“His renunciation of the superficial gave him that added energy to live a life of service”

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

The transcript of a homily given by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at the annual mass of thanksgiving for the life of Servant of God, Venerable Father John Sullivan at Church of Saint Francis Xavier, Gardiner Street, Saturday 20 February 2016.

Dear friends, you have learned how it was said, Jesus said to his disciples in the Gospel we’ve just heard. Jesus takes up with his disciples words which his hearers would have been very familiar with, but Jesus takes up these phrases and he transforms them into a new understanding of the law. In our Gospel he takes up a phrase, an injunction of the prophet Leviticus ‘Love your neighbour’. Now for many of Jesus’ hearers at that time, if they had been asked the question ‘who is your neighbour?’ they would probably have answered ‘any other Jew’. You loved your Jewish friends but others would be treated in a different manner. In the culture of many of the Jews of the time there would be very little subtlety, you were either neighbour or enemy. And when they read or heard ‘love your neighbour’, inevitably the phrase ‘hate your enemy’ would pop up on their mental screens.

Jesus was proposing something radically different, new in one sense because it was always there in the revelation, but Jesus isn’t simply proposing changes at the edge of what love for neighbour meant for his hearers. As he said himself even the disliked tax collectors had some form of solidarity among themselves. You would encounter hospitality even among the very heathens but for Jesus this call of Levicitus ‘love your neighbour’ must become a universal command of love. The disciples of Jesus are being called to throw aside all social boundaries and individual prejudices. They’re called in an uncompromising manner to love neighbour, to love even enemies, to love even those who persecute them.

But Jesus’ message goes even deeper. Jesus’ message is not about being polite to others, it’s not a sort of more gallant social norm. Jesus says then to his disciples ‘be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect’, and then he reminds us who is our heavenly father: our heavenly father is the one who makes the sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, he allows his reign to fall on the honest and the dishonest. So fundamentally what Jesus is preaching about at this moment isn’t so much about neighbour, it’s about who God is. He’s challenging the understanding of the Jews of that time, and us also, about who God is. God’s goodness knows no bounds. He makes no distinctions among us, and our concept of goodness and compassion, our love of neighbour then, must also be one which knows no bounds, no limits.

We have come to reflect, to remember the Servant of God John Sullivan. We’ve come to reflect on his life, and on his holiness, and we want to reflect on what holiness is, and what is the path towards sainthood. The holy are those who seek perfection but who seek a perfection that is the perfection of our heavenly father. There are those who live holiness to such a degree that they go way beyond human narrowness and live a life of love that embraces everyone. Too many of us believers, even leaders of the church, can quickly fall into the temptation of trying to limit God’s mercy because we can’t break out beyond our prejudice, our intolerance and our vindictive justice. So many of us are like the other brother in the story of the prodigal son.

And we often create a harsh God. We’ve left troubled people scrupulous and guilt-ridden. We’ve been so often so concerned about the integrity of the ninty-nine, of our institutions, of our like-minded, that not only have we forgotten the one who was lost but we may have alienated, antagonised them and left them feeling more lost and more abandoned; and we Catholics have even distorted that great instrument of God’s mercy – the Sacrament of Penance. We’ve turned it into an invasive tribunal of judgement rather than an opportunity to reflect on our lives in the context of a merciful encounter with Jesus who liberates us, and hopefully during this Year of Mercy we will be able to renew the real sense of the Sacrament of Penance.

John Sullivan in his youth was described as the best dressed man in Dublin, but he began later in life to attract young people to Jesus Christ through a total renunciation of anything superfluous for himself, thus witnessing only to the mercy and loving kindness of Jesus. His renunciation of the superficial gave him that added energy to live a life of service, which went way above the call of ordinary duty. The presence this morning here of Archbishop Michael Jackson and some Anglican relatives of John Sullivan, reminds us as I said, that holiness doesn’t know denominational boundaries. Indeed in our ecumenical reflection and activity we pay, or we paid traditionally, far too little attention to the saints, the saints who can be a bridge between what is deepest and common in all our traditions. The divisions among Christians constitute a counter witness, a counter witness to our God who reveals himself in a love that goes beyond all divisions, beyond all boundaries.

The recognition of the saintliness of John Sullivan will offer us an opportunity for all of us to celebrate that occasion as a call to turn around that counter witness, to strengthen our common service of love within society through witnessing to our common baptism, and showing that as believers in Jesus Christ we are truly neighbours to each other and within society. John Sullivan’s faith was the product of two traditions and always remained so, and was enriched by that fact. As we honour his holiness we must commit ourselves to be together, the church of Jesus Christ, united around Jesus like the message and witnessing in a troubled and divided world to the boundless and borderless love of Jesus Christ, Amen.