Multitalented, multidimensional priest describes Fr. Coughlin

Father Bernard Coughlin, S.J., Gonzaga President
Father Bernard Coughlin, S.J., Gonzaga President

January 28, 2020
By Patrick J. Ford, SJ. Academic Vice President

Editors note: This reflection originally appeared the Spring 1996 edition of the Signum print publication 

Many people know the public side of Father Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J., Gonzaga's 23rd president: the chief executive, the warm and friendly person, the writer, the scholar, the fund-raiser, the builder, and the strategist. Fewer people have had the privilege of knowing Father Coughlin in the way that defines him, shapes him, directs and motivates his innermost core. That is Bernard Coughlin the priest.

During the Rite of Ordination, the bishop challenges each new priest to model his life on the mystery of the Lord's cross. What this has meant for Father Coughlin has been a conscious attempt, cultivated for more than 50 years, to imitate in his own style the life and the ministry of Jesus. His has been a life of prayer, although the world has not observed him kneeling in prayer in the back of the Jesuit House Chapel in the wee hours of the morning.

His has been a life of sacrifice, although no one I know has kept good track of the countless hours he has spent wandering the waiting rooms and the corridors of local hospitals visiting the ill, the wounded, and the dying members of our community. His has been a life of healing, although even he himself has probably never counted the broken marriages he has helped reconcile, the distraught students and parents whom he has counseled, or the agitated faculty and administrators to whom he has lent a listening ear.

Like the Lord whose life he has attempted to imitate, Father Coughlin has led by example.

He has never asked of others what he has not first asked of himself – one of the quintessential qualities of any servant leader. 

It is a fact at the University that to work for Father Coughlin is to work very hard. However, early and late, weekends and holidays, I have noticed the light burning in his office. He has literally spent himself for Gonzaga. Saint Ignatius urged his Jesuit followers to seek the greater good, not just the satisfactory, and any vice president will tell you that Cabinet meetings are characterized by Father's tireless encouragement of each of us to discover "best" solutions.

Another case of leading by example is the extraordinary control he has over his tongue.

In an age when talk is cheap and reputations can be tarnished by idle chatter, I can say in all candor that in the more than two decades I have been associated with Father Coughlin, I have never heard him malign anyone.

A final example of the priestly and the Jesuit side of Father Coughlin is seen in the continuing development of the Jesuit, Catholic and humanistic values that are the cornerstone of the University's mission. He is deeply convinced that these three values ought distinctively to shape the University as none other. Several years ago he supported establish­ment of the Council for Partnership in Mission, an organization of faculty, students, staff and administrators dedicated to heightening the awareness and practice of mission-related values on campus.

Moreover, he has urged that the curriculum ever more closely reflect these values, as when an additional course in religious studies was added to the general University requirements a decade or so ago. I believe that under the influence of Bernard Coughlin, the president and the priest, the Jesuit and Catholic character of the University has grown to be more mature, more reflective, more conscious than at any other time in the University's 109-year history.