Thoughts about Fr John Sullivan. Day 1: His life

Venerable Fr John Sullivan SJ, who will be beatified on Saturday

Fr John Sullivan will be beatified on Saturday in Gardiner Street Church at 11am. This is wonderful news, but it is also big news. Beatifications and canonisations are rare events, but they are even rarer in Ireland – we have a very poor record at successful “causes”. In fact, Olympic medals are more common than beatifications and canonisations. We celebrate Olympic medals and make a big deal about them. So, too, we should celebrate when an Irish person is beatified. We should make a big deal out of it and celebrate! There is enough bad news in the Church in Ireland; we need to celebrate good news like this when it comes along!

We will “celebrate” the pending beatification for the rest of this week with a number of special posts about Fr Sullivan. He was Fr Doyle’s “brother” Jesuit, and was ordained with him on 28 July 1907.

Fr Doyle and Fr Sullivan (back row) pictured together in 1904, before they were ordained.

Today we will have a brief synopsis of his life, on Tuesday we will look at his life of humility and penance, on Wednesday we will look at some of the cures and healing attributed to him during life, and on Thursday and Friday we will look at some of his prayers and writings.

John Sullivan was born in 1861 into a position of immense privilege. His father was a lawyer, a Member of Parliament, Solicitor General, Attorney General, Master of the Rolls, Lord Chancellor and a baronet. In essence, John Sullivan was born into the very highest levels of the Irish establishment. For instance, William Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, was entertained in the family home. His mother Elizabeth was a Catholic but his father was a member of the Church of Ireland. The agreement within the family was that the boys would be brought up in the father’s religion, and the girls would follow their mothers faith.

John was sent to Portora Royal School as a boarder, and from there went to Trinity College where he excelled as a scholar of classics. Having completed his degree in classics he entered the law school in Trinity but his father died while he was still an undergraduate and he left Trinity without completing his law degree, opting instead to study for the English bar in Lincoln’s Inn..

Having qualified as a barrister, he lived a rather convivial and enjoyable social life, and was once described as the best dressed man in Dublin. He was known as a particularly hospitable dining companion, and enjoyed travels on the continent. On one of these tours he stayed in the monastery at Mount Athos, and this seems to have had a strong impact on him.

Around this time he started to visit the sick in hospitals, and began to study the Catholic catechism and seems to have been strongly influenced by St Augustine’s Confessions. He eventually converted, entering the Catholic Church at the Jesuit Church at Farm Street in London. He was 35 years of age.

The conversion of one so deeply embedded in the establishment caused quite a stir, especially given the political culture of the day. This conversion surely caused him sacrifices that ordinary Catholics today probably cannot fully appreciate. At this time he began to dress in plainer and more ordinary clothes, spent more time visiting the sick and poor and frequently visited convents where he was often encouraged by the nuns to become a priest and join the Jesuits.

This he did at the age of 40, and it must surely have been difficult for a cultured, well educated and well travelled man of the world to live and mix with novices in their late teens and early twenties. But he often disguised his great learning and accommodated himself to his younger Jesuit colleagues, serving them in any way he could.

He was ordained in 1907 and spent his remaining 26 years as a teacher and spiritual guide in Clongowes Wood College (where Fr Doyle also served for two separate periods prior to his ordination) as well as a short 5 year stint as rector of Rathfarnham Castle, where Fr Doyle has also previously lived.

These years of priesthood revealed Fr Sullivan to be a humble man of intense prayer and asceticism who was graced with rare spiritual gifts of healing and insight. He was the special friend of the poor and the sick, and served them tirelessly. They in turn had a great devotion to him both during his life and after his death up to the present day. We shall examine some of these aspects of his priestly life over the coming days,

Fr Sullivan died in Dublin in February 1933 of gangrene of the small intestine. 

Prayer through Fr Sullivan’s intercession:

God, you honour those who honour you. 
Make sacred the memory of your servant John Sullivan, by granting through his intercession the petition we now make (name the petition) and hastening the day when his name will be numbered among those of your saints. 
We make our prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.







Thoughts for May 8 from Fr Willie Doyle

My way is sure. I think I can say now without a shade of doubt or hesitation that the path by which Jesus wants me to walk is that of absolute abandonment of all human comfort and pleasure and the embracing as far as I can of every discomfort and pain. Every time I see a picture of the crucifixion or a cross, I feel strangely affected and drawn to the life of immolation in a strange way. The heroism of Jesus appeals to me; His ‘naked crucifixion’ calls to me and it gives me great consolation and peace to offer myself to Him on the cross for this perpetual living crucifixion. How often does He not seem to say to me in prayer, ‘I would have you strip yourself of all things — every tiny particle of self-indulgence, and this ever and always? Give Me all and I will make you a great saint.’ This then is the price of my life-long yearning for sanctification. O Jesus, I am so weak, help me to give You all and to do it now.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these notes on 8 May 1914, 103 years ago today. Perhaps it is no surprise that he struggled long and hard with recognising this particular calling – a “perpetual living crucifixion” is not something that our weak nature feels inclined towards! 

It is clear that Fr Doyle had a very specific vocation to fight against his own personal comfort and to choose the hardest option always and everywhere. He certainly lived this reality in the war. Burying the dead day in and day out, risking his life to serve the soldiers, going days on end without sleep, eating poor meals, coping with bitter cold, regular floods, searing heat, rats, fleas, smells, shells and all other manner of “discomfort and pain”. It is true that many others lived and died in these conditions. But Fr Doyle really stands out for his cheerfulness and courage in the face of this awful list of discomfort and danger, any one of which inconveniences would probably knock the rest of us off our mental and spiritual equilibrium. Fr Doyle was universally admired for his spirit in the midst of this living hell, and one century later those of us who read his letters from the war are also struck with admiration for how he handled all he went through. 

His fortitude in the midst of these sufferings was no accident. He was fully equipped, both by grace but also by his natural training. By waging a constant war against his own comfort for years previously he was the perfect candidate to be a successful military chaplain in that awful war. There is no way that somebody who indulged their passions and comforts, who indulged their appetites and sought pleasure in all aspects of life, could have survived and thrived – mentally, spiritually or physically – as long as Fr Doyle did. 

If we admire the heroic Fr Doyle of the trenches we must also admire the Fr Doyle who made war on comfort. We cannot have one without the other. 

It is unlikely that we are called to a similar, total abandonment of all normal comforts. But it is beyond doubt that we are called to wage war against some aspects of our comfortable lives. Life with somebody who cares only about their own comfort would be intolerable and unworkable! Married relationships involve sacrifice and necessitate that we sometimes place our comforts aside. No parent would arise in the night to a crying child if their personal comfort was their highest value. Great scientific and medical discoveries require personal comfort to take a back seat as the researcher works late into the night in pursuit of a proof or a cure. Those who desire physical fitness or beauty wage war on their comfort as they restrict their diets and punish their bodies in the gym. Indeed, there can be no social justice if we each look to our own welfare and ignore that of our needy brethren. 

No, far from being old fashioned or irrelevant, the battle against self-indulgence and comfort is actually essential in building a functioning civilisation. Unfortunately many of us have forgotten this basic truth, and the sad evidence of this fact is all around us. Indeed, the wrecked economy here in Ireland is a painful reminder of how the unbridled love of comfort and instant gratification cannot underpin a functioning society or economy. 

But if we are not called to deny ourselves all comforts, we can at least make an attempt in small ways. Fr Doyle gives us some examples from his own life – no butter on bread or sugar in tea or salt on meat; not complaining when we have a minor headache; being pleasant to people who irritate us; not warming ourselves at the fire… There are numerous small ways we can all find to deny ourselves just a few of the comforts that have made us spiritually and physically enfeebled. These small sacrifices help train us to overcome ourselves when harder sacrifices are required.