Talking with Prof. John Gabriel Corcoran

about his conversion to Orthodoxy

We, the Christians from the traditionally Orthodox countries, often resemble the man who complains that he is poor, even though he is sitting on a huge treasure, which he neither knows nor opens. Or the patient who complains of pain but refuses to take the life-saving medicine. Or maybe, rather, resemble those pampered children, who, with so much comfort, are no longer able to appreciate anything they have. And sometimes we need to meet a man who has suffered a lot looking for the way to that treasure, which we had in our garden, to learn from him how to open it and cherish it. Such a man is Prof. John Corcoran, who comes from the Irish Catholic tradition and went through Marxism to eventually reach the Orthodox Church. (Tatiana Petrache)

Mr. John Corcoran, you told us about how you met Christ in the Orthodox Church. What do you think that the Orthodox Church could offer to the Western world today?

This is my only my opinion, but one of the things that happened in the West with advancing secularism and materialism and consumerism was that the Western churches, especially the Anglican churches and the Lutheran churches and, to some extent, the Catholic Church as well, increasingly, they began to adapt their message in order to make it more acceptable to the “Zeit Geist”, to the Era. So, for example, with the Catholic Church, the teachings were changed, the emphasis upon the Holy Mother of God became less and less prominent, as well as the devotion to the rosary, the adherence to fasting. All these things were relaxed in an attempt to try and make it more palatable.

And I think that the Anglican Church even went further, you know, with the women priests. And we can change everything in the cult to adapt to the contemporary culture. And it was dressed up as being adaptable and being able to react positively to change. But the problem about that is that, when you start the change to that extent, then people start to say: “Well, if you can change that, what else can you change?”. And you end up with the ridiculous situation of an Anglican archbishop, for example, questioning whether Christ was even divine, maybe Christ was just a man. And so, when you remove the certainty, then people start to doubt the whole message. And I think that this is so reassuring about Orthodoxy, and I pray that it stays this way, that it doesn’t have any intention to alter the truth of the message of the church, which we may find different ways of conveying it. We may use social media; we may use Internet; we may use all these different ways of communicating it, but it cannot be the case that we say: “Oh, let’s turn the divine liturgy into a half hour! It is so much more convenient for people to be able to go to the Liturgy and have a hurried one half hour divine liturgy. You know that’s a mistake. And either this kind of tendency to try and, if Orthodoxy does that, it is, in my opinion, a big mistake, and I don’t think it will do that, I hope so. Well, let’s hope it won’t, because it isn’t the answer. The answer is not what people want in this kind of changing, chaotic, crisis ridden world. What they want is certainty.

Yes, what they want is certainty. And they want to know something that will not change and that will never change and will always be the same. It can always be relied upon to be the same and that’s the biggest thing. And you don’t ever think that that’s a small thing, because in this world everything’s changing all the time.

So, my view is that the Church needs to hold on to its mysticism, its mystery and it’s a gateway to the other world, to the spiritual world, which is what people are hungering for. People are hungering for this, and that’s why people are going down into the pathway of of New Age religions and things like that they’re looking for. They don’t need to go into New Age religions, mysticism and the spirituality is perfectly present in the Church that Christ established. So, I think we should hold our ground and, in time, people will respect you for that.

We have an Orthodox DNA”

How do you think it’s possible to relink to the first roots of Irish Christianity, especially in the crisis of our world?

One of the things that I was told in Mount Athos by one of the monks there was that Ireland was sanctified by the long period of monasticism, the long period of many, many hundreds of saints in Ireland, in the period from about 650-680 to 1080 – there was a long period of nearly four hundred and fifty years from 600 to 1000 – we had 400 years really of being a country where the main cultural force within was the monastic Christianity, which bore a close resemblance to Orthodoxy. In my opinion, it was Orthodox in every respect, it was before the Schism. And I think that means that we have a repository of spiritual energy in the country, which is a source of great optimism to me. And I hope that the growth of the Orthodox Church in Ireland is part of a process of returning to our Christian roots, it is the early stages of what I hope is a revival.

The Catholic Church is in crisis, has been in crisis in Ireland for quite a long time. It would be wrong to say that there are many, many people turning to the Orthodox Church from the Irish population, but what I can say is that there are many more Orthodox Christians in Ireland coming from Romania, Russia, Belarus, from various all those countries. And those people will witness, occurring in and amongst the community of where they work and they live, and over a period of time, people will be attracted to what it is that makes their lives spiritual. But we have to be patient and let things run their course. We shouldn’t hold our light under a bushel. We should try and encourage people to turn to Christ. And it’s very good that we’re doing things like taking our young Orthodox children to holy Irish places, that were associated with the early monasticism, for both the Romanian Church and the Russian Church are doing that here in Ireland. The Russian Church, for example, has a liturgy on the top of Croagh Patrick every year, attended by many of the believers. And the Romanian Church is also taken to connecting back to those saints. And, you know, if we call upon those saints to pray for us, yes, we will be greatly assisted.

But how long will it be before people return to Christ? The people are given free will. We can just pass the message and hope that it will be listened to, but it’s a lot better to have the influx of people from East and from all those countries, it’s given us the ability to have Orthodox liturgies and Orthodox priests and Orthodox communities in Ireland. And I think that’s going to be an important factor for the future, because those children are going to become really Irish Orthodox and that those children are, hopefully, please God, going to stay faithful to the Church and they will become the second generation. And so, in a matter of 50 or 60 years, we’re going to be looking at Orthodox churches all over Ireland, which the population will be a lot of them speaking English. And the liturgies will be almost certainly in English or a mixture of English and Irish. But there is going to be something like what happened in America where the Orthodox churches became increasingly less ethnic and more connected to English speaking communities. But it’s a question of maintaining and improving our organization, improving our facilities.

I mean, the biggest problem at the moment is that we, in many areas, are still heavily dependent upon being given access to churches by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has an abundance of churches that are empty. So, we’re still reliant on that and the sooner we start to get to the point where we can build and create our own temples and churches, that’s the next phase. We’re already seeing it in Dublin. We have at least three Orthodox churches, proper churches in Dublin. There’ll be more in future throughout the country. Please, God, yes. I’m hopeful.

A great place of spiritual energy”

What do you think about the establishment of the monastery of the Life-Giving Spring in this process of re-establishing Orthodox monasticism in Ireland?

First of all, I must say that the monastery is ideally located in the central part of Ireland. So, it means that there is a lot of possibilities for people can drive from Dublin. They can come from as far away as Kerry where I live, I live in the South West of Ireland, and within two hours I can be there. Yes, nobody is further than two hours’ drive from that monastery. So that’s a very, very good position. And it’s only eight kilometers from the founding, the monastery that was founded by Saint Kieran in climate marks, the most famous of all the monasteries in Orthodox Ireland in the earlier period. You know, so, it seems to me as if there’s a lot of good signs that the Holy Spirit is helping with the finding of this monastery, which was previously a retreat center for a Catholic order of nuns and became effectively nonfunctioning. And again, through the grace of God, was given permission to occupy and buy it and purchase it. And in the time that the Romanian Orthodox nuns have been two, a small community, very small community of Orthodox nuns, they have transformed it already into a great place of spiritual energy. The gardens have been restored. A walkway has been created in which icons are located around the grounds of the monastery. There is a small, but beautiful chapel. There is an area for eating. There is accommodation for families to stay there overnight and in the various chalets. So, it’s quite an astonishingly well through project, really, because it’ll provide a focus for families to come and visit and also for people from the Romanian community to come. But also, it’s very panel of adults. The liturgy is mainly in Romanian, but there’s large amounts of it in English. There are some parts of the chanting done in Greek and also in Russian. There are parts of the chanting done in Irish as well. The nuns who have been establishing this monastery should be given great credit for the work they’ve done. Wonderful place!

Twelve years ago, if you would have told me that we would have a place like this in Ireland, I would have laughed at you. I would not have believed, because 12 years ago we were having the liturgies, if we were lucky, in Catholic facilities. We’ve done a long, long way in 12 years and that’s a lot to do with the energy and zeal of the community.

Russians have also been developing their facilities as well as they haven’t got a monastery, but I’m sure that they will eventually establish some kind of monastic center. But it’s all part of the process of taking roots of Orthodoxy in Ireland. You know, putting the roots down into the ground soil of all this is very important. And it’s notable for me, going back to the visit to the monastery, to see the children attending the liturgy in a place which is a beautiful monastic setting, lovely grounds garden, young children experiencing the liturgy and then being able to run freely around the gardens, this will create great memories for them. They will remember as when they’re older. “O, yes, the monastery, we were going there!”. The monastery, for many of them, would be their first experience of Orthodoxy. And it’s not something that happens in Romania, you know what I mean. “I went to the monastery when I went to see my grandparents”. No, it’s part of this whole question of the community taking roots in this country that’s not new to many people. But this is now their home. I mean, it’s clear that most of the Orthodox people who are living in that area are entirely likely to stay there, though their children are in the schools, their children are speaking English.

(to be continued)

Interviewed by

Tatiana Petrache