Blessed Fr John Sullivan
Kildare has been doing well with the Vatican in recent times.
It is not that any of the popes of the modern era have taken a shine to the Lilywhites – although a miracle on the football field would always be welcome - rather that a Jesuit priest who lived in Clongowes in the 1920s and who was known for his holiness and his healing gifts among the community of mid-Kildare has been twice elevated by the Pope in a space of a mere eighteen months.
The Vatican does not dish out titles such as “Venerable” and “Blessed” lightly so it is a cause for remark when a person of holy repute is so honoured. And that was the reaction by many in mid-Kildare when news came through from Rome last week that Fr John Sullivan, SJ, College, had been elevated to the title of “the Blessed John Sullivan.”
After his cause for recognition had languished in the Vatican labyrinth for decades the progress of Fr. Sullivan through the ranks of holiness in the past has become nothing short of other worldly. In 1960 he had been declared “a servant of the people of God” which is the first of four stages on the road to canonisation. After that nothing was heard of his case for decades.
It was not until fifty-four years later that he was advanced to the second step and declared “Venerable” by the newly installed Pope Francis. And from there things began to accelerate – a little more than eighteen months later news has arrived of his being advanced to the third stage of holy recognition that of “Blessed”.
The fact that Fr. Sullivan was a member of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuit as is more widely used, and that the current Pope, Francis, is also a Jesuit must surely have something to do with such acceleration. That said, the Pope while no doubt feeling a fraternal sympathy with the Irish Jesuits (led by the indefatigable Fr. Conor Harpur) who are promoting Fr. Sullivan’s cause, is undoubtedly more impressed by the testimony of Fr. Sullivan’s manifest gifts of holiness and healing which were so valued by people of Clane and surrounding parishes and which are invoked to the present day in times of illness or distress.
Another remarkable dimension to the story of Fr. John Sullivan is the highly ecumenical nature of his legacy. He was born to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother and brought up in the faith of the former. His father was one of the highest law officers in Ireland holding the title of attorney general. He was educated in the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen. This Protestant context of his early life has seen him given recognition by the Church of Ireland in modern times and the current Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough, Dr. Michael Jackson has spoken of John Sullivan as an ecumenical inspiration.
As a young man he had followed his father’s footstep’s and trained as a lawyer but he decided on a change in direction. One day in 1900 without telling anybody he went to the Jesuit Church in Farm Street in London where he was received into the Catholic Church. That he was very serious about his conversion was clear when he declared that he wanted to study as a Jesuit priest.
Fr. John Sullivan was ordained a priest of the Society of Jesuits on the 28 July 1907. Most of his priestly life was spent in Clongowes but he was different from his confreres who concentrated on educating a new Irish political and business class within the college. Neither a noted preacher nor teacher, Fr. Sullivan found his vocation in ministering to the people who lived in the hinterland of the college. He soon became a familiar sight on the roads around Donadea, Rathcoffey, and Clane as he visited the homes of the ill and indigent.
As word of his healing gifts spread he was in demand from further afield with documented instances of people from the likes of Celbridge and Naas seeking him out in times of distress.
His only medicine was that of prayer and he was not always successful but he managed to bring consolation even to the incurable and such support was valued by the people in hard times.
A colleague Jesuit of a later generation, Fr. Fergal McGrath, S.J., published a biography of Fr. Sullivan’s life in 1945 and characterized his service to the people of mid Kildare in the following terms: ‘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.’
Among the cures attributed to Fr. Sullivan the cure of a young Michael Collins, three-year-old nephew of the patriot Michael Collins, and son of Mr. and Mrs. Sean Collins who were then living outside Celbridge. In October 1928 the boy was gripped with a spasm of infantile paralysis.
Declared incurable by the doctors, Fr. Sullivan was sent for. Suffice it to say that the young Michael Collins not alone made a recovery but went on to become a champion swimmer.
Fr. Sullivan’s memory is treasured by the people of the Clane and Rathcoffey areas and a Mass attended by hundreds is celebrated each summer in Clongowes as well as a monthly Mass in the Jesuit Church in Gardiner Street, Dublin.
Back in November 2014 when the Pope decreed Fr. Sullivan as being “Venerable”, this column remarked that it could be another fifty years before he would move to the next stage on the way to canonisaton. Now just eighteen months later the odds have greatly shortened.
And, who knows, but perhaps in another eighteen months, Kildare might well have gained a saint.