Archbishop Michael Jackson
Reflection of Michael Jackson, Church of Ireland, Archbishop of Dublin, at the annual Mass of thanksgiving for the life of Servant of God, VenerableFather John Sullivan, Church of Saint Francis Xavier, Gardiner Street, 20 February 2016.
Last year I had the privilege and opportunity to share a few thoughts at this annual act of worship which draws together people from right across Ireland and beyond our shores.
And it does so in order to commemorate, to celebrate and to reflect on the person of John Sullivan SJ. I am delighted to do so again today with you and I thank you all for your invitation and welcome.
We make this commemoration in the majestic church in Gardiner Street which houses his mortal remains; in his native Dublin not far from Eccles Street in which he grew up; and not far either from St George’s Hardwick Street in which he was baptized into the person of Christ and into the Christian faith through the Church of Ireland tradition.
Denomination is often an accident of birth but in the case of John Sullivan it never became a focus of rejection, hatred or bitterness as he moved personally, spiritually and ecclesiastically from one tradition to another. This is a shining light in our society yesterday and today and for tomorrow.
My first reflection is that, at the time and the moment of baptism, none of us knows precisely what lies ahead of us.
The odyssey undertaken by John Sullivan in the baptized life is an inspiration and an example to all of us of this very openness.
Whatever our path and journey in life, baptism is an adventure in faith and we, as daughters and sons, are connected through baptism both with the person of Jesus Christ and with the Judean Wilderness by the operation of the Holy Spirit: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. (St Mark 1.11)
This we hear first in the Season of Epiphany. Love and pleasure are the language of the Holy Spirit who accompanies each of us from Epiphany through our Lenten pilgrimage.
As John Sullivan moved from one tradition into another, he never brought with him nor did he seek to impose rancour, triumphalism or ridicule on those whom he had left to remain as an earlier part of his life.
Through baptism, John Sullivan entered the waters of new life in Christ as do we. In the spirit of baptism, he grew as a child of God. In the fullness of adult witness, he served God and neighbour.
My second reflection is around a prayer, a Collect, we in the Church of Ireland use on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity. In many ways, it is a quite unspectacular time of the year; there are few liturgical highlights in the Season of Trinity.
It is a time of growth, and growth – despite the prevailing winds of current ecclesiastical productivity theory – is often invisible and unspectacular. It grows to public expression but is frequently unseen as it grows:
O God, the protector of all who trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal: Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord.
At its core, it draws us into the mercy and the rule of God – as is surely appropriate in the Year of Mercy, as commended to all Christians by Pope Francis.
Again, at its core, it draws us into a rhythm of life and of death and of life again. Its phraseology is part of the verbal chemistry of the Anglican tradition at its best: that we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal …
And so I suggest that this Collect, in the idiom and from the tradition well known to John Sullivan in his youth, is appropriate also in the Season of Lent.
The beauty, the allure, the dazzle of things temporal – the crocus in the wilderness of Isaiah the prophet, the quick-wittedness of Jesus as he names Herod as that fox to the Pharisees for example – is not rubbished; the request made of us is, nonetheless, that, as we pass through things temporal, we finally lose not the things eternal.
This is different from an outright rejection of the material for the spiritual in the Auction Room of theology; it is subtle, in a Season of the Church’s Year that can be so relentless in its idealism and its spirit of punishment; it draws us back to love and pleasure, properly understood, as gifts of the Spirit of God, especially in the wilderness where we will really need them.
My third reflection is around the word: holy as used in this Collect. The clear message is that the protection of God gives strength and holiness. This is a combination we need to get used to accessing rather than leaving it to others who seem to us to be ‘on the inside’ of the church, whatever is meant by ‘the inside.’
The protection of God gives strength to our poverty; holiness to our humanity. The dynamic of God’s presence in our lives offers transformation in terms of strength and holiness together. As we think on the holiness of John Sullivan, let us continue to use the Season of Lent to allow God to surround and enfold us with his protection.
We must still fight the good fight of faith in Jerusalem in Holy Week and with Jesus Christ rise in glory on Easter Day and walk to Emmaus.
We must do more: harness such strength and holiness to respond to the plight and devastation of those who carry the cross of suffering and of ignominy in the Middle east, in the crucible of Christianity and in the paradise-gardens of yesterday where three strong and holy World Faiths have grown up and lived together for so long and now face the terror of disintegration.
We must apply strength and holiness in our day to strip away caricature and to build up the respect across traditions that was so beloved of John Sullivan SJ in his day.
I can conclude only by saying as a tribute to John Sullivan: Floreat Portora!