“May his message be heard with clarity and compassion”

Bishop Denis Nulty

A transcript of the homily given by Bishop Denis Nulty on the occasion of the Annual Mass for Venerable John Sullivan, Clongowes Wood College, May 2015. Bishop Nulty reflected on three key points; the Venerability of Fr John, his birthday, and how his message is relevant for the Ireland of 2015.

Annual Mass for Venerable John Sullivan S.J.


The Boys’ Chapel, Clongowes Wood College

“Curse and swear, Lord Kildare, Fiach will do what Fiach will dare,

Now Fitzwilliam have a care, fallen is your star low

Up with halberd, out with sword, on we go for by the Lord

Fiach McHugh has given the word, follow me up to Carlow”

The words of the very famous song written by Patrick Joseph McCall, the same poet who scripted ballads such as ‘Boolavogue’ and ‘The Boys of Wexford’.

McCall was born in 1861 and died in 1919.

‘Follow me up to Carlow’ was published in 1899 to a traditional tune dating back to 1580.

I scarcely knew the lyrics and would very vaguely recognize the tune until my appointment as Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin.

Three years before the publication of ‘‘Follow me up to Carlow’, John Sullivan, the son of a very able and prominent lawyer Edward Sullivan who was Protestant and a well connected Catholic mother, Elizabeth Baily, converted to Catholicism.

Until setting myself the task in hand for today’s celebration, I equally knew very little about John Sullivan, so recently declared Venerable by Pope Francis on November 14th last.

Just as with Patrick McCall’s lyrics, I’m delighted I have come across the superb story of the words and witness of Venerable John Sullivan S.J.

You are all most welcome to the Boys’ Chapel here at Clongowes Wood College, this Sunday afternoon; I know some of you are in the People’s Church, more of you out on the corridors and in the adjoining porches and archways.

It is such a privilege to celebrate Mass here surrounded by the Jesuit Community and friends in The Boys’ Chapel, a chapel that dates back to 1907.

The foundation stone reminds us the stone came from Mount Charles quarries in Donegal.

Apparently a time capsule of its day was inserted into that stone containing several items of note – some 1907 coins, copies of national and local newspapers and an engrossed parchment.

Might you read anything of this elusive man, John Sullivan in the national or local newspapers of 1907? – I very much doubt it, as many commentators mentioned his love of solitude and his frugal lifestyle.

It is great you are here, because your devotion to this man and to his cause has resulted in him being declared ‘Venerable’.

We gather to mark six months approximately since that declaration; we gather to celebrate and mark his birthday and we gather to ask ourselves what might John Sullivan’s message be for the Ireland of 2015?

And of course that message will assist hugely in advancing him further towards Beatification and ultimately Canonisation – the declaration that he is indeed a Saint.

So let me address now all three aspects of this afternoon’s celebration.

Declared ‘Venerable’:

Venerable simply means the Church as Institution and as the Body of Christ recognizes that John Sullivan lived a life of heroic virtue and people like yourselves who have been coming here for years, may publicly venerate this man.

There is no doubt when I drilled deep into the life of John Sullivan, I came away with the clear impression that this man was born into a privileged Protestant background.

Privilege brings with it Responsibility.

Peter’s words in the house of Cornelius in our first reading linger: “God does not have any favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him”[1].

From the earliest days, I believe John Sullivan was on that journey of faith, on that journey of doing what was acceptable to God.

The lovely story is well told of the catholic girl who worked in Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, where John was sent to Secondary School.

Apparently she reprimanded him for not going to church and he replied that he was tired of going to church, that it meant nothing to him now, but that if she would take him to her church he would go.

He certainly went, by conjecture at least once – whatever impression it made on his young life would sow a seed that would later ferment.

John Sullivan was received into the Catholic Church on December 21st, 1896.

And I think like all converts, he showed an initial fervor that would put lifetime Catholics to shame.

That he would in a few years decide to become a Jesuit was a further step of enormous proportions in his life.

It points out to all of us this Sunday afternoon the importance of sowing a seed, the seed springing from his mother’s prayers and aspirations, a seed embedded by that perky young girl who worked in Portora and a seed ultimately planted by the Lord himself.

We never know the effect of our invitation to a young person to join us for Sunday Mass.

Perhaps the phrases of the adolescent John Sullivan around “being tired of going to church” and “it meaning nothing to him” while today he is two steps away from being a Saint, rings bells in many of our conversations around Mass with the young and their peers.

His being declared ‘Venerable’ I suggest has its roots in his attention to the sick and the suffering.

The number of people who, on hearing I was celebrating this Mass today, told me their story of John Sullivan has been staggering.

One person told me her family were personally acquainted with a woman from near the college whose incurable illness was healed through the intervention of Fr. John Sullivan; another whose grandmother came from Ballinagappa, Clane knew that her arthritic grandmother’s mother was attended to by Fr. John, and the family continued to visit his grave, while it was here in Clongowes.

Another gave me the loan of Fergal McGrath’s authoritative work on John Sullivan, published in 1941.

So he being declared ‘Venerable’ is no accident, it is the fruit of years of all your prayers, devotion and affection for this man.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin summed him up well at the Mass in Gardiner Street:

“He was not a medical expert or a faith healer, but a man who through his own prayer and personal holiness was able to transmit to those he encountered something of the healing power and the Good News of Jesus Christ”

The Birthday of Venerable John Sullivan S.J.:
Last Friday to be precise, John Sullivan would have been celebrating his 154th Birthday!

Don’t we Irish love our Birthdays!!

It’s said that the only time we like to get old is when we are children.

We think in fractions – “how old are you?” – “I’m four and a half” – you are never thirty-six and a half!

And then when you hit the teenage years, like here at Clongowes, there is no holding back, you jump to the next number or even a few ahead, maybe depending on which disco you want to get into!

“How old are you?” – “I’m going to be 16”, now you might only be thirteen but you will one day be 16!

And then you become 21 as if it’s a miracle or something – hey it was going to happen!

And then you turn 30; before you know it you are pushing 40 and catch those brakes because you soon reach 50!

You become 21, turn 30, push 40, reach 50 and yes, you have it – you make it to 60!

You’ve built up such speed that you hit 70 and before you know you are in your 80’s.

Then everyday is a complete cycle: you hit lunch, you turn 4.30pm, you reach bedtime.

And the Irish phenomenon with birthdays doesn’t end there, into the 90’s, you start going backwards “I was just 92”.

And then the strangest thing happens, if you make it over 100, you take on the children’s fractions once more: “I’m 100 and a half!”

Well, today John Sullivan would be 154 years and two days old.

Born at 41 Eccles Street where his father had lived since the beginning of his legal career;

Born the youngest in a family of five children – the girls were to be raised in the Catholic faith; the boys were reared in their dad’s faith, Protestantism.

The eldest and only daughter was Annie; the four sons were Edward, Robert, William and John himself.

While birthdays are not an exclusively Irish celebration but something noted the world over, John Sullivan shares his birth-day of May 8th with people like David Attenborough, the singer Enrique Iglesias and the actor Sidney James.

John Sullivan was baptized in St. George’s Protestant Church on Georges Place, adjacent to Eccles Street.

It is recalled that his mother cried after the birth of her youngest, praying for a girl, so that it could be Catholic, instead she was a given a son who in time would excel in Catholicism.

One of the moments of Christian Baptism is the tracing of the sign of the Cross on the forehead of the newborn.

In his novitiate days he asked that the Cross he be allowed to keep was the one that belonged to his mother, a brass one, nine inches high – today two Crosses are venerated both in Gardiner Street and here in Clongowes, one of the two being that brass one that belonged to his mother and which he held as he was dying; the second one was placed in his hands immediately after his death.

The Message of John Sullivan for the Ireland of 2015?:

There was a tragic incident involving the third child and second son Robert.

Fergal McGrath describes the scene in minute detail.

On October 16th, 1877 Robert at the age of twenty-four, while the family were holidaying at Killiney in Dublin, went out sailing in Dublin Bay with two younger friends John and Constance Exham.

McGrath tells us “they brought a gun to amuse themselves by shooting at seagulls, and Robert had on a heavy cartridge-belt”.

The boat was capsized – Robert gave one of the oars to Constance so that she might be saved; she was dead by the time rescuers reached the site.

Her brother John survived, but Robert sadly sank into the water, perhaps weighed down by the cartridge-belt – his body was never found, despite the family employing the services of a diver to search, and remember this was 1877.

Robert’s brother John was in school at this time in Portora where he would receive the Gold Medal for Sacred Scripture.

How might he interpret the death of a brother whose body was never found?

Might Venerable John Sullivan today be a comfort to the Jacob family in their search for Deirdre; to the Deely family in their search for Trevor; to the Dollard family in their search for Jo Jo and the many more families who miss loved ones this Sunday afternoon?

Might Venerable John Sullivan, who must have known the pain of losing a brother and never having a body to bury, offer some little crumb of comfort to heartbroken parents and siblings this day?

Might Venerable John Sullivan reawaken our devotion and prayer of ‘the Stations of the Cross’ as those families especially and all of us struggle to make sense of pain and suffering in our lives?

Might Venerable John Sullivan offer a message to us as we make remote preparations following the recent announcement by Pope Francis of the ‘Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy’ in our churches, parishes & school communities later this year, I think of the powerful words John Sullivan used regarding the mercy of God: “God always leaves the door unlatched”?

And finally, in a college that prides itself on its achievements both on and off the field, might his advice or counsel so often offer the greatest maturity young people particularly need to learn in life: “you win nothing unless you know how to lose”.

May his message be heard with clarity and compassion in the Ireland of 2015 and beyond.