With his ordination set for Saturday, ex-judge Tim Corcoran trades convictions for confessions

TAMPA —His first day was almost his last. Tim Corcoran was 62, a former federal judge in Tampa, used to having his way. He had a home off Bayshore Boulevard, all to himself. But here he was in a cold monastic cell of a room, bare floors and bare walls, with a tiny bathroom he would have to share with the guy next door for four years.

This was his quarters at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary near Boston. "It was ugly, noisy, looked like an institution," he said. "I could hear the john flush. I didn't sleep.

"What was I thinking?"

It was Tim Corcoran's first lesson in humility.

• • •

The chalice had belonged to a Jesuit, a gift from a dead priest's parents upon his ordination. Corcoran's friends in Tampa found it for sale on eBay after they learned Corcoran needed one.

They had always had trouble buying gifts for him.

"He never wanted anything," said his lifelong friend, federal Judge Catherine Peek McEwen. He accepted only "consumables" (translation: red wine). But Corcoran did say he would accept a chalice, if it had belonged to a deceased priest.

The one his friends found turned up in storage in Galveston after Hurricane Ike. It had belonged to the late Father Hugh Duffy, bestowed upon him by his parents on his ordination day, Jan. 23, 1927.

Corcoran will have that chalice on Saturday when he is ordained into the priesthood at St. Jude's Cathedral in St. Petersburg by his friend and mentor, Bishop Robert Lynch. Corcoran will celebrate his first solo Mass at 10:30 Sunday at Sacred Heart Church in Tampa.

He is a newly minted graduate of Blessed John XXIII National Seminary, a special seminary for older men. There were eight graduates in his class.

He is now 66.

He's a combat veteran, an ex-husband, a lawyer, a former judge. Now, he's a priest.

When he's in the confessional, one thing he'll have to remember is to give his penitents three Hail Marys to say — not three years in the pen.

• • •

Few men come into the priesthood with as many life experiences, though at the special seminary, Corcoran had classmates who were physicians, retired military, government bureaucrats, even two veterinarians (one large-animal, one small).

Corcoran's life has been rich. As a boy, he was the son of a Marine officer, living in Cherry Point, N.C., across the street from Pat Conroy, who grew up to write The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides.

Corcoran and his father, also named Timothy, served in Vietnam at the same time. Corcoran, a recent graduate from the University of North Carolina, was in the Navy, serving as an onshore intelligence officer. He coordinated Army movements with the activities of Navy Swift Boats.

(One of the Swift Boat commanders he worked with was former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry.)

Corcoran's father was a Marine colonel. They got together for dinner one night in an underground command bunker that was under artillery assault by the North Vietnamese. "It was World War II overhead," Corcoran remembers.

A general at the dinner questioned why Corcoran joined the Navy, instead of "wearing the proud uniform of the Corps." Corcoran told him, "There's no man I respect more than my dad." But he said he joined the Navy because he felt he should strike out on his own.

The general didn't like his answer.

Corcoran's father used the Marine term for a Navy officer — "Squid."

But he acknowledged to his son, there together in the besieged bunker, "I am so damned proud of you."

Corcoran's mother, Bette Lou, and his father lie together at Arlington National Cemetery. Before he came home from seminary, Corcoran made his customary visit.

As always, he brought gifts. A miniature bottle of bourbon for his father, and a little bottle of vodka for his mother, their favorite cocktails.

• • •

One of the perks of being a judge — he always gets his way. To become a priest, Corcoran said, "I had to get the judge out of me."

He was appointed to federal bankruptcy court in 1989. He served on the bench for 14 years before opening his own Tampa practice as a mediator.

Corcoran could see the Romanesque 1905 Sacred Heart Church from his office and attended daily Mass. When he was younger, he had a brief marriage that was annulled. (He won't talk about it.) Unattached in his 60s, he wanted to serve his church full time and trained to become a deacon.

He visited Bishop Lynch in 2008. Lynch told him, "As long as I've known you, I've always thought that you were going to ask me some day about going to seminary."

Corcoran held up his notes on a yellow legal pad. His first question written on it: "What are my seminary options?"

He had the desire, he felt the call, but he had no idea if the church took older men or how long it would take. He didn't know that for almost 50 years, the Blessed John XXIII National Seminary has been turning out priests like him.

The seminary offers a four-year program to men older than 30. It's for men who want to be diocesan priests — Corcoran will work as a parish priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Dunedin. There's no required vow of poverty. (Corcoran plans to keep his Tampa home but live at the rectory.)

The bare room he was shown four years ago did drive home the idea that the priesthood is a calling of sacrifice and humility.

"Whatever success I've had involved setting a goal and making a plan and then taking credit for what I achieved," he said. "It was all about me. That's the antithesis of the seminary experience. All we are doing is being instruments of the Lord. I had to do my best to give up my Type A personality."

A good part of that meant learning to listen without making judgments.

"Lawyers are taught an analytical process and they become impatient when people want to talk from the heart. In church work, people have to talk things out. Being patient is something I had to learn."

Corcoran hasn't entirely stopped thinking like a lawyer. He and other seminarians closely followed the rift between the church and the Obama administration over providing insurance for contraceptives to church employees. Bishop Lynch was one of the first to publicly protest.

Corcoran had no qualms about the legal issues. He backed the bishop. "Constitutionally, it's a slam dunk."

But his friends have seen the change from man of the law to man of God.

"He is eminently more patient," said Judge McEwen. "I don't want to say he wasn't human before, but there's a more human element now when he talks to people. He doesn't sweat the small stuff."

But self-conscious of his age, Corcoran makes an effort to stay fit.

"He's been working out with a personal trainer," McEwen said.

"He wants to give the bishop his money's worth."

John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or jbarry@tampabay.com.

With his ordination set for Saturday, ex-judge Tim Corcoran trades convictions for confessions 05/16/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 11:59pm]

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