Reflections on the Life of Fr. Harold F. Cohen, S.J.

by Al Mansfield

I knew and worked with Fr. Cohen for over 30 years in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. I realize that today in some way I represent and speak for the myriads of lay people who knew and loved Fr. Cohen. I am honored and humbled to do so.

Fr. Cohen has been to me at various times, a father, a brother, a boss, a confessor, a counselor, and most of all, a friend. Scripture says, “there is a friend who is closer than a brother.” Fr. Cohen was that kind of friend.

His early life was interesting, to say the least. He started out attending public school. He did not make his First Communion until seventh grade, and that was largely due to his devout grandmother. In his early years his father was non-practicing Catholic and his mother a lapsed Episcopalian.

Fr. Cohen once said that a fellow Jesuit told him, “Abie, if you’re ever tempted to doubt your vocation, don’t. Because your home life wasn’t exactly the kind you would expect a priest to come from. It had to be a special grace of God.”

I should hasten to say that when Fr. Cohen entered the Jesuits, his father returned to the sacraments and became an exemplary Catholic and retreat captain. His mother later became a devout Catholic. She was a truly remarkable and lovely person, very proud of her priest-son.

If only half the stories I’ve heard are true, Harold had a fun-loving youth. Apparently, he was a good dancer and enjoyed parties, girls and pranks. He used to tend bar at his parents’ parties. He was not a stranger to Penance Hall at Jesuit.

Fr. Cohen related to me that one day when in high school he had been punished for some mischief he had done and one of his teachers, a Jesuit, tried to talk to him. He said, “Cohen, you’re always in trouble, always messing around. You’d better change directions. What are you going to do with your life, anyway?” Harold said, “Well, I’m thinking of becoming a Jesuit priest.” He said the teacher looked a little shocked and walked away.

And become a Jesuit priest he did. As a priest he was a popular preacher and teacher as well as a gifted and sought-after confessor and counselor.

Fr. Cohen contributed a personal testimony for a book my wife wrote and entitled his testimony “Life begins at Forty.” In April of 1969 Fr. Cohen received prayer for a greater release of the Holy Spirit in his life. I would like to quote from the testimony in Fr. Cohen’s own words:

(After the prayer for the Baptism in the Spirit) “When we parted, I sensed God’s presence in a gentle way. But later that night when I went to pray in the chapel, I felt a depth in prayer I hadn’t experienced in years. From that time on, my prayer changed considerably. As a priest this is what I was longing for. I have been much more faithful to seeking God in prayer since receiving the Baptism in the Spirit. This has been a tremendous grace in my life and in my priesthood.

“Since 1969 I have seen a number of effects of a new fullness of the Holy Spirit in my life. The main effect is in my ministry. Before the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, I often felt I was trying to minster out of my own strength. I realize that now the Lord is doing more and I am doing less. His power and His gifts are more of a reality in my life. I feel that through my ministry, the Spirit touched many people to commit their lives to Jesus Christ as Lord. He has used me to help people live out their Christian commitment in an on-going way.

“After receiving the Baptism in the Spirit the Lord used me to start to large prayer groups in the New Orleans area. Doors opened for me to bring the charismatic renewal to various places in the Southern United States as well as Mexico, South America, Central America Hawaii and Australia. I feel privileged to be part of the great movement of God’s Spirit on the face of the earth today.”

What will I remember most about Fr. Harold Cohen?

-First of all, his faithfulness. He was faithful to the Lord, to the Church, to the priesthood and to his Jesuit order. In a world where faithfulness is often in short supply, he remained faithful to the end and model to us all.

-Secondly, I will remember his care and compassion to all, especially those most in need of God’s mercy and ours…the poor (both spiritually and materially), the sick, the disadvantaged, “the least of the brethren.”

-Thirdly, I will remember his zeal. Like the prophet Elijah, he was zealous for the Lord God of hosts. Zeal for God’s house consumed him. He was zealous to preach the gospel, to evangelize the whole world. This is what led him to media evangelization – first on radio and then on television in Closer Walk Ministries in both English and Spanish.

-Fourthly, I will remember his prayerfulness, his God-centeredness. I would compare him to a compass. Just as a compass is magnetically drawn to always point north, Fr. Cohen seemed to have an inner compass, which somehow always seemed to point to the Lord in every situation.

His greatest desire was to lift Jesus higher. My wife Patti had a prophetic intuition to put on the cover of our conference brochure a beautiful picture of Fr. Cohen holding up the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance. This brochure will be mailed to over 20,000 homes tomorrow, the day of his funeral Mass.

Fr. Cohen was a spiritual man, every inch a priest. But he was fully human, too, and a lot of fun to be with. He had a booming laugh, enjoyed corny jokes and singing, albeit a half-tone off key. He loved old spirituals and the more sentimental, the better. Years ago, he made Patti and me promise to sing one such hymn, “I Come to the Garden,” at his funeral. His dad used to sing the song and Harold loved it. He reminded us of our promise just a few weeks ago, and we’ll try to keep that promise tonight.

Many times during our relationship I had occasion to note the differences between us. He had a quality of childlikeness, of guilelessness, a simplicity that I occasionally found exasperating because, I think, I secretly envied it.

He had a kind of boldness, a freedom and sense of adventure that contrasted with my cautious, conservative nature. In fact, I once had a dream that Fr. Cohen was crossing a river on a high wire and I was standing on the shore begging him not to do it. (As I recall, he did it anyway!)

To walk through an airport with Fr. Cohen was an adventure. He would speak to everybody – the elderly, mothers with children, clerks, cops -you name it – all the while handing out Divine Mercy pictures and inviting people to take a closer walk with Jesus. I would wonder if we would ever make our flight on time.

When I was younger, I would feel our differences much more keenly. As I grew older, I began to treasure them because they showed the unique personality of Harold F. Cohen, S.J.

All those who were around Fr. Cohen for any length of time knew of his desire and prayer to be a martyr. He had a great admiration for and devotion to Blessed Miguel Pro, the Jesuit martyred in Mexico in the twenties. I said to him once, “Harold, you catch colds easily, you have a weak stomach, you’ve got a frail constitution – are you sure you want to pray for martyrdom?” He laughed and said, “I’m not necessarily praying to be tortured, just shot, like Miguel Pro.” On the surface, it would seem that prayer went unanswered but I am not so sure. Since there is such a thing as baptism by desire, I wonder if there is not also a martyrdom by desire. I have never met anyone who desired martyrdom that much and his fatal disease was a martyrdom of sorts in the offering he made of it.

Patti and I knew he had a serious disease but even so, his health declined much more rapidly than we thought it would. We were in fairly close contact during the holidays and he spent several hours at our home on New Year’s Eve. Patti and I brought him to Ochsner Clinic on January 10. He was weak and short of breath but managed to eat a ham sandwich and commented on how he had rediscovered how good Coke was. We spoke of many things that day – not serious things, but everyday things- from the New Orleans Saints’ great season, to his favorite songs, to how much he liked Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail.” Even though his body was weak, he was in exceptionally good spirits. As we left the doctor’s office, despite the devastating news he had just received, Harold maintained his peace and joy. He struck up a conversation with every mother and child he passed and commented on how good it was for us to spend the day together. Nothing daunted his gentle and loving spirit.

He moved across the river on Friday, January 12 to Ignatius Residence. I see something symbolic in the fact that he crossed over the river to die. Old gospel songs speak of death as “crossing the river”. Fr. Cohen used to pray on the banks of the Mississippi River. He told us that the early Spanish explorers called it “the river of the Holy Spirit.” I read once that the early Jesuit missionaries called it “the river of the Immaculate Conception.” He has now crossed the river for the last time into glory.

As he grew closer to the end, my wife Patti took the initiative to solicit prayers from literally all over the world. When people heard the news about Fr. Cohen’s illness, notes of concern and promises of prayers poured in from Jesuits and charismatic groups all over the United States and abroad.

I remembered reading that when St. Ignatius Loyola was on his deathbed, he told his assistant, Polanco, to get a blessing from the pope. Polanco thought there was more time and did not go immediately. However, Ignatius died that night without ever receiving the pope’s blessing. The idea occurred to us to e-mail a friend of ours in the Vatican Secretariat of State to request the blessing of the Holy Father for Fr. Cohen. We did that just days before Harold’s death and were so grateful to know that Fr. Cohen’s name was placed in the Holy Father’s hands and the papal blessing was given. Our friend in the Vatican sent the following email: “The message did get to the Holy Father and the letter was sent…the very day news of Fr. Cohen’s death reached me…so the prayers now ask that Fr. Cohen rest peacefully in the merciful embrace of the Father. And the blessing goes with him into eternity and also touches those who are mourning in the hope of the Resurrection” (signed) Msgr. Mark Coleridge.

Finally, we all know how closely identified Fr. Cohen was with the song “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” He longed to have a Closer Walk with Jesus. But Scripture also speaks “of running the race” and racing toward the goal which is life on high with Christ. It seemed to us that Fr. Cohen picked up the pace as he got near the finish line – he went from taking just A Closer Walk to racing toward Jesus who I’m sure welcomed his servant with open arms.

Many years ago Fr. Cohen told Patti that when he got to heaven he hoped that he could come down to console his friends, just like one of his favorite saints, St. Therese of Lisieux. May God grant him this desire of his heart. We love you, Harold, and we’ll miss you.

© Al Mansfield, January 18, 2001, www.ccrno.org