The feast of Blessed John Sullivan

Blessed John Sullivan

Today is the feast of Blessed John Sullivan, a contemporary of Fr Doyle. 

Blessed John had a different personality to that of Fr Doyle, but as contemporaries with the same training much of their spirituality is in common. Both were very humble, very cheerful and very ascetic. One of Fr Sullivan’s most popular maxims, very much in line with Fr Doyle’s thought, was:

Take life in instalments, this day now. At least let this be a good day. Be always beginning. Let the past go. The saints were always beginning. That is how they became saints.

Blessed John was born into considerable wealth and privilege, and after some years of travel and study became a barrister. His father was the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and he was brought up in the Church of Ireland, although his mother was a Catholic. He converted to Catholicism at the age of 35 and entered the Jesuits 4 years later. He was ordained on July 28, 1907 in the same ceremony as Fr Doyle. Fr Sullivan was 46, Fr Doyle was 34.

Ordination Ceremony, 28 July 1907

Blessed John spent most of his life in Clongowes, a Jesuit school not too far from Dublin where Fr Doyle had also spent some time prior to his ordination. He was known for his gentle kindness towards the boys there. He lived an ascetic life, eating very little. Like Fr Doyle, he was no stranger to physical mortification, often spending entire nights in prayer, or sleeping on the floor or performing other physical acts of penance. And, in common with Fr Doyle, there is no evidence that these penances ever interfered with his work. Both priests kept them hidden, and neither ever encouraged others to follow in their own footsteps.

It seems that Blessed John had great regard for Fr Doyle; after his death some of Fr Doyle’s sayings were found transcribed in Blessed John’s writings amongst his private papers.

While there are some similarities between the two contemporary Jesuits, there are also some differences. Two in particular spring to mind. The first is that Blessed John was given the grace of physical healing. He would regularly travel – on bike or by foot – for miles to visit the sick and dying in the countryside around Clongowes.

There are many instances of healings recorded through Blessed John’s intercession, even during his own lifetime. These graces of healing have continued after his death.

The second great difference is that we know relatively little about his interior life. What we know comes from eye witness accounts. If he ever wrote detailed notes about himself, they no longer exist. Perhaps this was Professor Alfred O’Rahilly’s fault! After he published so many extracts from Fr Doyle’s private notes, it is possible that other priests ensured that their own diaries were destroyed, although given Blessed John’s profound humility it is likely that he never thought anyone would be interested in his interior life anyway.

Blessed John was beatified in May 2017. Cardinal Amato’s wonderful homily at that beatification can be found here: https://frjohnsullivan.ie/2017/05/faithful-disciple-christ/

Here is a prayer to seek the intercession of Blessed John Sullivan:

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, 105 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.