Service as a Lawyer Leads to Service of Another Kind
The Bencher—July/August 2019
By Father C. Timothy Corcoran III
After work one afternoon in 2008, I was catching up with a colleague over a drink. I shared with her that our bishop was encouraging me to go to the seminary to study for the Roman Catholic priesthood. “That’s no story,” she said. “The story would be if you did it.”
I was 62, a Vietnam combat veteran, a lawyer for 35 years, a former business trial and litigation partner at a large, statewide law firm. Recently retired after 14 years as a U.S. bankruptcy judge, I now had a successful, high-end bankruptcy consulting and mediation practice. I was active in the legal and business communities. I enjoyed my Tampa Bay Rays season tickets. I maintained many friends and social relationships and memberships.
Going to the seminary would mean leaving a comfortable home in Florida and moving to Boston’s harsh winter climate. There would be four years of a rigorous and structured program of academic, spiritual, pastoral, and human formation, while living in a Spartan cell-like room and sharing the adjoining bathroom with my next-door neighbor. Although this seminary was designed for older, “second career” men pursing the priesthood, I would be on the upper end of the age demographic. Taking this step would be hard—and frightening.
Having been successful in the legal profession with my share of Type A “take charge” personality traits, I was used to establishing goals, making plans to achieve those goals, working the plans, and then congratulating myself on succeeding in what I had set out to do. But pursing the priesthood would be entirely different. This would not be about me. It would be about the Holy Spirit. My job would be to listen, not to do—to follow, not to lead. If becoming a priest was the Lord’s will, it would happen. If not, it wouldn’t happen. Either way was okay because it would be the Lord’s will. All I could do was give it a try and see what happened. So, four years later at age 66, somewhat to my surprise and perhaps as a sure indication of the Lord’s sense of humor, I received a master of divinity degree and was ordained a priest for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida.
Since then, for seven years now, I have been a parish priest, the last three of which the pastor of my parish. I also have regional administrative leadership responsibility under the bishop for the seven parishes and two ethic communities within our deanery, a position called vicar forane or dean. And I am a judge of the Tribunal, the diocesan church court. I have other collateral duties within the diocese assigned by the bishop. At age 73—a time when most of my contemporaries are retired and playing golf—I am busier than I have ever been in my professional life.
My priesthood calls upon me to use many of the skills I learned and developed in the legal profession. I solve problems the parish may be experiencing. I build teams of staff and volunteers to accomplish parish goals and pursue our ministries, programs, and services. I must keep the team members happy and working together. I sometimes must persuade people to do things they do not want to do. I manage a large budget. I am responsible for both the income and the expense sides of that budget. I am an administrator, a contract negotiator, a construction manager, and an executive. There is a large business side to my job as pastor, and I was a business lawyer and judge.
As a pastor, I assist parishioners with healing after failed marriages. Using my lawyer skills, I marshal and present evidence to support their cases to obtain decrees of annulment of those marriages.
Like lawyers do, I analyze and distill complicated facts and principles and present them simply to my parishioners, both orally and in writing, in ways that make sense to them in their complicated lives and in these troubled times.
I have also had to repress some of the skills and techniques I used successfully in my legal career. As a lawyer and judge, people brought their problems to me so I could give them the answer or solution. Now parishioners bring me their problems, and I help them find their own solutions. Lawyers and judges must listen, but they often jump in quickly, anticipating what they think will be said next or sharing their own thoughts, observations, and suggestions. As a priest, I have become a much better listener, speaking only after the parishioner has finished sharing his or her thoughts. I am much less judgmental than I was as a lawyer and judge. Because I am no longer required to provide the answer, it is easier for me now to see that there may be many good solutions available and only the parishioner—not me—can choose the best one. And, answers do not have to be perfect to work. My work as a mediator prepared me well for this.
As a lawyer and judge, I was focused. Meetings were short, scheduled for a purpose, and concluded when that purpose was met. Business was business, social was social, and the two did not overlap. Church meetings are different. Whatever the business purpose of a church meeting, a huge component of the meeting is socializing. So, meetings are not necessarily focused; they start slow and go long. There is a lot of talk, and some of it may not be relevant. But that does not mean it is bad. It just means I must be more patient than I ever had to be as a lawyer or judge.
There is one overwhelmingly common element between my legal professional life and my role as a priest: service in aid of others. I became a lawyer because I wanted to help people in need. The legal profession gave me opportunities to assist a myriad of people: rich and poor, individuals and corporations, employers and employees. As a lawyer in private practice, it was enormously satisfying to help clients with whatever problems they brought me to solve. As a judge, making the correct legal ruling in cases was a matter of pride and gratification. As a mediator, I was happy assisting the parties and lawyers to find an agreeable, amicable, self-directed solution without the costs and stresses of litigation. Although the kind of assistance I provide to parishioners as a priest is different from what I provided in the legal profession, the element of satisfaction is the same. I am a priest so I can serve others.
Becoming a priest did not require that I leave the legal profession. I still maintain my licenses and certifications, enjoy my lawyer and judge friends, go to bar and Inns of Court meetings, keep up my continuing legal education, and use my legal skills in many aspects of my priestly duties. That continues to be who I am. But now, I am also so much more. I can bring the love of God to those in need of comfort and hope.
Deciding to go to the seminary in Boston, pursue the priesthood, and see where it would lead was scary. It was like stepping out into the darkness, pitch black darkness. I did not know what would happen. Many encouraged me to try, and I am so glad that I did. As it turned out, it was more frightening and difficult in the anticipation than in the actual execution. My legal career was a series of blessings, blessings that also gave me great pleasure and satisfaction. My priesthood has been a continuation of those blessings but in even exponentially greater degree.
Each journey in life builds on earlier journeys. No one ever knows what will happen or even where we will end up when we begin a new journey. But we do know that nothing will ever happen, and we will remain in the same place, unless we take that first step.
Father C. Tim Corcoran III is a member of the Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., Litigation American Inn of Court in Tampa, Florida. He is also an emeritus member of the C.H. Ferguson-M.E. White American Inn of Court in Tampa. He is pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Tampa.