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Homily at the Requiem Mass for
Fr Phelim Monahan, OCD The Abbey, Loughrea
July 14, 2005 - given by Fr Nicholas Madden, OCD

Since Fr Phelim taught Latin for years, I'm sure that he wouldn't mind me opening with a quotation from Vergil: Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt, which might be translated freely as: tears run down the face of things and death pierces the heart. In spite of our Christian condition we find that we respond to death instinctively, something recorded by both classical and Old Testament authors. Death strikes us as a brutal fact. Instead of someone we are left with 'the remains'. Where there was movement there is an eerie stillness; where warmth, coldness; where speech, silence; lively expression has given way to a rigid mask; absence replaces presence; what was another person is now an inert corpse.

For pre-Christians and neo-pagans life for the most part can seem to be merely birth, a brief flourishing and then a return to nothingness, all controlled by a relentless Fate. For them life appears as a puzzling transition from darkness to darkness. Humankind is felt to share the lot of the rest of nature; it is caught helplessly in a cyclic movement, borne relentlessly to extinction. An occasional genius will have a glimmering of something better but Shakespeare catches the mood when he says: 'as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport'. King Lear speaks for us all in a way as he moans over the body of Cordelia: 'A horse, a dog, a rat has life; hast thou no breath at all?'

In the Old Testament we find the gradual emergence of the sense of a next life, where the dead go to a shadowy existence in Sheol. To die was to be gathered to your Fathers. Resignation enabled you the undergo the passage. One patriarch typifies death in that economy: 'He drew up his legs on the bed and breathed his last'. It might be said that the Old Testament raises the question of suffering and death for which it does not provide an answer. This is exemplified in the Book of Job where God silences Job by making him realize that they are mysteries beyond him; 'Look at Behemoth', the implication being that if the obvious is beyond comprehension, then how can we grasp the ways of God with us.

Before looking at the New Testament, here is a thumbnail sketch of Fr Phelim who has gone through 'death's dark portal'. He was the third son of four, born into a farming family in 1926. If he was highly intelligent, industrious and endowed with humour and wit, it wasn't from the wind he got it. I recall visiting his Mother shortly before she died and to console her I said that a son of hers – Fr Finian – could well become General, that is top man, of the Carmelites, which in fact happened later. She said: 'He doesn't want anything like that'. I replied: 'Wouldn't he be a fool if he did?'. Back came the answer: 'Aren't there a lot of them around?'. That gives a hint of the realistic, common sense, witty environment in which Phelim grew up. He was an outstanding student with all-round ability. Having attended Kilrickle National School, he spent five years in the Carmelite College in Castlemartyr. There he shone in the classroom and on the sports-field. He excelled at hurling and football. 'Tough' Barry, the then manager wanted him to play for Cork. He was selected for the Munster Colleges against the other provinces; that was the acme of achievement in those days. Nor was his prowess confined to team games. He returned from college sports at the highest levels with trophies for running, jumping, pole vaulting and putting the shot. To round it off, no one could beat him at push-halfpenny. All this was accomplished with an inbred modesty. The school elected him captain in his final year.

During his time in Castlemartyr his vocation to the Carmelite Order matured and, aged eighteen, he entered the novitiate here in Loughrea with companions happily with us. This meant foregoing a lot, the least of which was sport, in order to find 'the mercy of God, the poverty of the order and the society of the brethern'. From then on the task of life was what St Augustine described as going 'from what is outside to what is inside, from what is below to what is above', without losing, we might add, the worth of the 'outside' and the 'below'. By profession he committed himself 'until death' to an order, the motto of which is: 'I am devoured with zeal for the Lord, God of hosts', by staying in God's presence by prayer, while spreading his Good News to the best of his considerable ability.

After Loughrea, Phelim embarked on courses of study in Philosophy and Theology in Dublin. This was no bother to him. He took an honours degree in Classics at U.C.D. He obviouly maintained the balance required by St John of the Cross: religioso y estudiante, religioso por delante, religious and student, religious above all. Ordination to the priesthood was both a goal and a beginning. Christ could now say 'I' and 'my' in his Church through the ministry of Phelim: 'I absolve you'; 'this is my body, this is my blood'. It was to be his role and joy to break the word and bread of God for his people. That stained-glass window depicting The Good Shepherd provides us with an image of a life of devoted service. Phelim can be seen as the sheep on our Saviour's shoulder; he is also identified with the Good Shepherd who is warding off the wolves, tending his flock, while the hireling deserts them.

I can only list ways in which he exercised his ministry. In Castlemartyr, he was a meticulous and methodical teacher of Classics and whatever else was asked of him, as was the style then; he was a competent head-master; he was a wise and caring counsellor. No doubt but that his reputation as the best athlete the school had known inspired the ideal of mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body. It can be said in parenthesis that he is reputed to have read the whole 'Teach Yourself' series, no doubt to offset boredom as well as satisfying lawful curiosity. In a further parenthesis, it was noted that the remarkable dexterity which he manifested on the playing field seems to have deserted him when he came to applying the 'Teach Yourself to Drive' volume. During vacation he ministered in other priories, saying Mass, hearing confessions, preaching, conducting retreats and missions. He was a conventual in Clarendon St and Marlborough Road.

He was appointed Novice Master here in Loughrea, a role which he carried out conscientiously. Novices say that he prized 'stickability'. He also ministered in this church. That was his 'box' down there on the left. He served as prior of our house of studies in Dublin, an unglamorous but demanding office, not least in the wake of Vatican Two. During that time he was chaplain to President De Valera. We have a tape of Phelim's record of conversations with him that provide an interesting insight into that significant man and his times. He was archivist of the Anglo-Irish province. Instead of saying 'someone should', he wrote two interesting small volumes on the history of The Abbey here. Besides, he turned out a series of useful pamphlets on aspects of Carmelite history and spirituality. He spent his final years in our retreat centre in Derry. He had occasional bouts of indifferent if not bad health. A marked decline put him in the devoted care of the Carmelite Sisters at Our Lady's Manor in Dalkey, where he died on the 12th of July.

Fr Vincent gave us a brief and accurate profile of him last evening. I will add two observations: He was great company – a raconteur with a limitless supply of stories and no one enjoyed them more than himself. Perhaps they were a screen too because he was a profoundly private man. But he could not hide a deep, unwavering faith: 'the evidence of things unseen, the substance of things hoped for'. This was finally tested by Cicero's ipsa aegritudo, old age, very sickness itself. There was no disguising the fact that 'He had his winter too of pale misfeature. Else he would forego his mortal nature' (Arnold). St Paul gives us another perspective, which I have postponed: suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character hope. 'And hope does not disappoint us'. There I think you have Phelim in his final days: his personality moulded to character, his character the basis of hope. The winds blew, the rains fell, the floods swept by but that house was founded on rock.

A brief catena of New Testaments texts should provide a context for that conviction. A basic insight sees sin at the core of the human lot: 'Through one man sin came into the world and through sin death'. Suffering is self-inflicted in both an individual and communal sense. But we can ask: 'Death where is your victory? Death where is your sting? For the sting of death is sin'. By removing sin Jesus has changed death. He declared that 'this is my blood, shed for you and for many unto the remissions of sins'. Looked at positively we recall that he came 'that we may have life and have it to the full'. 'He died for our sins; he rose for our justification' and so becomes the first-born from the dead. We were baptised into his death that we may share in his resurrection. Death is no longer an expulsion from a garden, but the way back to the Father. In a sense our lives are a preparation for that moment. The Fathers of the Church saw our discipline and mortification in that light: a progressive liberation in order to reach that destiny. Participating in the eucharist and having a foretaste of that life, we pray for Fr Phelim in case the work needs finishing touches.

Fr Phelim was a patriot and spoke our language fluently. I wonder what he thought as he read these line of Sean O Riordain:
Bhí an bás lem ais,
D'aontaís dul
Gan mhoill gan ghol,
Bhíos am fhéinmheas
Le hionadh:
A dúrtsa
Agus b'shin mise
Go hiomlán,
Mhuise slán
Leat, a dhuine'.

This might go something like this in English: Death was beside me, I agreed to go without delay or tears. Self-knowledge took me by surprise: I said 'That was me as I am; Mhuise off with you boy'. Amen.