Annual Blessed John Sullivan SJ Mass

May 31, 2023 in News
Fr John Sullivan SJ

People came from around Ireland and further afield for the annual Mass of Thanksgiving for the life and work of Blessed John Sullivan SJ » in Clongowes Wood College on Sunday 7 May 2023. It was the first public Mass of Thanksgiving since the pandemic. Bishop Denis Nulty of Kildare and Leighlin diocese was the principal celebrant and gave the homily at the Mass.

A new icon of Fr John by Gerry Fagan, a parishioner of Clane, was anointed by the Bishop during the ceremony. Gerry Fagan wrote this icon as part of an icon workshop led by Mihai Cicu hosted by Clane parish last year.

In his homily Bishop Nulty prayed that “this icon, these crosses, and the records of Blessed John’s life in the healing stories of those around us, continue to inspire our devotion and prayer.” (Read the full homily below). There were four stations of blessing for those assembled during the celebration. Three had crosses associated with Fr John as Bishop Nulty explained in his introduction when he said, “There are three Crosses associated with the memory of Blessed John. Perhaps the most famous one is in Gardiner Street. This one is his mother’s, treasured by Blessed John and with him as he died; the second crucifix is here in Clongowes, it was the one that was in his hands when his body was exhumed and there is a third in Clane parish to reflect the many visits Blessed John made to the sick of the area, many of them in the environs of Clane and the surrounding parishes in Kildare & Leighlin as well as Meath and Dublin dioceses.”

For the first time, a new relic was offered in a blessing, a piece of his curly hair, cut when he was a child to make a bookmark. This was a common practice for the gentry at the time »

Bishop Nulty also noted in his introduction that whilst Conor Harper SJ, the former vice-postulator for Blessed John’s cause, was saddened that he could not attend the Mass this year they were all in good hands because (in his own words) “Cáit will look after everything”. Cáit Cullen is a local Clane woman who has tirelessly promoted the cause of Fr John and tended his ‘grave’ in Clongowes College, described by the Bishop as Fr John’s ‘spiritual home’.

Bishop Nulty thanked Cáit publically for her life devoted to Blessed John Sullivan. And also “Fr Michael Sheil, the Rector and the community for their very kind welcome and hospitality always here in Clongowes. I thank the concelebrating priests who join with us, and some who will assist with the blessing later with the Crosses associated with Blessed John.”

Saints Found in Unusual Places’

The Irish Catholic Directory is an invaluable publication of the history of appointments in the Catholic Church on this island. The earliest edition in Bishop’s House in Carlow dates back to 1866. When I looked up the 1909 edition to find out who was stationed here at Clongowes I read: “Rector, Very Rev. T. V. Nolan, S.J.; Minister, Rev. John Byrne S.J.; Rev./ Gerald Corr S.J.; Rev. J. Daly S.J.; Rev. C. Farley, S.J.; Rev. Henry Fegan S.J.; Rev. J. Elliott S.J.; Rev. George Roche S.J.; Rev. R. Goulding S.J.; Rv. J. F. O’Brien S.J.; Rev. John Sullivan S.J.; Rev. Charles O’Connell S.J.”[1].

Our Blessed John is named second from the end in the list of twelve serving in the community. We find saints in the most unusual of places. John was very junior then. Ordained on July 28th 1907 by Archbishop Walsh in the chapel at Milltown Park, John would not have been listed in the 1907 edition and Bishop’s House hasn’t a copy of the 1908 Directory but the 1909 edition clearly lists our Blessed John. We like to see things in print. It’s something to do with the tangible, being able to touch something that links us to those gone before us. And particularly so if its someone blessed like John Sullivan.

It was here in Clongowes that John would spend the lion’s share of his life as a priest from 1907-1919, with a break for one year, and later returning from 1924 until his death in 1933. John was baptised in St. George’s Church, a Protestant Church on George’s Place, adjacent to Eccles Street. While his mother was a devout Catholic, his dad was Church of Ireland and as of that time, the sons wear reared in their dad’s tradition, the daughters in their mam’s. Those of us who gather today are well familiar with the story of his conversion to Catholicism, but equally his respect for his Church of Ireland roots. As Archbishop Michael Jackson of Dublin and Glendalough suggests: “the John Sullivan phenomenon is a pointer to the holding together of difference: that it can signify respectful ecumenism, a form of spiritual reconciliation, in a post-Troubles Ireland”[2]. Yesterday’s Coronation at Westminster Abbey was spiritual to its core; I couldn’t help but think of the many Irish parents who worried in the past about their offspring emigrating to so-called ‘Pagan England’.

I mentioned the Crosses associated with Blessed John. The Gardiner Street Cross is the one associated with his mother. Remember her strong Catholic faith. It was a brass cross, nine inches long. He looked on it as he was dying. The second, a smaller one, was placed in his hands immediately after his death. When he was buried, it was buried with him, but when he was exhumed in September 1960, the Cross was removed from his hands and retained here for devotion by the faithful at Clongowes. And the third was one he brought with him in his ministry of healing and hope to the sick, the third cross is kept in Clane parish.

I often think the tangible is so important when we come to those whose lives inspire us, excite us, enthuse us. Seeing a record in an ancient directory, visiting his resting place, being blessed by one of the crosses associated with his life and death. Seeing, visiting, touching are so important to our life of faith. They were important to St. Thomas who didn’t believe until he would see the wounds of Jesus, “unless I can see in his hands the mark of the nails and put my finger in the marks of the nails … I will not believe”[3].

John’s gospel this afternoon takes up the moment after what is known as Jesus’ ‘farewell discourses’. The disciples don’t want to lose Jesus again. There is a palpable sadness and heaviness in the air. Jesus reassures them telling them not to be troubled, to trust in God and in him. He reminds them there are an abundance of rooms in his Father’s house.

A short few weeks ago Fr. Michael Drennan S.J. and a great friend of Clongowes died. He was a Pilltown man by birth, a Cats supporter to his core, but remembered more for the depth of faith he brought to guided prayer and spiritual direction. Mike was, like his brother Martin a great interpreter of God’s Word. He spoke with us as a body of priests and deacons several times during the pandemic on finding God in the wilderness. I imagine he would relish in the richness of today’s scripture. I remember him once telling me, Christ did not accommodate people, he met them where they were, but didn’t leave them there. And so, for a moment back to our gospel and to the new Testament scripture that precedes it.

Jesus is preparing his disciples and all of us for the coming of the Spirit. Ascension and Pentecost will be celebrated in the weeks to come. The words are quite mystical in their description of the union of Jesus with the Father and the Spirit, and our invitation to be part of that union. We meet Thomas again and Thomas and Philip speak. Both have history and Jesus knew that but lets them speak and then takes them the next step. I love that line in response to Thomas “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me”[4]. He doesn’t say I was the Way or I will be the Way, but I am the Way! Tense is so important in any language. This is the same Jesus who earlier in St. John reminded us “I am the bread of life”[5]. Jesus isn’t just the way; He is the only way! Jesus hears Thomas’ question, understands his question but moves him to a new place as the late Mike Drennan reminded me.

And then Philip wants some extraordinary manifestation, a sun dancing, a statue weeping, a miracle unfolding? Once again Jesus doesn’t just meet Philip where he was at, but brings him to a new understanding. Philip and all of us are reminded, we see God through Jesus and through one another.

We see God through Blessed John Sullivan. For him Jesus is the only Way, the only Truth and the only Life. After becoming Catholic this best dressed bloke in Dublin gave away much of his possessions. It was said by many that they thought he was more inclined towards the life of St. Francis of Assisi than St. Ignatius of Loyola. He chose the latter for his own reasons and that’s what brings us here today. Maybe as Church we need to become much more aligned with the poor, the downtrodden, the forgotten? It’s not always about wealth or possessions, it’s about attitude and focus.

For Blessed John it wasn’t just a wardrobe change, it was a complete metanoia. For those in what’s known as the ‘People’s Church’ today here in Clongowes, you are in Blessed John’s Church, the one he was most at home in, the one his ministry of prayer and personal holiness emanated from. We must continue our prayers for more miracles, more healings through Blessed John’s intercession.

I will now anoint a new icon, the work of Gerry Fagan, a parishioner of Clane. Gerry wrote this icon as part of an Icon Workshop led by Mihai Cicu hosted by Clane parish last year. May this icon, may these crosses, may the records we see of Blessed John’s life in the healing stories of those around us, continue to inspire our devotion and prayer. Amen.

Bishop Denis Nulty,

Clongowes Wood College,

7 May 2023.