The young student was visiting an island off the west coast of Ireland, far from his Midwestern U.S. college, when the unthinkable happened.
Two of his friends — fellow University of Kansas students spending a semester abroad — drowned.
The tragedy led young Paul Coakley to seek spiritual guidance from a parish priest serving on the island of Inishbofin. The priest encouraged Coakley to seek solace from his heavenly Father in times of discomfort and travail.
Coakley, now 55, will become the new archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City during an installation ceremony set for Friday at Edmond's St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.
A kind priest's guidance in the aftermath of his friends' drowning is among the myriad influences that led him on his journey to the priesthood.
“I was 20 years old, 4,000 miles away from home and had no place to turn,” Coakley said. “The parish priest really kind of impressed me, giving me an appreciation of the priesthood and what it means to be a spiritual father.”
Coakley is well aware of the fact that his own role as spiritual father is to be broadened as he takes over the helm of an archdiocese representing about twice the number of Catholics than his previous diocese.
An avid bicyclist, outdoorsman and fan of social media (He doesn't have a personal Facebook page, but the Salina Diocese does), Coakley said the many positions he held during his 21 years as a priest in the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., will serve him in good stead.
He said his six years as bishop of the Diocese of Salina also resulted in a wealth of leadership experience that he will likely need as the new Oklahoma City archbishop.
“I think it turned out to be pretty good preparation, giving me an overall vision for things a bishop needs to be aware of,” Coakley said.
Coakley said he did not aspire to the role of archbishop, but he believes that the Lord has graced him with all he needs for the position.
He pointed to a quote by Mother Teresa to explain his views.
“She once said to a young priest who was feeling insecure about whether he was cut out to be a priest: ‘God doesn't choose the qualified. He qualifies the chosen.'
“So in that sense, I have a great deal of confidence in that it's the Lord who has called me to this. He has prepared me for this throughout my life and therefore He will give me the grace and the gifts that I need to serve Him in this new capacity.”
Coakley said he did not seriously begin to consider the priesthood until after college graduation, although the Inishbofin tragedy and his subsequent talks with the island's priest already had begun making somewhat of an impact on his career choice.
Coakley said he was a college junior when he visited Ireland. A post-graduation trip to France eventually set his heart upon the priesthood.
He said he spent eight months at the Abbey of Notre Dame de Fontgombault in France and considered becoming a monk at the monastery. Coakley said he was “very American” and the monastery was “very French” and he ultimately thought the culture differences were too pronounced.
He said he did gain clarity in those months at the monastery, enough to resolve to enter the seminary when he returned home to Kansas.
He said his parents were very supportive of his decision to become a priest and they encouraged him to fulfill his mission.
“So, it was no one thing, but a lot of individuals and opportunities that I had growing up as a young adult that moved me in that direction.”
Coakley brings a variety of gifts and talents to his new post as leader of the Oklahoma City Archdiocese.
He served as the director of the office of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Wichita, as well as a hospital chaplain and college chaplain. Coakley also served as associate director and director of a spiritual life center in Wichita and director of spiritual formation at a Maryland seminary.
He was a parish priest for several churches in the Wichita Diocese, and led parishioners in building a new school and a new church.
He said he was looking forward to being a parish priest again in 2004 after having served as the diocese's vice chancellor and a church administrator, when four months into his appointment at a new parish, he received the call telling him of his appointment as Salina bishop.
He said six years later, to the day, he received a similar call letting him know that Pope Benedict XVI had appointed him as the new archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.
“I was privileged during my 21 years as a priest in Wichita that I had a variety of types of ministry, Coakley said.
That diversity and ability to deal with all types of people should work in his favor, the bishop said.
He said the Salina Diocese and the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City are similar in some ways, but perhaps the biggest difference is the larger number of people he will be leading.
He said the Salina Diocese has 86 parishes, representing about 48,000 people, while the Oklahoma City Archdiocese has about 109 parishes and missions, representing about 108,171 people.