Jim Cogley is Parish priest of Our Lady's Island/Tacumshane. He is the author of nine books in the Wood You Believe series and is well known throughout the country for giving retreats and seminars. He is also a psychotherapist and recognized as an artist with wood. Here, after forty years of ministry, he shares his reflections on what priesthood has been like for him through those very turbulent years.
Forty years ago on the 22nd June 1980 I lay in front of the Altar in Rosslare Harbour Church before being ordained by the then Bishop of Ferns, Donal J Herlihy. Prostration is a symbolic act that forms part of the Ordination ceremony and it was also one of the most real and deeply personal moments of my life. I had decided that it was all or nothing and had to be to be a total dedication and handing over of my Life to Christ, placing myself fully at the service of his Gospel. The storm clouds were already gathering and since that time the religious landscape has changed beyond recognition. The clericalism that was still strong back then is now almost dead in the water and with it the insidious control that kept the church stagnant under its dead hand. Nearly sixty entered Maynooth in my year and at present there’s hardly thirty in the entire seminary. Who, even in their wildest dreams, could have envisaged reaching out with the Gospel to thousands of people via webcam, and yet be looking down at an empty church. The word ‘webcam’ probably wasn’t even in existence back then. We may not like change but if we don’t go with it then it will force itself upon us whether we like it or not. The future is never what we think it’s going to be so it’s important to live in the NOW which could stand for No Opportunities Wasted.
The NOW is where everything is changing while the important things never change, God’s love for us being one of them, and the life giving power of the Gospel to enlighten our lives and nourish our souls. How that message is presented and the language used has to adapt to the present age because if there is one sure way of turning off a younger generation it is to use the religious language and methodology of an earlier time.
On many occasions I have been asked would I do it all over again. The truthful answer is yes, a thousand times yes, and without any hesitation. A little saying I had printed on my ordination card back then was; In His Will do we find our true lives. That full-bodied ‘yes’ to Spirit forty years ago has brought more blessings joys, friendships and fulfillment into my life than I could ever have imagined. Whatever dreams I had for my life back then have been fulfilled many times over and far beyond my expectations.
While for me personally priesthood has been a most fulfilling life, I am acutely aware that for many of my colleagues such may not be the case. Some were not so lucky and felt smothered by institutionalism. Others found imposed celibacy a burden too heavy to bear where no spiritual gloss could justify a lonely lifestyle that was unhealthy and not conducive to personal growth and maturity. Thankfully, I never fitted into a clerical mold, nor was my life about blind obedience. A very enlightened bishop once said to me that it was not his job to tell me what to do or where to go. That was for him to suggest, me to discern, and for both of us to talk about it. So, in all of the major decisions of my life I have followed a whisper of Spirit and there can never be a greater sense of fulfillment than knowing yourself to be in the right place at the right time. As the years have passed my awareness of God as the essence of pure love has ever deepened and my enthusiasm for the Gospel has grown and grown to the extent that it can still keep me awake at night with excitement.
The healing ministry of Christ has always been close to my heart and over the years I have experienced that healing at so many levels, especially emotional and spiritual. Back then I could not have believed that I carried so much emotional baggage and was affected by so much limited thinking. Such profound healing has gone on in my life that at times I hardly recognize myself as that newly ordained priest of forty years ago when I was still in ecclesiastical short pants.
The advantage of facing our issues and doing inner work is that it releases so much vitality and energy into our lives. At sixty-six I now feel so much more alive than when I was twenty-six. Even my overall health and energy levels feel better than back then. My body may be older but my spirit feels a lot younger. I daily choose to think and speak health and wellbeing and I believe this to make a difference and my hope is that it will long continue.
Just in case you get the impression that the past forty years were all plain sailing let me assure you that it was far from it. I have also known many times of loneliness, heartache and heart break and been broken to the point where for months I was unable to say Mass and hardly knew my own name. Looking back these were in fact the most fruitful times, even though it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. None of us can escape suffering and it too has its place. Every day at Mass I used to say; He took he blessed; he broke and then he gave. Now I say them with new awareness. In some mysterious way we need to be broken before we can be given in service.
Being in Our Lady’s Island is where I believe, with every fiber of my being, that this is where the Lord wants me at this time. This is the first place where Christianity came to Ireland as early as the year 300 AD and as an ancient sacred site it holds the seeds of hope for the future. I deem it a great privilege to be able to nurture those seeds and do my bit to feed the thousands who come for the Word of Life.
Priesthood has been an extraordinary journey and one I would never have considered had it not come as a surprise of Spirit. At the time I had other plans for my life. Reflecting on this mysterious thing we term ‘vocation’ there are certain aspects to it that I have found to be true over the years, and these principles hold for every kind of call, and not just for priesthood. We are called not just for who we are, but for who we can become by God’s grace. In St Peter Christ saw the rock while he was still the jellyfish. We are always called into something that is beyond us so that we will rely not on our own strength but on Divine grace. As such it is our weakness rather than our strength that can be our greatest asset. Finally, and this seems a contradiction to what has just been said, whatever we are called to do we are already fully equipped for the task. We are a bundle of divine potential that has so may hidden gifts and talents that we only discover as we walk the path. All of these come to the fore and surprise us as aspects of divine providence and feel as if they were tailor made for doing what we are called to do. Where God calls He also provides and where the appointment is, so will be the provision.
Just before Ordination, we concluded our seminary days with a retreat where the man conducting it asked what seemed a very strange question at the time. He said: The important thing to ask yourself at this stage is not are you ready and capable of making this huge step in your life; not even if you are strong enough for the task, but rather are you weak enough? This was really an invitation to a profound level of trust that was both humbling and reassuring. It was like being offered a lantern for the journey ahead; it has lit my path for forty years and continues to shine as bright as ever. It meant never to despise our inadequacy, our littleness or our brokenness, but to use them as essential tools in the service of the Gospel. Closely allied to that piece of advice came another, from somewhere I can’t remember; Never see yourself as a pillar in God’s temple, but as a drainpipe instead. This too was very humbling and left no room for self-importance or hiding behind clerical collars. It was just to be open to the Spirit at work and not to think that everything depended on me.
Whether I like it or not I am now entering the latter part of my life journey. Be that short or long I will no longer die young! For these years I have adopted a line from St Paul that is both a prayer and a wish. That at the closing of the day, I may present myself before God as a man who has overcome his trials, who has no cause to be ashamed of his life’s work, and who has steered a straight course with the message of truth. While that is my prayer for myself on my 40th anniversary, it is my wish for all of you as well.
On behalf of all of us at FERNS CAFE and 'The Hook of Faith', we congratulate you Jim and all our jubilarians who celebrate significant anniversaries this year. In particular we thank you for your daily reflections that have enriched us during these days of suspension of Masses and liturgies.