Talking with Prof. John Gabriel Corcoran

about his conversion to Orthodoxy

John Gabriel Corcoran is a true Irishman: enthusiastic, tenacious, very sincere and extremly friendly. And a little bit poet, although he is an expert in Economics. Sincerity, first and foremost to himself, did not allow him to be content with false solutions in life, and tenacity gave him the strength to go on in search of the Truth, which was neither short nor easy. He comes from a traditional Catholic family, in his youth he embraced Marxist activism, so that he finally received the Orthodox baptism.

Now he is a member of a Romanian Orthodox community from Limerick (Galway) and has a Romanian priest as spiritual Father. (T.P.)

Mr. John Gabriel Corcoran, I am very glad for having this interview. You had a very amazing journey to the Orthodox Church. For the beginning, tell us your experience as a teenager or a child. Which was your first connection to God?

Well, my parents moved to England when I was quite young. Like many Irish people, they emigrated to London seeking work. So, my upbringing was as a member of an immigrant Irish community in the East side of London. And I would say that we, in many ways, had a very, very profoundly deep holding on to faith because these mainly Irish country people had moved to this big city, which was very non-Christian. The English people were globalists, which were not necessarily the Catholics in that way. Anyway, the point was that this created a kind of a strong sense of identity: your Irish identity and your Catholic faith were intermingled with one another. You really couldn’t see yourself as being Irish if you weren’t Catholic. So therefore, the two became completely interconnected. And this was reinforced by those quite healthy parishes that existed in my area of London, which were mainly consisting of Irish people, some Polish, but mainly Irish.

And we had our own schools, Catholic primary schools, covering the secondary schools. And I went to the Catholic Grammar School, which was for more academically able boys and that allowed me to be the first person in my family to go to university in 1977. So, I was immersed really in Catholic religion as a child and as a young man. But, unfortunately, before I went to college, I started to question the faith and I became rather involved in political activity of a left-wing nature. My parents were both working class people and I saw the injustices in society. And I listened to the talking of the various communist groups that were around. There were many active amongst young people at that time, and I became very involved in that sort of things for about six or seven years. But obviously part of that was the complete rejection of my religious upbringing and the embracing of a new face of Marxism and revolution.

The experience that led me to the Path

I ended up becoming an active young member of the traditional Communist Party. And so, that meant that in the late 70s, when I was in my 20s, I had no faith and my new faith was this socialist activism. And I guess that’s the story that I had, but oddly enough, it had a part to play in me coming to Orthodoxy in a strange way.

I was one of those young people, but the Holy Spirit works in very strange ways. I mean, one of the things that happened to me was that, because of my fascination with all things to do with socialism and socialist countries, I visited the Soviet Union as it was in 1982. And I was there as a student for a period of time. And I was a young man in Moscow, and I became very interested in a young Russian woman who was about my age. And she seemed to be somebody who just towed the party line, she said all the right things, that the Soviet Union is a socialist country etc. But on one occasion, I was invited to visit her family in what they called a “dacha” on the outskirts of Moscow. And I was astonished when I got there to find that she had a lot of icons on the wall, which weren’t present in the flat in Moscow and then on the morning of the Sunday, I found myself being taken to the Divine Liturgy. And she said: “If you want to see what Russia is really like, you need to come and see this”. All I can say is that something did lodge in my heart during that, I was simply astonished by how I reacted to it. I didn’t react in the way that I thought I would. Yes, I came away feeling quite impressed by it, but I didn’t act on that. That was something I just left it there as a sort of an experience which I couldn’t really explain.

But within three or four years over that, being in the Soviet Union and also visiting East Germany, it soon became clear to me by the time I was in my mid 20s that this system was completely oppressive. For example, I had many friends that I made in the Soviet Union and in East Germany, but it was impossible to communicate with them because the letters that I was sending were not being received and my letters to me were not being received either. So, I drew the conclusion that this was not a very free system. So, I suppose I began to get disillusioned.

I guess the experience of the liturgy, which I had that one morning, stayed in my heart and I wasn’t really thinking about it every day, but I did often think it was a very beautiful experience and it was right in the middle of what was really a spiritual desert for me. You know, I had been away from active Church involvement since I was 16 years old and I was 20-22 years old. So, it was my first encounter with Orthodoxy that I still remember to this day very clearly, that later led me to the Path.

An inner emptiness

What moved you to this quest of Christ? Did you have any crisis in your life?

By the time I was in my mid-20s, I realized that this secular utopia that I was seeking to create was not real, it was not a real thing and it was built on lies and built on oppression and built on blocks. So that left me then with a big problem. And I basically decided not to do anything. I just stayed, got on with my life and I went on with my career and became a lecturer in a college. I got married, I had three children, and I suppose I was living what I would call a ”normal” life, but there was basically many problems in my life also, associated with this emptiness that was in me.

So, to cut a long story short, I had to deal with some of the demons that I had picked up along the way. And one of those was that I was heavily dependent on alcohol. I’d become quite a heavy drinker. This is by the time I was in my late 20s, early 30s, and so, simply to try and find a solution to this problem, I attended a fellowship called “Alcoholics Anonymous”, which, to my astonishment, I didn’t particularly expect it, nor did I really like it, but they were talking about God. And the 12 steps programs that they embraced, which was you to start your life again and clean house and to try and embrace God as you understand Him to be. And so, in my early thirties, I became part of that organization and I didn’t drink then from that point onwards. And I haven’t had a drink since. And I’m now 61. So, after a while, I suppose I guess the question that started to occur to me was that all through my 20s, I had this problem with drink.

You know, I was quite successful person, in many ways, academically, but I felt like I always had to have this crutch, the drink. But then, when I came into “Alcoholics Anonymous”, I found that I was able to do without drinking, perfectly happy to live without drinking. And I began to wonder, where did I get the power to do that, because I hadn’t been able to do it before. And the conclusion I drew was that because I was asked to ask God for help on a daily basis, that this was the only way that I could possibly have got the power. So, I then opened once again my mind and my heart to the possibility of God existed. And the more I prayed, the more I felt that things were changing. And this desert, that I might turn my soul into a desert, really from the age of 16 onwards, it was like a desert now that was getting irrigated and getting rained on, and there were some signs of life returning in my arid soul, in my arid heart.

What did you say in your prayers? What did you say to God?

Well, the first prayer that I was asked to do, it was so good because it was completely different from my Catholic upbringing. It was the simple prayer of what they called the Serenity Prayer. It is a very powerful prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. So, it was a prayer about acceptance. And I started to say that and I was so used to start that literally hand my day over to God. As the day started, I’d say: “I’m handed this day over to you, God, you’re in charge”. And that was a big change because up until then, I felt I was in control of my destiny. So, it started to change me.

I asked God to answer to me”

It was a prayer to Christ or to another deity?

Well, for me, you know, by that stage, I suppose God and Christ were becoming closer and closer to one another. I was beginning to sort of think, well, you know, if I’ve got to imagine God, it’s got to be in the form of Christ. Maybe that was my Catholic upbringing, but it was certainly possible for me to approach Christ from a different direction, and it was me now who was making the steps towards him, you know, I had walked away.

I was like the prodigal son, I had walked away from my father, my heavenly Father. And just like the prodigal son, when I made the first steps back towards him and he gave me every encouragement to continue in that direction. So, that was the image that kept coming back, the prodigal son parable, which is a powerful parable by Christ’s message. There is very, very profound. It’s the only time that he talks about the verb “to run”. When the father sees the prodigal son returning home, he runs to him and he takes off his rings and he gives him, he celebrates the return of his prodigal sun. So that parable was very comforting to me. And I thought, even though I had rejected God, I was still able to find my way back, but I didn’t feel that I could return to the Catholic Church, for whatever reason. I did return to Catholic masses, but I felt that there was something missing. I felt, first of all, that they were very quick, they were up to little more than half an hour, you know, and I felt as if it were horrid, I didn’t feel the powerful mysticism and spirituality that had experienced in the liturgy in Russia. And also, I had been visiting Greece on many occasions and I had kept being drawn to the churches there and the icons and whatever it was, there wasn’t I didn’t find it in the Catholic Church. So, I just stayed, if you like, on the outskirts of the Catholic Church.

And another problem for me, at that stage, was that I was divorced from my first wife. Not surprisingly, we had a difficult time before I stopped drinking and had become sober. So, I found that when I was talking with Catholic priests that, strictly speaking, I wasn’t really meant to be receiving communion because I was divorced, and that the Catholic legalistic approach to this struck me as being odd. I couldn’t understand how it was that I couldn’t receive communion. They said that I’d have to annul my marriage and that I’d have to. And I thought, well, that would mean that I was going to say that my children were born outside of being married, and I couldn’t find any good reason to say that my marriage could be annulled, you know, because we were married and it just didn’t work. Primarily, it was my fault, my problem, so, I guess the problem just stayed dormant in me for a number of years. Then I went on the Camino and I walked across Northern Spain, which is the Santiago de Compostela Camino Walk – it’s about seven hundred and fifty kilometers. And in the course of that walk, I encountered a Catholic priest and I thought that he was going to be the key to my problem. They do say that when you go on the Camino, you should ask God for guidance. And I did that, I asked God for guidance. And when I met this Catholic priest, he was an American Catholic priest, I thought he was going to be the key to my problem. But he celebrated a mass in which just he and I were the only people present. And he made a great point of refusing to give me the communion, which I thought was very peculiar. And he said to me after the mass: “You seem to be unhappy”. And I said: “I am, I don’t understand why I may not receive communion”, and he said: “Because you’re divorced”. So, I said to him: “I just feel you you’ve done something that Christ wouldn’t have done. You know, I feel He would not have turned me away, you know?”.

Now I know where my garden is”

So, I left that priest and I walked on for another week and I only got lost on the Camino once and that was in the city of Lyon and a bus pulled up. An friendly lady got off the bus who was wearing white dress and a small rucksack. And she and I walked for about three days and she was a Romanian doctor. I don’t know who she was. I don’t even remember her name. I told her my story that I was upset about Catholic priests because of not getting communion, and she did say to me: “Oh, that wouldn’t really be a problem. We, the Orthodox, don’t obviously encourage divorce, but we accept that it happens, so you wouldn’t be kept from communion because of it”. And that was interesting. And I didn’t say any more about that, but all I can say is that about three weeks after the Camino was completed, she sent me this icon and there was no letter with it. There was no communication with it, just an icon, which was the icon of the Holy Mother of God from the cathedral in Iași. And this particular icon just sat on my mantelpiece for about a year.

And I kept looking at it, thinking, what does it mean, I was thinking about what she said about being able to receive the Eucharist in the Orthodox faith. And so, then after a year of looking at the icon, I just felt moved to make some inquiries and I made contact with the Orthodox Church and I started to attend the churches. And, when I attended my first liturgy and I had the exactly the same experience as I’d had in Russia, even though it was a very different type of place. I had the same feeling of surprise and a really quite trembling in me about what was happening there. Then I thought, I felt: “This is where I’m meant to be! This is where I have to go, you know, and I think it was probably at least 20 years since the time I attended the liturgy in Russia. So, strangely enough, during my mistake of getting involved with communism, God didn’t abandon me, He brought me into that liturgy and he planted the seed and so then I became a catechumen in the Church and I was received into the Church of Ireland.

And I have been very involved with the church since then. I try my best. I wouldn’t call myself an absolutely good Christian Orthodox person, I have many, many failings, I fall short of the mark in so many different ways, but at least, I would put it this way as an explanation. There was a time when my spiritual garden was covered in thorns and there was nothing growing in it. It was just arid and desolate and, furthermore, I didn’t even know where it was. The difference is now that I know where the garden is. It may have many weeds in it and there may be many slugs, and the crops are often not as good as they could be, but at least now I know where the garden is. So, there is something beneficial, I have derived from some benefit from that. So, it’s certainly not the best of gardens, but it’s at least I know where it is now.

How was this period, what did you learn about the Orthodox Church, what your spiritual father was telling you to do in order to better understand the Orthodox spirit?

Well, I was under a priest, Father John Hickey, who was an Irish Orthodox priest. But, more importantly, I was lucky that I had a neighbor, somebody who lived 20 miles away, who was also an Irish Orthodox person, who had been Orthodox a lot longer than me, he is about the same age as me. Yes. And that man, Thomas, good friend of mine, he’d been in Mount Athos quite a number of times. And we spent a lot of time talking about his experiences. And I was given a lot of books by him, particularly books about Saint Paisios and Saint Sophrony, and he encouraged me to visit the monastery in Essex, which I did. And shortly after I became accepted into the Church within six months, I was part of a group that went to the footpath clearing on Mount Athos, and that was an extraordinary experience that really completely blew me away, and I was very fortunate to establish a good relationship with a monk, a hieromonk, in one of the monasteries in Mount Athos. And he and I communicated in the early years of being Orthodox. And I’ve been back there for a number of times, three or four times. So, that helped enormously.

And I guess just having the instructions from my priest to have a regular prayer routine and to say the Jesus Prayer, to try to become familiar with the Gospels and to say the Psalms, to read the Psalms with some degree of consideration of what they mean, you know, pretty much to do all of those things still to this day in the Divine Liturgy and, yeah, these are all the things that I suppose were the early days. I was new to the Church. I spent, as I say, about a year as a catechumen, learning about all these things and I continued really into my later years. I mean, I’ve been in the church now, I suppose over 10 years, maybe 11 years, I can’t remember exactly, but it’s certainly quite a long time now. So that’s what it’s been like for me. Yes, come part of my life now, it’s not part of my life, it is my life, really. I can’t imagine being any other way.

I met people from different Orthodox ethnic backgrounds. I met people who were Russian, Greek and Romanian. And I was always struck by the fact that even though we came from different national backgrounds, that once one was Orthodox, I was immediately treated as a brother. They never made me feel that I was a foreigner, even though people could hardly speak English, many of them, especially in Russian and Romanian parishes, which I visited, and many of them don’t speak English or can’t speak English very well, but effort was made to make me feel welcome. And I noticed that this was happening especially with the more spiritually developed members of the congregation, they were the ones who made the biggest effort. And that made it much, much easier to feel welcome and not that you were some sort of outsider.

(to be continued)

Interview by Tatiana Petrache

 Article published in The Orthodox Family Magazine/ November 2020