"An exemplary religious" Cardinal Amato on Bl John Sullivan SJ

Published on 18 May 2017

Conversion is a fundamental event in the life of the Christian.  The Gospel of Mark opens with the exhortation of Jesus to conversion: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15).  The Gospel of Matthew also affirms that “Jesus began to preach and to say: ‘repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand’” (Mt 4:17).

In the final analysis, conversion is the message of Jesus at the end of his earthly mission.  The Risen Christ, in fact, appearing to the Twelve, reminds them that “in His name conversion and forgiveness of sins will be preached to all peoples” (Lk 24:47).

Conversion is an essential part of the Christian life.  It was also that for Blessed John Sullivan (1861 – 1933).  Rooted in a deep spirituality already as a young Anglican, he sought and journeyed in his faith and in his life.  He had a deep appreciation of the Scripture which was nurtured from an early age in his school at Portora and inspired within the rich faith life and prayerful tradition of his Anglican formation.  After having been received into the Catholic Church on the 21st of December 1896 in London, a double radical conversion is noticeable in him.  The first was that he chooses to become a Jesuit.  On the 17th of September 1900, in fact, he enters into the novitiate of the Irish Province of the Society of Jesus, becoming a priest a few years later on the 28th of July 1907.  The second conversion occurred when, obeying the call of grace, he dedicated all his strength to reaching evangelical perfection in the heroic exercises of the Christian virtues.

Father John Sullivan was, in fact, an exemplary religious.  There are two virtues that characterize more precisely consecrated life: poverty and obedience.  After he became a religious, the new Blessed was rigorous in his observance of poverty.  Witnesses in the Diocesan Process often repeat that Father Sullivan was “a poor man among the poor”, “the personification of the spirit of poverty”.  Even though he came from a rich family, once he became a religious he was oblivious to comforts and contented himself with that which was purely necessary.  Faithful to the vow of poverty, he gave immediately to others every gift he received.

One witness describes the Franciscan nature of the furniture in his room: “At Clongowes, the Servant of God had, as his furniture, a hard wood chair, a broken pitcher, a kneeler, some books, a holy water font, his crucifix from which he was inseparable, a little table and the bed with few covers, even when the weather was colder”.

Poverty distinguished his clothing: “His shiny and discoloured cassock, his patched jacket, his torn shoes and his old hat evidently testify to his spirit of poverty; although mended and torn, his clothes were, however, clean; he was always orderly”.  Another witness adds: “I never saw him with new clothing”.

In this Father Sullivan imitated his founder.  In the Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius of Loyola writes: “In order to imitate and to resemble more effectively Christ Our Lord I want and I choose poverty with the poor Christ, rather than wealth; insults with Christ, who is filled with them, rather than honours; and I prefer to be esteemed as stupid and crazy for Christ, who was the first to be so considered, rather than wise and prudent in this world.”

To this rigid poverty he joined a perfect obedience.  He showed great respect for his superiors and spontaneously and faithfully followed the slightest order.  He often repeated: “I ask myself what would Father Provincial say and do now”.  His obedience was quick, absolute and unconditional, even when the final decision differed from his own.  He was a model religious.  One witness affirms: “The Servant of God had a great love for the Society and for its Rules: to us Novices (during the Spiritual Exercises) he emphasized the importance of the exact observance of the Rules”.

The cross of Bl John Sullivan SJThe spirit of poverty and obedience made easy his exercise of humility.  When he entered the novitiate, Father Sullivan was already a mature man, having had a brilliant career as a solicitor and a knowledgeable man.  His novitiate companions, for the most part young men of 17 and 20 years of age, were impressed by the complete absence of any feeling of superiority in their regard and by the simplicity with which he accepted even the most humble house-tasks.  He did nothing to place himself in the limelight, but rather often displayed his inadequacy for the offices he received.

He accepted the criticisms and the offenses of another.  He was aware of not being a great orator.  He did not have a clear pronunciation and he tended to speak rapidly.  Nonetheless, all recognized his sincerity and the conviction of his exhortations to virtue.  One day, while he was visiting a sick person, the pastor arrived who signalled him to leave, fearing a dangerous opponent in the ministry.  Upon his brusque command, Father Sullivan knelt down and asked forgiveness.  The pastor was profoundly moved.

The choice of consecrated life was for our Blessed the choice of evangelical perfection, the choice of holiness.  The thirty-three years lived as a Jesuit were a time of heroic exercise of the virtues, of faith, hope and charity.   One witness affirms: “Those who know him considered him a saint […].  In my opinion, he had reached a high degree of perfection”.

Conversion to Catholicism, the choice of consecrated life and of the priesthood were the fruit of this profound faith developed by prayer, penance and great charity.  He prayed a great deal and with intensity.  Often he prayed fully prostrate on the ground, groaning like Christ on the cross.  He made frequent visits to the Most Blessed Sacrament and passed a great deal of time kneeling in front of the Tabernacle.

This devotion to the Sacred Heart, characteristic of Jesuit spirituality, opened him to a more ready charity towards all, great and small.  He was gentle, patient, a servant of all and good.  He recognised the merits of others and never pronounced a negative judgement about his neighbour. 

Father Sullivan led a simple and reserved life.  He did not have – his biographers say - the possibility of performing outstanding deeds.   Nevertheless, he was constant in the daily exercise of the little virtues such as patience, thankfulness and gentleness.  He was tireless in helping the poor, the sick and the suffering.  He rode miles and miles on his bicycle to assist needy farmers. Near the College there lived all alone a poor woman who was handicapped.  He brought her Holy Communion every day for a very long time.

The workers of Clongowes considered him a person of exceptional holiness because of the assistance he gave them in times of sickness and of problems.  He used to visit the sick and the poor, impervious to the bad weather and to the rain.  He gave alms to the needy and bought them food from the stores.  Upon his death, a young girl remarked: “Today, the poor have lost a great friend”.

Father Sullivan was also solicitous for the spiritual health of his neighbour.  He taught catechism to wandering workers and to uneducated gypsies.  He often invited them to church and, after the lesson, he heard their confessions and refreshed them with a meal.
His confessional was always surrounded by groups of penitents who found in him comfort, forgiveness and encouragement to virtue.  He preached with fervour the Spiritual Exercises.  When he was in charge of the house of exercises he often served at table.

His apostolate of charity towards the needy of every kind was timeless.  Holiness, in fact, succeeds in alleviating the needs of the poor before all earthly justice.  Charity, in fact, is the precursor in the discovery of new forms of poverty that afflict humanity in every time and every place.

Here is why today, the Church raises to the honours of the altars, Father John Sullivan.  He was a faithful disciple of Christ.  On his face shone the love of the Risen Once and the unlimited goodness of his heart.  One can never exaggerate in charity.  Holiness is, in fact, always a blessed exaggeration of goodness, of mercy and of love.

Today the Church needs holy priests and lay people.  Father Sullivan invites all to conversion to goodness.  He speaks to us of the recommendation made by Sirach: “Do not delay turning back to the Lord and do not put it off day after day.  For suddenly his wrath will come and at the time of vengeance you will perish” (Sir: 5:7).

It is the lightness of goodness that will save the world and free humanity from the weight of selfishness and of evil.  Charity is the essence of Christianity.  To live without charity is like ascending to heaven without a ladder.

Blessed John Sullivan pray for us.