beloved memory is itself our solace.
Above all, Fr. Ted devoted himself to prayer, offering countless masses for the unborn and the success of the pro-life movement, and saying uncountable rosaries for the same intention. He always reminded us that prayer is the most important and most efficacious form of activism there is. And, as the spectacular success of initiatives such as 40 Days for Life have shown, Fr. Ted was right. Prayer can not only change the minds and touch the hearts of those who do not recognize the sanctity of human life, but through it, our own hearts and minds are lifted, supported, lightened, and renewed.
Indeed, it was prayer that maintained in Fr. Ted a fresh indignation at the ongoing practice of prenatal infanticide. For Fr. Ted, the reality of abortion was not something to be cynically accepted: it was, for him, as outrageous in 2011 as it was when he came to Canada in 1971. It was a spirit of prayer that kept alive in Fr. Ted the holy innocence that enabled him to meet the barbarity of our age with the incredulity of a child. Prayer preserved in him both an ideal vision of the Kingdom of Heaven and the zeal and the courage to work for it on earth. As we continue that work without him, we join with him in a prayer that he now makes at a higher altar.
With deep pride, we boast of Fr. Ted as a Canadian hero – indeed, it is hard to think of him as anything but a fellow countryman, if not a member of our own families. But we cannot forget that Fr. Ted was an adopted son of our Dominion, a volunteer in a movement that he made his own. Canada was not the place where he went to rest after his work in Africa; it was a foreign land in which his work continued. After his years of service in Africa, he could have asked for rest from his labour. Instead, he took up the plight of the unborn, and sounded the alarm about the inhuman practice to which Canada had turned a blind eye and a deaf ear.
Fr. Ted worked tirelessly in this, his final mission. He worked until his body would not let him do what his indefatigable spirit desired. So it was that in his last years, despite the wonderful, loving care he received every day from the Brothers of La Salle manor, he – like all sons of Ireland – longed to return to the Emerald Isles which he had left so long ago to serve God and neighbor. But he could not: without knowing it, he had already sacrificed his final wish to the work that he had already done. Having lost his mother the day he took his first vows, and having been expelled from the country where he went to live out his vocation, Fr. Ted made his even his final resting place in an alien land into an offering for the sake of the Gospel.
In these quiet personal sacrifices, we see in Fr. Ted a perfect image of Christ’s priesthood. In the Gospels, Christ cautions His disciples: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62); and, again: “Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:38). But, when faced with the beautiful example of Fr. Ted’s life, a corollary of Christ’s words is clear: those who do devote themselves to such labour are fit for the Kingdom; such souls are worthy of Him.
On her deathbed, Fr. Ted’s mother whispered: “Edward, be a good priest.” His 70 years of priestly service can be seen as an act of obedience both to Christ and to his mother’s last wish. Thus, to the firm words of Our Lord concerning His priesthood already quoted, we add these, describing the recompense due to a good servant: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk 10:29-30). For Fr. Ted, who left his family, his sisters, and his native land, we became the family he had given up, the home he had forsaken; to this celibate priest who struggled so much for the protection of unborn children, we became the children he never had.
So we mourn Fr. Ted, a priest to our movement, and a father to so many of us. Ours are the tears of orphans, mourning and weeping while still in the shadow of death. But what would he say and do if he were still with us, and came upon us in our hour of need? Fr. Ted, who left everyone he met better than he had found them, would have a cheerful word to lighten our hearts, a kind word for us who weep. He would leave us – and he does leave us – with a smile, and in an afterglow of characteristic Irish charm. His Irish eyes are still smiling on us now, from a great distance but more brightly.
Thank you, Father Ted. Thank you for everything.