Auxiliary Bishop Christopher R. Cooke (Archdiocese of Philadelphia)

The life path for many a priest unfolds in a similar way. Faith is shared in the family. He attends Catholic grade school, then Catholic high school, then the seminary, where he studies philosophy, languages, theology, and Church teaching while growing in prayer prior to priestly ordination.

Few of those steps were the case for one typical resident of a typical Bucks County town. For him the first was the most important.

“I received the gift of faith through my family,” said Bishop Christopher Cooke, ordained to the episcopacy on March 7 for service as an auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia.

His family includes a younger brother, Matt, and parents, Randall and Mary Lou Cooke, All are members of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Richboro.

His path to the priesthood was not the typical one. He attended public schools in his youth, along with Parish Religious Education classes. At Council Rock North High School, “I really liked science,” he recalls. “I had a desire for it and was decent at math.”

So it was natural that he enrolled at the University of Delaware in 1991 to study chemical engineering. He intended it to be his life path.

During his time at the University of Delaware he practiced his Catholic at St. Thomas More Oratory.

He described it as a “student parish” with “a simple building, served by a Wilmington priest and a staff person,” Bishop Cooke recalls. “And local people came too.”

Some 200 people attended daily Mass and 500 for each of the weekend Masses at the oratory, Bishop Cooke recalls.

The Oratory also offered young adults a sense of faith-filled community through student retreats held in Cape May, NJ, among other initiatives

“That was one thing among many that drew me in more and more,” he said, “and made me think, ‘You should be a priest.’”

The seed of discerning a religious vocation had been sown. As with his faith, “the roots of my vocation were my family.” Bishop Cooke’s uncle is a Philadelphia priest, Msgr. Philip Cribben, and his presence in the family allowed the young man to see a priest “in a non-church setting,” he said.

They formed a close friendship that lasts to this day. “We still ski together,” he said.

That priestly example and the experience of a Catholic student parish during his collegiate years helped Bishop Cooke “to stay involved with my own contemporaries,” he said.

The thought of priesthood would recede as graduation arrived in 1996. Equipped with  a Bachelor of Science Degree in Chemical Engineering, he worked for four companies over the next two years in chemical manufacturing and design, “mostly in manufacturing support, where we looked at a process in order to make more of the product, and studying their operations.”

Traveling through Pennsylvania towns and industrial plants, he found “the idea of priesthood kept recurring.” Amidst many sleepless nights, “I was still thinking about it. But I fully thought they wouldn’t want an engineer, but instead someone with a background in history or philosophy,” he said.

Still, he made the effort to reach out to the archdiocesan director of vocations. By the late 1990s he attended a Friday night program at the seminary for men interested in exploring a vocation to priesthood.

At that retreat, “I met another guy who was an electrical engineer, and my jaw dropped!” Bishop Cooke said.

He was not alone in discernment, and realized God was calling men from all walks of life to serve as priests. Reflecting on whether to apply formally to the seminary, “I felt peaceful,” he said, “and I thought I should apply.”

That sense of peace developed through prayer in the face of a major life decision would be a hallmark of what he would later discover as discernment of spirits, a key tenet of the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

He did apply to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in February 2000 and was accepted. By August of that year began his pre-theology studies for a grounding in philosophy. That was followed by a Spirituality Year, then four years of theological study at the graduate level.

Following completion of the formation program, he was ordained  a priest for by Cardinal Justin Rigali in 2006.

Parish assignments followed, including St. Eleanor in Collegeville, St. Martin of Tours in Philadelphia, and St. Francis in Norristown.

Then one day in 2013 an unexpected conversation occurred with Archbishop Charles Chaput, who asked the young priest about his experience with the seminary’s Spirituality Year. That program is designed to have seminarians spend one year in an off-site location engaged in deep prayer and study of the Catholic Church’s spiritual heritage.

Father Cooke responded that it was a good experience for him. The brief conversation ended and he thought no more about it.

“Months went by, then I received a phone call,” Bishop Cooke said. He was assigned to the seminary faculty and charged with leading a complete refit of the Spirituality Year. “I had a year to put together a program: the who, what, where,” he said.

An integral part of the job was to study the same program in the Archdiocese of Denver, which Archbishop Chaput had led for 14 years prior to coming to Philadelphia in 2011.

He learned much, then returned. With faculty from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, he launched a revised program in 2014. He would lead that program of formation for seminarians at St. Matthew Parish in Conshohocken until 2021, when he was named dean of men in the seminary’s Theology Division.

Although much of his priestly ministry has been spent in service of the seminary community, parish life has given the new auxiliary bishop deep insights into his ministry and the character of the Church herself.

In parish ministry, “there was the ability and desire of people to have me involved in the most critical moments of their lives,” Bishop Cooke said.

“Through the sacraments and the key moments of life, a beautiful pastor-and-parishioner relationship develops. You really see the hand of God as you’re relating with one another. This is grace.”

He continued, “It’s not really about me, Chris; it is what God is doing through me and the people, doing the work of building community. I’m not relying on myself and it’s not my ministry, but it is what God is doing.”

As a result, Bishop Cooke recognizes in himself “a freedom and peace” in his ministry, and a sense that “You, Lord, are doing this. It is your work not mine,” the bishop said.

As he begins his new role of service to the archdiocese and its parishes, schools, institutions and among its people, he brings a broader perspective of the challenges the Church faces at this moment in history.

One challenge in the Church is that the faithful can think of parishes as a “fee for service” business model featuring a “transactional” approach in which we give this (our attendance, our money, our skills) so we can receive that (prayer, the sacraments). We adopt this approach to the church “because we’re swimming in that culture all the time,” Bishop Cooke said.

But that culturally influenced behavior can be overcome “by the way we relate as priest and people” because a parish is not a setting for a series of transactions, “it’s a charity, it’s a family,” he said.

“The big challenge is for us as a Church to see the beauty of faith as a gift. Not living according to rules but as a way of living in love. For the people of the archdiocese to see this is a family, and for priests to be good spiritual fathers.”

The challenge for priests “is not to be dissuaded by secular culture, but (to) find creative ways to evangelize, and keep parishes alive, and keep connected with the love of the great High Priest, Jesus Christ,” said the bishop.

“If we would communicate out of a desire for love, we would be so much more on fire.”