‘His untiring and unwilting attention to the feeble and sick’

Bishop Denis Nulty celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving for the beatification of Jesuit priest Fr John Sullivan in Clongowes Wood College on Saturday 20th May 2017. 

Homily of Bishop Nulty at the Mass:

If you were to look up the Irish Catholic Directory of 1917 as I did during the week in the library at Bishops House Carlow, it lists all the priests religious and secular serving in Ireland one hundred years ago. On page 451 I found the simple notation, third from the top of the page: “Sullivan, John s.j. Clongowes Wood College Kildare & Leighlin”. An earlier page in that directory reminded me that there were then thirteen Jesuits in the Clongowes community: “Rector Nicholas Tomkin, Laurence Potter, Gerald Corr, J. Daly, John O’Connor, R. Golding, Charles O’Connell, John Byrne, V. Lentaigne, J. Whittaker, J. Sullivan, S. Brown and L. Kieran[3]. Sullivan is ignominiously listed third from the end.

One hundred years later we are back to Clongowes Wood College to celebrate one who served on the staff, one who was a friend and confidant of the pupils and one who was a presence very much in the parishes of Clane, Staplestown/Cooleragh, Kilcock, Dunboyne and Maynooth and today is honoured with the highest honour bar one the Church can bestow on him. John Looby in his very well produced book celebrating the Beatification of John Sullivan pondered if John’s dad had been asked at the door of St. George’s Church in Eccles Street what he wanted for this son as he presented him for baptism on July 15th, 1861, what might he have said? Imagine if he said he wanted him to be a saint! It is the challenge of 2017, where do we find the Saints, the role models, the gentle, sincere examples today of heroic virtue and honour?

When any parent presents a child for baptism, they are hoping and praying for the best for their bundle of joy. What might have gone through the minds of Edward and Bessie Sullivan who were parents to five children, of whom John was the youngest? As was common then with what was termed mixed marriages, the boys were brought up Protestants and the girls Catholics. And that is the beauty of this cause and this celebration, it crosses all divides, all divisions. Blessed John Sullivan in his sanctity is something which both the Roman Catholic and the Church of Ireland Anglican tradition take great pride in. His faith is a product of both traditions.

Returning briefly to Carlow, celebrating Mass with the Poor Clares recently, they told me the story that the authority on John Sullivan, Fergal McGrath, beautifully recounts of their receiving a gold ciborium and a sacristans manual from John Sullivan, who attended Mass regularly with them as he attended the courthouse in Carlow. That gift was presented on August 30th, 1900. Seven days later he would begin his Jesuit Novitiate in Tullabeg on September 7th, 1900. Tonight they gave me a loan of that very ciborium for our Mass. Interesting there is no trace left of the sacristans manual, although Fergal McGrath adds: “there was a touch of irony about the latter gift, for the sacristan of the time was a very vigorous lady who corrected the eminent lawyer-acolyte for some breach of the rubrics”. Obviously Sullivan who had served four Masses that very day knew how to get his own back on the sacristan!

It reminds me of the story of another sacristan and a priest who got irritated when a fly would drop into his glass of water, he left the following verse on the sacristy bench after Mass had ended:

A little cover keeps out all the dust
And so a little cover is a must.
How can a pious nun forget these things,
When to a gasping priest, a drink she brings.

To which the loquacious sacristan nun replied:

Most humbly I acknowledge my defect,
Which henceforth, I aspire to correct!
It is unthinkable – indeed unjust,
That while our priest endures a violent thirst,
We allow foreign bodies reach the water first.
So this mishap, in future to prevent –
The requested little cover I present”.

Of course you have all come to Clongowes Wood College with your own stories this evening of John Sullivan, some of those stories heard during this past week on RTE’s Liveline and the previous week with Fr. Donal Neary’s superb ‘Thought for the Day’ reflections. I myself have read through the Positio documents, which Fr. Conor Harper kindly presented to me this time last year. The tome extends to 629 pages excluding the appendices. This very detailed compilation of testimonies and stories demonstrates the rigorous process that a particular cause entails. The Positio was presented in April 2004 and assigned a unique protocol number 956 in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The process must be robost and thorough and ultimately for the good of the church and for the deepening of the faith of the people.

At present there are a number of Irish causes at various stages, and most likely a number of other possible candidates for beatification and canonisation who remain unexamined. The recognition of John Sullivan’s sanctity as Blessed in April 2016 and the actual ceremony of Beatification last Saturday remind us we must continue to look for Blessed’s and Saint’s amongst us who raise our hearts and lives above the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday. Of course, as I’ve mentioned at every Mass in Clongowes Wood College celebrating John Sullivan over the past couple of years: you the people, you the faithful have kept very alive the cause of John Sullivan through your admiration, prayer and devotion. You knew he was Blessed, in fact some of you see him as a Saint, but hold on, there is a process, let us rest and be secured in our faith in that process. And let us keep praying through his intercession, remember he doesn’t perform the miracle. Only God can perform a miracle, the proven miracle must however be attributed to John Sullivan’s intercession.

Returning for a moment to the general thrust of the testimonies given. Several of them refer to his ministry to the sick. Fergal McGrath summed up splendidly his pastoral outreach with the comment: “the apostolate of the poor, the suffering and the afflicted never flagged during thirty years. Father Sullivan was a great walker, and his figure was a familiar one on the roads around Clongowes”. I see every year the queues that form after every Mass for the privilege of being blessed with his Cross. Even after last Saturdays momentous celebration, the queues were very long, and no one seemed in a hurry.

In my opinion, the reason why John Sullivan is now Blessed John Sullivan is because of his untiring and unwilting attention to the feeble and sick in these parts. Witness statements are saturated with stories around healing, cures and living miracles. There is a great line in the late Fr. Joe Dargan’s testimony that perhaps gives us the key to unlock John Sullivan and understand his Blessedness: “In the Jesuit foclóir we are told he was a dreadful teacher. He had no discipline. Couldn’t control the kids. To think of somebody, particularly in a boarding school, having some of those qualities. Through it all and in talking to past pupils they recognise that here was a man who in a very real way was in contact with God[6]. Most of John Sullivan’s work with the sick was done secretly, but it was rooted in his very deep faith. He was not a medical doctor or therapist but he knew how to spend time with people. John Sullivan knew the value of presence, the value of being present. Isn’t it the greatest gift we can offer one another in 2017, to plug out the ear-phones; turn off the Iphones and actually be present to one another?

I pray in time it might be possible to bring back Blessed John Sullivan’s body here to Clongowes for a Triduum of Prayer, back for a brief visit where it rested for twenty-seven years. This is not out of some macabre interest, but an opportunity to complete the circle and conclude the home-coming properly. We only have to look around the Sports Hall, the Marquee, the College Chapel, the Peoples Church, the Concourse and beyond to see the welcome such an initiative would get!

While the people of the former Portora Royal School in Enniskillen in County Fermanagh can take great credit for his formal education and his spirituality; the people of Glencar in County Kerry can lay great claim on his journey towards becoming a Catholic; yet it is here in Clongowes Wood College in Clane Parish and the surrounding parishes in Counties Kildare and Meath that can put up the best argument for his Canonisation, which is the next step for our Blessed John. It was here he walked your roads, it was here he blessed your sick, it was here he visited your homes. The process for his Beatification began at diocesan levels in Dublin and Kildare & Leighlin as far back as 1947, seventy years ago now; it is more necessary now than ever not to stop the prayers and the devotion. There is still a journey to go towards ultimately his canonisation. Ireland needs John Sullivan and his ilk to remind us of the value of presence, of caring for the sick and of prayer.

Blessed John Sullivan, patron of the Missing, pray for us.
Blessed John Sullivan, man of Prayer, pray for us.
Blessed John Sullivan, carer of the Sick, pray for us.
Blessed John Sullivan, priest who understood Presence, pray for us.
Blessed John Sullivan, unifier of all Christians, pray for us.