'I enjoyed my youth, I enjoyed middle years and I´ve enjoyed my old age,' he said. Father Jimmy Collins lived his 94 years to the full, a free spirit not to be tamed. Even in these last years, he refused to give in to age’s demands and nurses’ orders were frequently disobeyed as he escaped their attentions to go off walking.
Aptly his Funeral Mass was celebrated on the feast of St Joseph the Worker, the patron of the parish he served with joy and fidelity for more than thirty years. 'I went to the Archbishop and asked if I could go on the mission to South America. He sent me to Kirkby,' he chuckled. Yet it was in Kirkby that he discovered the great mission of his life, a town under development in the sixties to house the overspill of Liverpool, an area striving for community identity amid the various social problems identified with poverty. Jimmy was not afraid to involve himself in any area where a door would swing half-open. He befriended shop stewards, teachers, the unemployed and anyone in need of a guiding light. He was a willing arbitrator in industrial disputes and enjoyed the challenge of conflict resolution. He set himself to visit every parishioner in their homes. Even if they would not come to Mass regularly, he would encourage parents to pray with their children at home, to make an advent wreath at Christmas, to mark special moments in the year as a Christian family.
The people responded to his charms. Indeed, he became so dear to them that they became very protective of 'our little Father Jimmy'. After being mugged and robbed in the presbytery, there was a concerned knock at the door: 'Father Jimmy, we know who it was and we’re going to take care of him.' Sensing the nature of the 'care', Jimmy immediately appealed for compassion, a quality which illuminated his daily ministry. Never bothered by the threat of vandalism, Jimmy refused to listen to calls to close the church in the daytime. 'God´s people must have access to God’s house, and we must have faith that God will protect his house,' he said. In his thirty years at St. Joseph's, there were just two incidents of minor damage.
Jimmy will be missed by so many, not least by his walking companions, who set off each Monday morning to the Lakes, North Wales, the Dales and beyond. For a man of small stature, Jimmy had an impressive stride, even into his eighties, and great stamina. His love of nature was a trademark of so many of the articles he penned for the 'Catholic Pictorial', a column known for down-to-earth spirituality, peppered with a large dose of humour. Blessed with a memory for detail, he could recall so many incidents that became inspirations for private meditation and later illustrations in his books of reflections, which many have enjoyed.
A huge advocate of the Cursillo Movement, Jimmy was also a great friend of the travelling community, and a pilgrim in earnest. So confident of the penitential benefits of the Lough Derg experience, he was also a faithful pilgrim to Lourdes, and a much appreciated speaker at the New Dawn Conference. A prodigious reader and student of the scriptures, Jimmy was always looking for new ways to communicate the gospel and entrusted so much in his priesthood to the Mother of God. 'She spoke to me only once,' he said. 'I was on a mountain, totally lost in the snow and fearing for my life. I knelt and prayed to her as never before and she told me to use my intelligence. I heard the noise of a stream, and its path directed me safely down.'
Anyone who has spent time with Jimmy, wherever he was residing, would testify that the conversation would be continually interrupted by phone calls. From the south to beyond the border, people in need would seek a consoling word and hope in the words of a man whose energy was diminishing but whose light remained undimmed. With his physical sight failing and sensing the imminence of his call, Jimmy dictated the story of his life, which will be a welcome read for so many who came to love him over the years.
To many, Jimmy will be remembered as the priest who championed the ministry of healing in the Archdiocese. By the coachload, people would come to Kirkby, Upholland, Maghull, the Metropolitan Cathedral and so many other areas in the diocese and beyond where Jimmy celebrated the healing power of the Eucharist and prayed over the sick. If there was one thing he wanted to survive him, it was this ministry and no doubt his team of close friends and helpers, so much appreciated by Jimmy, will invoke the Spirit that this legacy of pastoral care and hope continues to be made flesh in the diocese Jimmy loved with all his heart.
For me a lasting image...the priest he was, kneeling so still before the tabernacle with arthritic hands joined in deep prayer to the God who he clearly came to know so well and whose compassion he transmitted in so many ways. Somehow, 'rest in peace' does not seem apt as a prayer for Father Jimmy. May the wee man with a huge heart dance for joy eternally in the heavens!