“I love talking about myself, I just don’t want others talking about me,” replied Father Ted Colleton when I requested a visit to discuss this column. Mixing mischievous humour with gracious Irish hospitality, he declares brightly, “Come about ten in the morning so I can tell you what questions to ask me and them we’ll go to lunch.”
And so began the visit – two inspiring, fun-filled hours laced with Irish wit, with stories from his adventuresome past, reflections upon moral issues and relevant anecdotes from history, all culled from his 75 years of zestful living and from the seasons of his life.
Born in 1913, in Dublin, Father Colleton was the only son among four sisters. His father, a successful Dublin businessman, was a serious, disciplined, self-made man of “tremendous integrity and principle.” His mother, a Dublin belle, was bright, vivacious and articulate. And he muses, “although you’d never guess it, she had a right like Mohammed Ali, and when it registered, the argument was over.” Their home bustled with people and social activity; and lively conversation on all subjects was welcomed and encouraged at their dinner table.
Today, Father Colleton, who has been a priest for over 48 years, has two sisters living in Dublin, along with many nieces and nephews and their children, all of whom he visits once a year.
A natural actor
While growing up, Father Colleton preferred athletic and social activities to study. An average student, he relished acting in Shakespeare and assorted comedies and says that had he not chosen the priesthood, he would have been an actor, “as you know I love being centre-stage. “Schooled by the Holy Ghost Fathers (now called Spiritans) he was attracted to missionary life. “I pictured myself sitting under a tree surrounded by little kids, except it didn’t quite turn out that way.” His decision to become a priest delighted his family, and at the age of 19 he entered the noviciate of the Holy Ghost Fathers.
Almost 60 years later, Father Colleton, eyes brimming, sadly recalls when his mother died at the very moment when he was pronouncing his first religious vows. As he entered the church for the solemn ceremony, a close family friend whispered to him that his gravely-ill mother was very low; when the mass finished, the same friend informed him that his mother had just died. Her lifelong prayer for her only son to become a priest was then unfolding. He was ordained seven years later.
Following ordination, young Father Colleton was assigned to the Spiritan missions in Kenya. Except for a two-year interruption when he was sent on a speaking and fund-raising tour of the United States, he remained in his beloved Kenya for 30 years until he was expelled in 1971. He had dared to cross his long-time acquaintance, President Kenyatta, on a matter of principle. The price was expulsion. (The incident is discussed in Father Colleton’s forthcoming book, Kenya Memories.)
Before leaving Kenya, however, saddened but undaunted, Father Colleton took advantage of the well-publicized event to make the following statement at the airport: “Ladies and Gentlemen: I’m taking a shaving kit, the clothes I’m wearing and a Bible. I hope that everyone who comes to your country puts in as much and takes out as little. Good-bye.”
When asked how the experience affected him, Father Colleton calmly replies, “It didn’t, because if you’re standing for a principle you lay down no conditions.”
Matters of principle
Years later, on the other side of the world, he was to make similar public statement – on a matter of principle – at the Morgentaler abortuary in downtown Toronto. On many occasions Father Colleton has been charged with “trespassing,” while praying the Rosary on the abortuary steps and when standing vigil at its back gate. On February 12, 1986, he padlocked the gate of the abortuary and was arrested and charged with public mischief. “There is a commandment that thou shalt not kill; but there is no commandment that thou shalt not lock a gate.” At the same time he rebuked the Toronto Police for “guarding an illegal establishment and allowing a killing machine to continue.”
And so this lion in winter, having dared to protest publicly the operation of an illegal abortuary in Canada, once again paid a price – that of being arrested, handcuffed and brought to court like a criminal. At the age of 73 he has been through this king of experience at least a dozen times before, all for the unborn. His protests, he insists, are prayerful and for moral reasons – not political.
After Father Colleton was expelled from Kenya for crossing President Kenyatta in 1971, he returned to Ireland “a displaced priest.” Soon he was invited to Canada by a priest friend to work with the Volunteer International Christian Service (VICS) in Toronto. Here, through friends, he became involved in the pro-life cause. Inspired by the passion and the dedication of Toronto Right to Life President, Laura MacArthur, Father Colleton joined her board in 1973, where he still remains. Later, he was equally inspired by the political vision, commitment and uncompromising stand of Jim Hughes, President of Campaign Life Coalition.
A different language
He recalls his horror upon first learning that Canadian hospitals performed abortions and observes, “In thirty years I never heard of an abortion where I was, in the bush, in Africa. I speak two African languages and I don’t know the word for abortion in either. I had to come to this wonderful country of Canada – and I mean wonderful – to find a society which tries to solve its social problems by killing unborn babies by the thousands. This shocked me into action.”
And action it certainly has been. A forceful and witty speaker, Father Colleton is in constant demand all over Canada to speak at pro-life banquets, dinners, annual meetings, to youth groups and to schools and to give retreats. A popular columnist for The Interim since its beginnings, Father Colleton is widely read. A few years ago Joan Andrews, imprisoned pro-life activist, said she was inspired by Father Colleton’s account of one of his arrests at the Morgentaler abortuary, where he told police, “You can hang me from that telephone pole before I pay a five cent fine for trying to protect unborn babies.”
He is also a best-selling pro-life author (unrecognized in literary circles). Father Colleton’s book Yes, I’m a Radical (a collection of his Interim columns) has sold over 20,000 copies and is now sold out.
Although his protests, viewed by pro-lifers as those of a roaring but loveable and tender-hearted lion, are publicly acclaimed, his personal acts of kindness are unacclaimed and legendary, varying from visits to women considering abortion or to their worried families; visits to acquaintances with a myriad of personal problems; or even to a nurse facing a difficult ethical dilemma at work. Father Colleton is uncharacteristically humble and vague about his responses to distressed people who call him. As for his recognition as a leading pro-life activist, he is both serious and amused, “the blatant injustice of abortion fills me with moral outrage. It wasn’t my intention to become so involved in the pro-life cause, because I do have a job to do. But without realizing it, you do become very involved.”
What is the private Father Colleton like? He quickly answers, “seriously, if people only knew how dumb I am…” And so for recreation he reads historical and biographical books, retaining memorable quotes and anecdotes for sermons, speeches or for fun. When asked about his writing, he lights up, “I love to write.“ I probed further, “What do you do when your spirits sag?” Puzzled, he looked at me, scratched his head and said vaguely, “I don’t really know, except that I have always been influenced by the statement of Edmund Burke:’All that evil needs to flourish is that the good men (and women) do nothing.’ Today, I think that one of our principal drawback is the apathy of good people. I guess I pray for courage and guidance and just keep going…”
Behind his mischievous good humour, Father Colleton radiates deep spirituality; he offers Mass daily and then spends time in prayer, feeling close to God. He says simply, “If I stopped praying I would stop being a priest.” He adds: “I believe not only as a Christian, but even more as a priest, that we must stand for the principles of Christ which call for the defense of children which includes the unborn. Christ said, ‘Let the little children come to me,’ which includes not only our prayers for them, but action as well.”
The children know well how he feels about them, for everywhere he goes they flock about him – like lambs to a kindly shepherd.
As for today’s moral crises, Father Colleton sees as the most serious problem – secular humanism (whose motto is “Glory to man in the highest; man decides what’s right or wrong.”) As for abortion he quietly reflects, “I’m convinced God is directing the world and He allows things to happen which he doesn’t want, but, having given us free will, He allows us to use it and does not prevent the sometimes unfortunate consequences of our misuse of His gift.”
As for the struggle of the pro-life cause, he continues: “I think God has imposed on us the obligation of trying to correct the evil actions of other people, and He has given us the opportunity to oppose the evils which society support, like abortion.”
And about what lies ahead for the pro-life cause, Father Colleton says, “I don’t know. We can never stop working for the unborn which really means working for the future of Canada. If we get away from the sacredness of human life, a pragmatic approach will determine the country’s interests, which then become good or bad economic policy determined on the basis of what’s good or bad for the country.”
When our visit was drawing to close, I told Father Colleton that I wanted to call this column “A Lion in Winter.” Amused, he chuckled and wondered aloud if I knew the original bearer of the title, Henry II of England, had imprisoned his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine for 16 years. She had refused to side with Henry against their sons over an inheritance – a matter of principle.
As I was leaving, Father Colleton sat up suddenly, tossed his majestic white head toward me and roared: “Wait a minute. What, what did you say in that column, ‘A Liar in Winter’?”
The self-deprecation summed up for me all the lovableness of this unique and admirable man – our precious pro-life treasure.