Fr. Thomas CookMOLLY MCQUEEN
Fr. Thomas Cook of the Diocese of Winona, MN, got an early start discerning his vocation.
"He would come on vacation to our house, or to my grandparents' house and he would offer Mass for us. I loved to set up the Mass for my uncle. That was the coolest thing ever. [My uncle] would sit in his chair and pray his Breviary and I would sit there and imitate him with my own prayer book," Fr. Cook recalled. "My uncle was my Confirmation sponsor. He preached my first Mass. He is a really great priest. He is the one who gave me a love for the Divine Office and a love of prayer.
"I always say that the reason that I am a priest is because of the Mass," Fr. Cook told me. "As a four-year-old, I started 'playing' Mass. That initial attraction never went away. The priesthood is not just about helping people, not just about counseling, or helping the poor, although that is so very important. The priesthood is about the Mass, and about confessions as well."
When Fr. Cook was a schoolboy in Austin, Minnesota, he moved beyond just "playing" Mass.
"I couldn't wait to serve Mass in the parish. I wanted to be some of the normal things kids want to be when they grow up, but never, ever did I lose the desire to be a priest," Fr. Cook told me. "When I was in seventh and eighth grade, I served Mass every day. I served every funeral in the parish — every single one. I could do the parts of the priest by memory. I served Stations of the Cross and Benediction on Friday nights, all the wonderful traditions I do at the parish now."
By the time he was a senior in high school, Fr. Cook's path was clear to him.
"When I visited the seminary with my associate pastor, it was Thanksgiving of my senior year in high school, November 1988. I already had all the paperwork completed — the letters of reference, the biography, everything — all ready to hand over to the rector."
Fr. Cook told me that he sees a lot of irony in that now, in his role as the Associate Director of Vocations for his diocese.
"All of these things that I do in my life as a vocation director I never did: I never went to a vocation camp for junior high boys, or dinners or retreats for young men discerning vocations." Fr. Cook stated. "For me it was never, 'Let me think about it some more and get back to you.'"
Throughout his childhood, Fr. Cook, the oldest of four siblings in his family, said that his parents, whom he calls "the best supportive parents ever," did not try to influence him one way or another about his vocation.
"My parents are very unique. Not one time did my mother say, 'Oh you should be a priest; that would be so wonderful!' They were totally indifferent. Indifference is very important to the spiritual life. They totally allowed for freedom. I cannot argue as some priests do, that they had their mother's vocation, because she wanted me to be a priest. That's not it in my case."
Fr. Cook attended Immaculate Heart of Mary College Seminary in Winona, Minnesota, and earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy. In March 1993, Bishop John Vlazny, then Bishop of Winona, offered him the opportunity of a lifetime and he almost turned it down.
"Bishop Vlazny, now the Archbishop of Portland, Oregon, who confirmed me and ordained me, said, 'I want you to go to Rome to study.' I didn't want to go. I said, 'I'm only 21 years old. It's too far away. No one in my family has ever had a passport,'" Fr. Cook said with a laugh. "I knew it meant that for two full years I would not see my family, and I would be gone for five years total.
"Then Bishop Vlazny said, 'I see you don't have a good reason, so off you go.' And it was the best decision of my life. I went to the North American College and the Angelicum and I have a License in dogmatic theology. I studied philosophy and theology based on St. Thomas Aquinas. I love St. Thomas — he is my patron saint.
"I was ordained June 17, 1997. My first year as a priest was spent in Rome finishing my license degree, which is an incredible grace," he said.
"[Rome is] where I learned to celebrate Mass. I celebrated Mass underneath St. Peter's tomb, over the tomb of St. Philip Neri, over the high altar at St. Cecelia's, and all over the city. I heard confessions of seminarians and holy Missionaries of Charity. What a humbling experience."
As much as he loved Rome, Fr. Cook told me that he also loves home and that "Minnesota is where God is calling me to be a priest." His first assignment upon his return was to help out at a parish in Rochester and teach at Lourdes High School there.
"My first reaction was, 'Oh no — not teaching high school! I don't know anything about teaching high school and I don't know the first thing about young people.' But while I was there, I learned that God gave me the gift of being a teacher, something I never knew I had. I was totally resistant to it in the beginning, and at the end, I didn't want to leave."
In 2001, Fr. Cook was made pastor of two rural parishes situated nine miles apart in south central Minnesota. He is the only priest at both parishes.
"When the Bishop told me that I was to become the pastor of these two parishes, I didn't want to go. Notice the pattern. This is serious business. Now I don't want to leave," Fr. Cook said. "There are just under 200 families in each parish. They are wonderful communities governed by the three Fs: faith, family, and farming. I would love to stay here forever, very much a country priest like John Vianney for the next 46 years."
Since he was ordained seven years ago, Fr. Cook has deemed every October "pro-life month," dedicating all of his Sunday homilies to a pro-life ethical or moral topic. He makes tapes of these homilies through the parish sound system that parishioners have circulated to interested Catholics as far away as California.
"I call it the 'pro-life mini-series.' It is very intense. I have talked about the evil of same sex marriages, contraception, capital punishment, stem cell research, abortion, divorce, and remarriage. October is my context for talking about the difficult issues," Fr. Cook explained.
"In one of my contraception homilies I said, 'I have to tell you this. Not a single one of you will judge me when I die. I am only concerned about Almighty God. And if He says I shied away from these certain issues, I am going to be in big trouble.' I have to preach the truth with love.
"I know there are some people who say, 'Oh it's October again,' and deliberately decide not to come, but most people are interested, or at least curious enough, to show up and hear what I have to say," Fr. Cook stated.
"I have also done a Lenten lecture series every year since I have been here, and have made tapes of these as well. So there is a teaching element to what I do. I also teach both parishes' Confirmation classes. I teach class and prepare them myself and I love doing it."
When it comes to making a healthy parish life, Fr. Cook's priorities are clear.
"The first things that always come to my head for growth are the Eucharist and Confession. To have people love the Eucharist enough to go to daily Mass and Confession regularly, that's the number one thing. Eucharist and Confession are the two wonderful pillars in the spiritual life."
McQueen. "Fr. Thomas Cook." Lay Witness (November/December 2004).
Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.
Molly McQueen writes for Lay Witness.
Copyright © 2004 LayWitness
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.