By Ed Langlois, Catholic Sentinel Staff Writer – used with permission
On Ash Wednesday two years ago, Father John Tuohey squeezed into a stuffy Portland jury room.
The other 11 jurors were quick and unanimous in designating a repeat shoplifter as “irreformable.” Father Tuohey, with a smudge of ashes on his forehead, resolutely and eloquently disagreed. No one is beyond conversion, he insisted.
Sinewy with a close-cropped beard, the 57-year-old priest serves as ethicist for Providence Health and Services. He helps doctors, nurses, patients, families and pastors navigate the complex questions of healthcare. He gets in the news for this on occasion and is known for developing good processes for ethical consultations. He has written scores of articles and speaks all over the world.
What fewer people know is that he himself is a pastoral man who has a hankering for parish life.
Father Tuohey presides regularly at St. Mary Cathedral and concelebrates even when he is not on the schedule. He hears the first confessions of children, squats down low to bless youngsters in the Communion line and mentors a seminarian, especially in the art of preaching.
Father Tuohey delivers his own homilies without notes, standing well out from the behind the pulpit, smack in front of parishioners.
“I think people love to hear the gospel proclaimed,” he says. “They don’t always like what I say, but they listen.”
Father Tuohey is the middle child of three, son of a western Massachusetts postal worker. The Irish Catholic family is close and stable; Father Tuohey just returned from a celebration of his parents’ 60th wedding anniversary.
As a teen during the 1960s and 70s, he saw priests like Msgr. George Higgins standing up for justice in the factories and fields. Jesuit Father Robert Drinan was in Congress fighting for human rights. Pope Paul VI opposed the Vietnam war. Bobby Kennedy campaigned for peace and against poverty. The Tuoheys boycotted lettuce during Cesar Chavez’s farmworker campaigns.
The young man thrilled in the church’s lively social mission.
“I thought, ‘This is an active organization that is making the world a better place,’” Father Tuohey says.
He attended public high school, made good grades and ran cross-country and track. He loved animals and considered becoming a veterinarian. But the idea of priesthood was “kind of there.” He was active in his parish youth group. His pastor had sensed something and asked him to keep the priestly option open. The suggestion hit home.
“I knew I wanted to do something different,” he recalls.
He entered a Salesian college seminary in New Jersey, hoping to work with youths and make the world better. Though Salesian life turned out not to be for him, priesthood did seem like a good option. It fit his dreams and hopes.
After a fondly recalled eight-month stint as a milk man, he approached the Diocese of Springfield, Mass. and was sent to Belgium for seminary. There, at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, he developed a passion for scripture and the nuances of ancient languages. He also began higher studies in ethics, aware that the knowledge would come in handy for a parish priest.
Such academic and spiritual delights confirmed his calling. He was ordained in 1981 for the Diocese of Springfield.
“Vocation has more to do with self-knowledge than mysticism,” he explains.
The new priest was assigned to a Springfield parish then as campus minister at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. During this period, his former high school English teacher came down with cancer. On visits to see her, he struck up conversations with a nurse, who told him that end-of-life care hardly fit into the medical ethics that were constructed for healing people. She urged him to work more on the subject.
Father Tuohey decided to go for a PhD in ethics. He wrote a dissertation on palliative, still a new idea in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, one of his professors from Belgium paid a visit to Catholic University of America and mentioned the bright young Massachusetts ethicist. Father Tuohey soon received an invitation to assume a visiting professor’s job at CUA. His bishop agreed to let him go and the position turned into a nine-year post.
In Oregon, he’s served at Providence for 13 years and intends to spend his career there, unless his bishop calls him to return to Massachusetts.
Though most of his work is in the hospital, he often consults with pastors, parish staff and families when ethics are at stake, especially when someone is ill or dying. He meets with parishioners on topics such as feeding tubes, fertility, advance directives and donating one’s body to science.
“Father Tuohey is one of the most inspirational Catholic priests I have ever met,” says Dr. Robert Bentley, a member of Cathedral parish. Dr. Bentley, who appreciates Father Tuohey’s “humble demeanor,” asked the priest to help lead a session on ethics in ophthalmology that was highly regarded by those who attended.
“He’s a dedicated priest,” says Father George Wolf, pastor at the cathedral. “His homilies are well thought out and he speaks the gospel well. He has been very generous with his time and has a great love for the people of the parish. “
Father Bruce Cwiekowski, head of pastoral care at Portland Providence Medical Center, says Father Tuohey never forgets that a patient is a person, not just a case or a diagnosis.
“His intellectual abilities and the clarity with which he is able to communicate are outstanding,” Father Cwiekowski says.
For recreation, Father Tuohey reads thick, substantial books. He just finished Scorpions, a historical analysis of four Supreme Court justices appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
He hikes, cross-country skis and works out daily in the gym. He jokes that he stays fit to keep his bishop’s healthcare premiums down.
He has the soul of an adventurer. In 2009, he was set to ascend Mount Hood when a blizzard struck. Most climbers left the mountain, but he stayed, hoping for a break in the weather. The storm cleared and he was able to climb in sparkling conditions with few others on the peak.
Father Tuohey volunteers for a lot of public duty. He is on the board of directors for the Portland Symphonic Choir, which often performs at the cathedral. He has also served on the Oregon attorney general’s Sexual Assault Task Force and helped Jesuit Volunteers Northwest develop an ethics process. He also sits on a local bio-terrorism task force.
After all the activity, here is his simple method for being a good priest: an hour of prayer each day and seven hours of sleep each night.
In 2004, Brainstorm magazine named Father Tuohey one of the city’s 15 most fascinating people. The writers were, of course, impressed that such a man would live a celibate life.
Celibacy is not difficult in the way most people think, the priest explains. It became more of a challenge as he aged and worked with children and wondered what kind of father he might have been.
But, he concludes, you find the strength to live the life to which you were called.