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.

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 Jesuit 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, 107 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.

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.

Thoughts for May 7 from Fr Willie Doyle

The past few weeks have been weeks of extraordinary grace and light and strength. I see clearly what He wants from me as clearly and as certainly, I think, as if I had received a written message from His own hand. For years I was groping in the dark; there was ever a want in my life which I could never satisfy. I know He asked the striving for sanctity, but the way was not clear; perhaps I shut my eyes to the truth for I always suspected His will. Then more light came, with a fierce shrinking from what I feared He wanted. But now, more especially lately, though I can never expect a perfect victory in this world, I feel He has broken down the defences of self-love and is reigning in my heart.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these notes in his diary on 7 May 1914 – 107 years ago today. 

Fr Doyle was always focused on sanctity and on doing God’s will, whatever that may be. From these notes in his diary it appears that, even after being ordained a Jesuit priest that he spent some time struggling with this, trying to discern very specifically what that holy will was. It also seems that he really knew deep down what God might specifically want from him, but that, despite all of his zeal, he was too afraid to acknowledge it. 

We will see tomorrow what he discerned God’s will to be for his life. For today, a couple of points jump out at us. 

I know He asked the striving for sanctity. If we are struggling to know God’s will, either in terms of a vocation or some other decision, we can be sure of one thing – God asks us to strive for sanctity. This search for sanctity is possible just where we are. Holiness is not something that we should procrastinate about, waiting for some imaginary perfect day. There is no such thing. God asks us to strive for sanctity now, and He has given us all we need for this in our present circumstances. 

Though I can never expect a perfect victory in this world. We will never perfectly succeed on this earth. Not even the greatest saints, apart from Mary, were completely free from sins or imperfections. There are two points to remember about this. Firstly, the inability to achieve perfection in this life does not negate our obligation to definitively strive for holiness as best we can. Secondly, the knowledge that we will never ultimately be perfect should help guard against the damage caused by scruples. 

Broken down the defences of self-love. Sin is always our preference for our own will and our own pleasure in contrast to the will of God. The spiritual life involves a fundamental battle between our disordered self-love and love of God and of neighbour. 

Tomorrow we shall look at the notes Fr Doyle wrote on 8th May 1914 in which he discusses his perception of God’s will for him.

Thoughts for May 6 from Fr Willie Doyle

Sometimes God seems to leave me to my weakness and I tremble with fear. At other times I have so much trust and confidence in his loving protection that I could almost sit down on a bursting shell feeling I could come to no harm. You would laugh, or perhaps cry, if you saw me at this moment sitting on a pile of bricks and rubbish. Shells are bursting some little distance away on three sides and occasionally a piece comes down with an unpleasantly close thud. But what does it matter? Jesus is resting on my heart, and whenever I like I can fold my arms over Him and press Him to that heart which, as He knows, beats with love of Him.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words in early May 1916. When he referred to Jesus resting over his heart, he was referring to the fact that he was carrying the Blessed Sacrament with him in a pyx.

Fr Doyle’s confidence in the midst of war was one of the most remarkable aspects of his life. His very presence filled the soldiers with courage and cheerfulness. As one of his officers said about him:

We cannot get him away from the line while the men are there, he is with his own and he is with us. The men couldn’t stick it half so well if he weren’t there.

Yet, this courage was not necessarily innate to him. His diaries reveal the fear he felt; they show that at times he shivered while he hid in a shallow hole, seeking protection from the shells falling around him. As a missionary priest he also suffered from fear, and describes sweating from every pore with the stress of preaching. It was so bad he was determined to quit his preaching ministry. Yet, curiously, despite his fear and stress, his ministry was fruitful and he was always in high demand. As a novice he had what is described as “a complete nervous breakdown” following a fire in his building. He had to leave his formation for a while and there was even talk of his not being fit enough to return to the Jesuits.

From a nervous breakdown to a fearless hero who was a source of inspiration to his soldiers – such is the transformation that Christ can work in us if we let Him.

But we must remember that grace builds upon nature. The grace of God will transform us, but we must dispose ourselves to receive this grace. This means saying no to ourselves, and fighting to overcome sin in our lives. Without this death to sin, we do not remain in Christ and He does not remain in us.

Today is also the feast of Blessed Ana Rosa Gattorno. She is little known in the English speaking world, but she deserves our attention. She lived a very full life as a wife and mother. But as a widow in her thirties she felt a call to found a religious order, and having received confirmation of this from several ecclesiastics, including Blessed Pius IX, she founded the Daughters of St Anne, Mother of Mary Immaculate. When she died 34 years later, there were 368 houses of this congregation containing over 3,500 sisters in 6 countries, along with numerous hostels and schools. What an incredible rate of growth!

Truly, if we remain in Christ, we will be transformed and bear fruit in plenty.

Blessed Ana Rosa Gattorno

Thoughts for May 5 from Fr Willie Doyle

Blessed Edmund Rice

Having completed his course of philosophy, Willie returned to Clongowes in 1901 for another period of prefecting. Here he remained for two years, and he was then transferred to the teaching staff of Belvedere College, Dublin, where he spent a fruitful year of labour. For, as the immediate preparation for the priesthood drew near, zeal for souls that was afterwards to become so strong and ardent, began now to show itself more markedly in his life. He did much good work for the Apostleship of Prayer and for temperance among the boys in Belvedere, with whom he was even more popular than among those he had left behind in Clongowes. The stirring little talks he gave occasionally to his class made an impression which some of his pupils still recall. Especially was he insistent on the spirit of self-sacrifice and on Holy Communion. His attractive character and kindness led many of the boys to give him their confidence and seek help and counsel in their difficulties and doubts; and more than one vocation was discussed and decided at these interviews.

COMMENTS: These words about Fr Doyle are taken from O’Rahilly’s biography of his life. Fr Doyle seems to have been a conscientious and popular teacher in the two Jesuit schools in which he was stationed during his years of formation. He realised that the task of Catholic education is not just to train children for jobs, but to shape and mould their character and to equip them for a future of personal virtue and civic service.

Today is the feast of Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice, the founder of both the Irish Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers. These congregations were formed to provide a specifically Catholic education for boys during the period immediately after the Penal Laws when there was little or no Catholic schooling in Ireland. Blessed Edmund’s contribution to Irish life is incalculable.

Thoughts for May 4 from Fr Willie Doyle

The more this generous spirit springs up in your heart, the nearer and dearer will you be to Jesus. Love for Love. Blood for Blood. Life for Life. Will you give Him all?

COMMENT: God has given us everything we have. The saints were profoundly grateful people – they knew the debt they owed to God. But more than this, they repaid that debt through their love, through their action, and, in some cases (including Fr Doyle himself), they repaid this debt with their own blood and their own lives.

St Therese and St Josemaria Escriva both made their own the famous phrase of St John of the Cross: “Love is repaid with love alone”. St Ignatius of Loyola tells us that love is more than nice feelings, rather, as he says:

Love is shown in deeds more than in words.

God has given us everything. While we can never really do enough to repay that debt, it seems very possible that we can end up doing far too little to repay it…

St John of the Cross: “Love is repaid by love alone”.

Thoughts for May 3 from Fr Willie Doyle

At the community Mass this morning I again felt an overpowering desire to become a saint. It came suddenly, filling my soul with consolation. Surely God has an object in inspiring me so often with this desire, and has great graces for me if I will only cooperate with Him.

Reflecting on this inspiration afterwards, I saw more clearly that the chief thing God wants from me at present is an extraordinary and exquisite perfection in every little thing I do, even the odd Hail Marys of the day; that each day there must be some improvement in the fervour, the purity of intention, the exactness with which I do things, that in this will chiefly lie my sanctification as it sanctified St. John Berchmans. I see here a vast field for work and an endless service of mortification. To keep faithfully to this resolve will require heroism, so that day after day I may not flag in the fervour of my service of the good God.

Thoughts for the Feast of St Joseph the Worker from Fr Willie Doyle

 

As you know I am very anxious to see these retreats started in Ireland, for I believe they would do a world of good and be the means of checking the dreadful irreligious spirit which is beginning to creep in even here in holy Ireland, especially among our uneducated men. … I am very grateful to you all for your good prayers; you must ask St. Joseph to find a suitable house now, for I feel if a start were once made all would be well…

For some time back I have been studying the question of retreats for workmen. But last year when I saw in Belgium the wonderful good brought about by them and had an opportunity of seeing some of the houses where these retreats are given, I made up my mind to try to do something here in Ireland.

COMMENT: The two paragraphs above are excerpts from 2 different letters Fr Doyle wrote to his sister in June and July 1909. They concern his great passion for establishing retreats for workingmen. Fr Doyle was an innovative apostle, and was in many ways a pioneer in the Church. Not only did he recognise the universal call to holiness and thus the need for lay people to have the opportunity of making a residential retreat, he was specifically concerned that workingmen should have this opportunity. Fr Doyle was greatly concerned about the spiritual and temporal welfare of workers, and he was concerned about the impact of radical atheistic and materialistic philosophies on workers. He wouldn’t live long enough to see the misery these philosophies unleashed on the world – he died two months before the October revolution in Russia, the after effects of which would cause much suffering for decades. In another letter to his sister on this topic in the autumn of 1909 he had this to say:

You may perhaps think I exaggerate when I say that if once these retreats are established they will do an amount of good which will surpass all expectations. It would seem to be the divinely appointed new remedy for a new evil, the falling away of the working classes from all religion and the spread of Socialism.

Fr Doyle worked hard to establish a retreat house – he travelled across Europe to learn how they had been established in other countries and he published a booklet entitled “Retreats for Workingmen: Why not in Ireland?” – the text can be found hereRetreats for working men

He managed to find donors but he still faced numerous hurdles. On one occasion a house that was perfect in every way was found and he was appointed director of the first retreat house for workers in Ireland. But alas, the house was burned down by suffragettes, and it was back to the drawing board.

Fr Doyle never truly gave up on the idea, despite the setbacks. At the end of 1914, 5 years after writing his pamphlet and a few months before he left for the war, he wrote the following in his diary:

I felt urged to promise our Blessed Lady to try and give up meat on Saturdays in her honour, if she in return will bring about the starting of the Workingmen’s Retreats this summer.

One of Fr Doyle’s inspirations in all of this was his friend and fellow seminarian, the English Jesuit Fr Charles Plater who established similar retreats in England. This is what Fr Plater had to say about Fr Doyle’s dedication to these retreats:

After he left Stonyhurst, and again still later when we were both priests, we corresponded much on the subject of workers’ retreats. His quick imagination pictured the immense good which might be effected by their introduction into Ireland. With his whole soul he threw himself into the work of promoting them. His letters are just himself — ardent, enthusiastic, full of piety and love of country. He would, I am convinced, gladly have given his life to see the retreats established in Ireland. He was acutely distressed because others could not see what he saw so plainly. He found it hard to be patient with those who urged expense as an insuperable obstacle, for he knew that once a start was made the money would come. The Island of Saints would not allow a School for Saints to suffer through lack of funds. “Why not in Ireland?” was the sub-title of his excellent pamphlet on Retreats for Workers, and his challenging question was really unanswerable.

There is only one possible memorial to Fr. William Doyle, and that is a house of retreats for workers in Ireland, That he would have asked for; indeed, we may be sure that he does ask for it. Those to whom his life of smiles and tears and his glorious death have been an inspiration will surely help him to get it.

Such a house was eventually opened in Rathfarnham in 1921, less than four years after Fr Doyle’s death.

It is appropriate to reflect on this passion of Fr Doyle’s life today, the Feast of St Joseph the Worker. This feast was instituted by Venerable Pope Pius XII in 1955 in an effort to emphasise the importance of work and to counteract the communist propaganda associated with May Day. This specific threat may have receded somewhat in recent years, but the very same atheistic, and anti-religious, philosophies still threaten religious faith and freedom in a variety of different ways.

St Joseph is an excellent patron for all of us who work. He can teach us to do our work well, not just counting down the hours of the working day, but instead turning our work into a fitting sacrifice to give glory to God.

We shall conclude today with the prayer of Pope St Pius X to St Joseph the Worker:

O Glorious St Joseph, model of all who are devoted to labour, obtain for me the grace to work in the spirit of penance in expiation of my many sins; to work conscientiously by placing love of duty above my inclinations; to gratefully and joyously deem it an honour to employ and to develop by labor the gifts I have received from God, to work methodically, peacefully, and in moderation and patience, without ever shrinking from it through weariness or difficulty to work above all, with purity of intention and unselfishness, having unceasingly before my eyes death and the account I have to render of time lost, talents unused, food not done, and vain complacency in success, so baneful to the work of God. All for Jesus, all for Mary, all to imitate thee, O Patriarch St Joseph! This shall be my motto for life and eternity. Amen