Fr. Seamus Stapleton SAC R.I.P. – Reflections

Fr. Seamus Stapleton SAC with Bishop Richard Moth and Deacon Duncan Brown

Seamus Stapleton died suddenly of a heart attack in the presbytery at St. Mary Star of the Sea, Hastings, on Sunday morning, October 30, 2016. Seamus had celebrated 10am Mass in the parish, he greeted the parishioners after Mass, as was his custom, and went for a cup of tea with the parishioners in the parish hall. Seamus returned to the presbytery to get some extra milk for those preparing the tea and coffee and when he did not appear for the 11.30 Mass the Deacon, Duncan Browne, and some parishioners went to find him and he had collapsed in the kitchen. The emergency services were called and two nurses who were in the congregation for Mass immediately attempted to resuscitate him but in vain, he had already died.

Because of the sudden and unexpected nature of his death the coroner for the area requested a post-mortem examination and that did not take place until November 8. Seamus was received into the Church of St. Mary Star of the Sea on Wednesday November 9 at 7pm, there was concelebrated Mass to receive him and George Ranahan, the Provincial Delegate, was the main celebrant and homilist. The following morning the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, Mgr Richard Moth, was the main celebrant at the Requiem Mass and I as Provincial delivered the homily. Almost all of our men in England concelebrated along with the priests of the Deanery and other priests from the Diocese. A large contingent of parishioners from Greenford and Barking travelled down for the Requiem Mass as did friends and relatives of Seamus who are resident in the UK. Seamus’s mother Mary, his brothers John, Matthew and Liam, and his sister Anne-Marie travelled over to Hastings for the Masses and they were accompanied by cousins.

At both Masses in Hastings the parish church was filled to capacity as people gathered to pay their respects to Seamus, to mourn his passing and to pay tribute to his ministry as a priest in the English delegature. 

The following is my homily in Hastings.

“This is a sad occasion for each of us gathered here this afternoon, we come to bid farewell to a beloved son, brother, confrere, friend, parish priest, pastor and shepherd, to a man whose untimely death has shaken us and saddened us. We gather as persons of faith, a vibrant Christian faith which strengthens us and allows us the hope of everlasting life with Christ in the midst of our sadness and grief.

Our requiem Mass is not the place, nor is today the time, to deliver a eulogy on the life of Fr. Seamus Stapleton, but it is the place and the time to simply thank God for Seamus, for all he was and for all he contributed to our lives and to the life of this parish community.  Fr. Seamus began his life as a priest in the Parish of Our Lady of the Visitation in Greenford in late summer 2006, he spent six happy and fulfilled years in Greenford and the presence of so many parishioners and friends from Greenford here today is a testimony to his ministry there. Seamus ‘cut his teeth’ as a priest in Greenford and in a spirit of openness and service was happy to accept the appointment as Parish Priest, as Pastor, of this Parish Community of St. Mary Star of the Sea, on August 1st 2012. In the four years he spent here, Seamus blossomed into a mature and steady priest; the responsibility of guiding and leading the community sat well with him and he knew himself to be loved and supported by you all.

The reality of decline and death in all its forms and expressions is an in-built part of our human experience, be it in the realm of the natural world, as in the experience of our lives; in this month of November we observe the decline of the year and the approach of mid-winter, we see the signs of death in nature and we are accustomed to it; however, sudden and unexpected death is always disconcerting and shocking; we are never prepared for it. And so we turn to the Word of God for guidance and consolation; in the second reading of today’s Requiem Mass, St. Paul, wrote to the Corinthians who were experiencing trials in the apostolate. Paul reminded them that their bodies were ‘earthenware jars which carry a treasure’ and that as they were identified with Jesus in the effort, suffering and struggle of the apostolate they were to remember that the life of Jesus is shown in them; Paul then orients their vision to life with God and affirms that “he who raised up the Lord Jesus to life will raise us with Jesus in our turn, and put us by his side” and Paul provides them, and indeed us today, with a vision when he writes that our eyes will see invisible things that are eternal, in the house built by God for us, our everlasting home, made in the heavens. As Christians we know the sacred nature of life, we grow to realize all through life that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and so we strive to be the best version possible of what God has gifted us; but, we know that the gift will reach fullness and fulfilment in the complete and lasting vision of the eternal presence of God. This is our faith, our strength and our hope as we celebrate Seamus.

Fr. Seamus was the Parish Priest of this hallowed parish from August 1st 2012 up to his death; he followed in a long-time of Pallottines who have ministered here since November 1880, the first of whom was Fr. Emil Kirner who celebrated Mass in a room of the house bought by the Pallottines here in High Street. We Pallottines have a long tradition and are very much identified with this parish and its community. It is a part of the apostolate entrusted to our Community by the Church which in turn received her apostolate from Our Lord Jesus Christ. And a central role in the life of the Church is that played by Shepherds, Pastors, of the flock of Jesus Christ. In today’s First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, written in the sixth century before Christ, we heard of the promise made by God to his People, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding…” a promise that God has kept faithfully down through the centuries – to give his people shepherds after his own heart, shepherds who share the concerns, sentiments and desires of the heart of God. In the text of Jeremiah we catch a glimpse of the desire to the heart of God, to gather all his people together, to gather them into the presence, what we now know as the eternal presence, of the Lord.

One of the most memorable affirmations of Jesus in the Gospels is “I am the good shepherd”, the Gospel of St. John presents us with several such affirmations which indicate the identity of Jesus and his mission, affirmations such as ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’, ‘I am the Bread of Life’ and so on. Jesus’ identification of himself as the good shepherd, the shepherd who knows each one of his sheep, who is constantly watching over his sheep, pasturing them, protecting them and leading them into green pastures, is deeply embedded in Christian spirituality and theology and provides inspiration for many. Jesus here reveals the desire of the heart of God to form one flock of all of humanity, a flock gathered in the good shepherd.

The figure of the shepherd, the pastor, is one which underpins the life of the priest, and is a role model for each one. The priest understands himself as called to cooperate with Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in the mission of service which is shepherding the people. Fr. Seamus saw himself as called to participate in this mission.  His journey to priesthood was one which was marked by significant moments; as a young man he experienced serious illness which resulted in some years of medical treatment which was successful. He worked in the Civil Service in Ireland, participating actively in the life of the Church, and the voice of God made itself heard little by little calling him to priesthood. He prayed and discerned with the help of spiritual guides and was accepted into the Pallottine community in 1999 when he was 28 years of age, he then had the advantage of his life experience and knew who he was and what was being asked of him by God. The death of his father, Jim, in 2001, was a sadness to him, but did not deflect him from the path he had chosen; he made his first Pallottine consecration on September 29th 2002 and was ordained to the priesthood in his home parish of St. Michael’s, Tipperary, on June 11th 2006. Fr. Seamus was a priest for a little over 10 years, his ministry was here in England, in Greenford for six years, in Barking for a few months, and finally here in Hastings for the last four years. Fr. Seamus was a shepherd after the heart of God; he was committed to priesthood, committed to what is entailed in being a shepherd, committed to the people with whom he came in contact daily and committed to the Pallottine apostolate. Many tributes have been paid to him since his sudden death, tributes to his pastoral care of the sick, the house-bound, the bereaved and sorrowing, his ability to listen, to say little but with precision to go to the heart of the issue or topic in discussion; to some he appeared to be shy, initially, but when they came to know him they found a confident and friend. He was blessed with a sense of humour, and he was witty and entertaining in company. God blessed him with a good mind and he could analyse a situation and present his view with clarity and precision. He had a great love for Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his devotion was expressed in praying the rosary and engaging in the Marian Movement for Priests.

Fr. Seamus modelled himself on Jesus, our Rule of Life; he strove to be a shepherd, as Jesus was, with the heart of God; he was faithful, faith-filled, and committed. He died too soon, at least in our eyes, but he died in ministry here in the parish, with you the parish community. While his mortal remains are here in the coffin, Fr. Seamus himself is at the side of God, in the presence of the Blessed Trinity, together with Mary, his mother, looking at Jesus and rejoicing in the fullness of the vision which will be his eternal bliss.”

Seamus had requested that he be buried in the family plot in the graveyard in Tipperary Town, therefore he was brought back to his native Tipperary. The funeral Mass was celebrated on Sunday 13 November in St. Michael’s Church, the church where Seamus was baptised, made his First Communion, was Confirmed and where he was ordained by Archbishop Dermot Clifford on 11 June 2006. I was the main celebrant and homilist at the Mass, Archbishop Clifford and Bishop Seamus Freeman concelebrated along with over 50 priests, Pallottines, priests from the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, and priest friends of Seamus from various congregations and dioceses. The parish church was full for the funeral Mass and from the church the funeral cortege walked to the cemetery where he was buried with his late father, Jim. 

The following is an abridged version of my homily in St Michael’s:

“We are gathered here in St. Michael’s Church where Seamus was baptised on October 3rd 1971, where he made his First Holy Communion, where he was Confirmed on 21st May 1984, by Archbishop Thomas Morris, and where he was ordained to the priesthood on 11th June 2006, by Archbishop Dermot Clifford. This church building is important in the life story of Fr. Seamus for the milestones listed, but perhaps more importantly it was here that he participated actively in his progressive insertion into Jesus Christ as a committed Catholic. This is a beautiful church, a hallowed place and very dear to the people of the town, however in the Gospel reading today Jesus tells his hearers that the Jewish Temple, that ornate and imposing Holy Place, would be destroyed, would crumble away, and that what endures, what is lasting, what is everlasting, is the function of the building to lead God’s people into an ever-deeper relationship with him. And this hallowed place fulfilled this role in Seamus’s life and indeed in that of his family.

Today’s Gospel reading is that of the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time of the Liturgical Year of the Church. In these final weeks of the Church’s Liturgical Year our attention is oriented to the end times, to the reality of death, eternal life, our definitive union with God and a rendition of accounts. The language of the readings may seem strange, even severe, and if understood correctly points us towards what is essential.

There are three main topics in today’s Gospel: 1) the prediction of the destruction of the Temple, a beautiful and ornate building to which the Jewish people had fervent attachment. It is necessary to have places of worship in which to gather and to celebrate faith and Christian life, but the building itself does not ensure eternal life; it is our own relationship with God that brings us to eternal life, while the building is the means. 2) Jesus then warned his hearers about seeking security in knowing when God will come and he urges them not to allow themselves to be led astray by those claiming to speak for God. 3) Jesus paints a grim picture of the end times, with natural disasters, political strife, warfare, illness, suffering, persecutions, even misunderstandings and divisions in families because of belief and values. Jesus, in this Gospel reading, points to two central attitudes and positions in the face of such things, the first of which is ‘endurance’ or perseverance, to persevere in deepening our relationship with God; and secondly, in knowing that our real security is God, it is in God that we grow to the fullness of life.

It is true to affirm that each person who is born in our world both lives and dies wrapped around in the stories and in the experiences that are part of their God-given uniqueness. We all knew Seamus and shared some of his stories and his experiences, in particular his journey of faith towards priesthood…. In reflecting on today’s Gospel reading we can see that Fr. Seamus understood that the very centre of his life was God and his relationship with him, and taking the words of Jesus to heart, he ‘endured’ or persevered to the end, he died “with his boots on”, he had celebrated the 10am Mass on Sunday 30th October and died a few minutes before the second Mass at 11.30. As Fr. John O’Brien, a concelebrant this morning, remarked “Seamus went from the pilgrim table of the Eucharist in the parish straight to the table of the heavenly banquet in a matter of minutes. What a wonderful way to die.” Perseverance in faith, perseverance in the apostolate and work of the Church is one of the specific promises that we Pallottines make and given to us by our Founder St. Vincent Pallotti; perseverance is a great value to be committed to and a support in the reality of being a consecrated Pallottine and priest today. In the office of readings there was a passage this week from an author of the 2nd Century Church which states “The faithful do not reap a quick harvest; they have to wait for it to ripen slowly because if God rewarded them quickly religion would be a career and not the worship of God. It would consist in the pursuit of self-interest, not piety.” Fr. Seamus understood the meaning of this and lived his promise of perseverance while all the while blossoming into a steady and committed priest…. This coffin here before us contains the mortal remains of Fr. Seamus, but we know that he is not here, what made Seamus unique in the image of God is now with God. This is the conviction expressed by St. John in the second reading today. He expresses his certainty that there is life, eternal life, after human death and his conviction is that it is to be in the eternal presence of God, seeing him, looking at him face to face, and in this state being transformed totally into the likeness of God. Seamus wore glasses, but now his vision is 20/20, looking on the face of God. He is in the company of Mary, the Mother of Jesus and of all those he knew and loved on earth.

Sincere sympathy to Fr. Seamus’s mother Mary, to his brothers John, Matthew and Liam and his sister Anne-Marie, to his sisters-in-law Tricia and Leila, his niece Maya, his aunts and uncles, cousins, extended family and many friends. Mary, I know that your grief and that of his immediate family is deep and I pray that the promise made by God, through the words of the Prophet Malachi in today’s First Reading be your experience, he said “For you who fear my name, that is, believe in me, the sun of righteousness will shine out with healing in its rays.” May the healing rays of God’s infinite love and mercy be your consolation and strength.”

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Fr. Derry Murphy SAC

Provincial Rector