Fr Sean Coughlan, O.Carm. (1922 – 2012)

Given at the Funeral Mass celebrated in Whitefriar Street on November 16, 2012, by the Prior Provincial, M. Kilmurray, O.Carm.

Whenever we celebrate the Eucharist we are giving thanks and praise to God. We praise God for who he is, our Creator and the one who gives us life and breath; we thank him for the blessings he has bestowed on us and on his people in every age. We have a special reason for giving thanks to God on this November day as we remember and celebrate the life of Sean Coughlan, Carmelite brother and priest, dear brother to Terry and Ita, cherished uncle, granduncle and friend. We are giving thanks and praise for a long life spent, in the words of the Carmelite Rule, “in allegiance to Jesus Christ”.
Sean was born in a strife torn city and country. In 1922 the newly formed Irish Free State was struggling to survive in the midst of a civil war. There was much division and, indeed, hatred. How different it is ninety years later when the impetus throughout the whole island is towards reconciliation and lasting peace. Having completed his secondary education at CBS Westland Row the young Sean Coughlan discerned that he should seek to live as a Carmelite. 1940 was a time of war in wider Europe as the ogre of Nazism threatened to overpower the whole continent.
Sean joined the Order at Kinsale, Co. Cork, in September of that year and his fellow novices were Laurence Hegarty and Simon Grace. All three would minister faithfully in the Order over many years. Sean was very much a Dubliner and, in 1940, Kinsale would have seemed very far away. I remember talking with him a few years ago about the renovation of one of our country friaries when he remarked “but it is very far from Dublin”. It is appropriate that this Dubliner who had lived outside of Ireland for so many years should have been able to spend the last eleven years of his life here in Whitefriar Street at the centre of his beloved city, and in the area where the Carmelites first settled in 1273.
Sean had touched the lives of many people in Ireland, Zimbabwe, Italy and beyond during seventy-one years as a Carmelite and sixty four years as a priest. His natural ability to converse with all manner of people was a gift for him in Carmelite living and in his different ministries. I came across a letter written by Sean after he had returned to Zimbabwe: “I am enjoying it here very much....I have met many old friends and made some new ones”.
This interest in the other person remained with him to the end. He loved being in the company others. On October 23 a few of us – including Colm, his nephew – met around Sean’s bed in the Beacon Hospital to mark his 90 birthday. Earlier in the year we had thought that this milestone in his life would have been celebrated here at Whitefriar Street but the years had taken their toll and Sean was now very ill. However, on that afternoon he was relatively alert and grasped something of the significance of the occasion. He held the small cake and with help blew out the candle. His graciousness was evident as he directed us, with that slightly imperious wave of the hand, to share the cake and sweets with those present including the young woman who was tidying the room.
In 1949 Sean was assigned to the newly established Carmelite Mission in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. He was to remain there until 1971, serving as Mission Superior, now called Commissary Provincial, for nine years. Sean’s natural intelligence and tenacity stood to him as he oversaw the developments in ministry at St. Barbara’s Mission, Triashill Mission and the Priory in Umtali, now Mutare. Sean had a great command of detail and this was evident in letters, reports and in dealings with his Carmelite brothers. This command of detail sometimes led to a little friction with those who implemented the spirit rather than the detail of the law or decision. But the work was done well and our presence in Zimbabwe today is developing because of foundations laid by Sean and many other Carmelites, some of whom are present here today. The present Prior General, Fernando Millán Romeral, in a message condolence on Sean’s death said: “Sean was part of the wonderful missionary spirit and dedication of so many of your Province down through the decades. Zimbabwe was the first place where the Order was planted on the African continent and our Order now flourishes in seven African countries and continues to grow”.
Sean’s administrative gifts were recognised internationally when he was elected as Assistant General for the English speaking Provinces of the Order at the General Chapter of 1971, and he was also given the role of Bursar General. This was a time of change in the Church and the Order because of the recent Second Vatican Council. Sean worked closely with the Prior General, Falco Thuis, O.Carm., encouraging a stronger emphasis on fraternity or community life within the Order. The Carmelite friars are a community of brothers who live, pray and minister together. In a message Father Falco, who now lives in his native Holland, expressed his sadness at Sean’s death: “for twelve years he was such a nice and fraternal confrere as General Councillor and Bursar General. I appreciated his quick Irish wit, his humour, his intelligent and practical mind, and his honesty”.
Having completed twelve years as Assistant General Sean came to Ireland for a time but eventually returned to Zimbabwe where he was Prior and Parish Priest at St. Joseph’s Parish, Hatfied. In 2001 Sean wished to return to Dublin and was appointed to Whitefriar Street and engaged in the ministry of this church for as long as he was able. He was faithful to Community life and prayer and liked being with the brothers. He also maintained links with his family and I know that the funerals of his brother, Frank, and sister, Maisie, took place from this church in recent times, and the special place that Maisie had in the family since both parents had died while the family was still young.
Over the past two years Sean became more and more frail but he did not throw in the towel easily. He still participated in the life of the community here and attended events in the Province including the Province Chapter last June. As I remarked earlier, he liked being with the brothers and in this he was being faithful to the renewal of Community in the Order fostered during his time as Assistant General. The past two months were particularly difficult for him as his physical and mental capacities gradually ebbed. Inevitably there were moments of frustration and impatience. It could not have been easy for a lively spirit to be contained within an ever weakening body. In the Hindu religion death is described as the quenching of a lamp because the dawn has come. That dawn came for Sean on Monday evening last when his spirit was released into the arms of God.
Sean’s life was defined by his faith in Jesus Christ, by his life as a Carmelite and by his desire to do all things well. His natural sociability helped to live the message of our second reading: “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us”.
Our Gospel reading gave us the assurance of Jesus to his disciples and to all who are faithful: “I am going to prepare a place for you. I will return to take you with me so that where I am going you may be also”.
We continue our Christian journey in faith, hope and love. It is our prayer that Sean has fallen into the arms of God whom he loved and served so well. Sean, rest in peace in the company of all the Saints.