Thoughts from a Peter­bor­ough priest in ‘an age of great tran­si­tion’

Fr. Leo Cough­lin has been help­ing oth­ers nav­i­gate through life for more than 60 years

The Peterborough Examiner - - Opinion - ROSE­MARY GANLEY Rose­mary Ganley is a writer, teacher and ac­tivist. Reach her at rgan­

About two years ago, one Satur­day night, a neigh­bor of mine came over in deep dis­tress.

Her el­derly mother, re­cently ar­rived in Peter­bor­ough, was in hos­pi­tal in the fi­nal stages of life. Un­af­fil­i­ated with any church or tem­ple, she was very ap­pre­hen­sive and ag­i­tated about death.

My neigh­bour just won­dered if I knew any­one who might com­fort her mother. I did.

Then I called my friend of 50 years, Fr. Leo Cough­lin, age 86, at home. He is the most open and avail­able per­son I know to any­one who calls.

Re­gard­less of faith (or no faith), age, back­ground, con­di­tion of life, fa­mil­iar or un­known to him, he re­sponds with a heart full of love and ac­cep­tance.

He is also a Ro­man Catholic priest of 60 years, thor­oughly ec­u­meni­cal, well-read, pro­gres­sive and up-to-date on modern dilem­mas.

Leo went to see Alice that very night and in the next few days, dropped by sev­eral times. “I didn’t talk God to her,” he told me. “I just held her hand and told her she was go­ing home.

The im­ages of her child­hood home, a farm up near Owen Sound, seemed to bring her peace. I am happy I was able to know her.”

That is the pas­tor to peo­ple Leo Cough­lin has be­come in his se­nior years. From an Ir­ish Catholic farm fam­ily in Nor­wood, he was one of 10 sib­lings born to Charles and Agnes Cough­lin.

After a pub­lic school ed­u­ca­tion, he worked a year, mulling over the Catholic priest­hood and fi­nally en­tered St. Au­gus­tine’s Sem­i­nary in Scar­bor­ough, be­ing or­dained in 1958. “I had a lot of friends, and I played sports, es­pe­cially hockey, and it seemed right.”

Fr. Leo went to Parry Sound and “it was there I came to re­al­ize that the ques­tions peo­ple were ask­ing weren’t be­ing an­swered by my ed­u­ca­tion in tra­di­tional Catholic doc­trine.”

He came to Peter­bor­ough to Sa­cred Heart par­ish, read­ing and think­ing crit­i­cally, and see­ing the gap be­tween what he calls “el­e­va­tor the­ol­ogy” and the newer ideas around the divine spirit be­ing found in na­ture and all things.

“There is so much beauty and good­ness all around in peo­ple,” he says.

“I feel pain when tra­di­tional Catholic teach­ing re­fuses to in­clude peo­ple, drives them away with rules.”

He went to Ot­tawa to study coun­selling and then spent 10 years lis­ten­ing to and en­cour­ag­ing clients to be­lieve in their in­tu­ition and their own good­ness.

Th­ese days Leo Cough­lin lives with both heart dis­ease and can­cer, but he is joy­ful and thank­ful. In 2013 he was in­ducted into the Peter­bor­ough Path­way of Fame.

On May 27 at 11 a.m. at Sa­cred Heart church there will be a thanks­giv­ing ser­vice for his 60 years of priest­hood, to which the pub­lic is in­vited.

He leads a Tues­day book club for 20 peo­ple, writ­ings by mys­tics and so­cial jus­tice ac­tivists of any faith. There is a pub­lic meet­ing once a month at the Mount Com­mu­nity Cen­tre on such top­ics as Dance as Prayer, Faith and Fem­i­nism and The In­clu­sion of LGBTQ Peo­ple.

“We are in an age of great tran­si­tion,” he says, “and the institutional churches are very slow to get aboard.”

I asked him about con­flict with the institutional church he is in.

“I am un­der the radar,” he says with a smile.

“I visit homes, the sick and dy­ing, some­times six in a day.” Yes, I see him tool­ing around in a small red con­vert­ible.

His own in­ner life is formed by walks in Jack­son Park, where he says he feels at one with the world. “Cre­ation is the first scrip­ture,” he says. “I am the think­ing part of Jack­son Park.”

Fr. Leo’s fa­vorite song is Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up. For him, that is true of the Lord he be­lieves in and of the mul­ti­tude of friends he has in Peter­bor­ough.

“There is so much beauty and good­ness all around in peo­ple.” FR. LEO COUGH­LIN

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