John Sullivan SJ returns to Farm Street Church
Church of Ireland Archbishop Michael Jackson was guest speaker at the unveiling of a portrait of Blessed John Sullivan SJ in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, London. It was the church in which Blessed John Sullivan was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1896. There is now a space dedicated to him there, where people can go to pray and reflect on the life of this Jesuit who has touched the hearts of people around the world, some of whom attribute cures and healings to his intercession.
The unveiling of a print of the iconic portrait of Fr John by artist Sean O’Sullivan took place after 11 a.m. Mass in the chapel on Sunday 5 November 2023. British Jesuit Fr Dominic Robinson welcomed the Archbishop and other invited guests, including the Irish Socius, Terry Howard SJ, and members of the Lloyd family, relatives of Fr John Sullivan, living in London.
Fr John’s father, Sir Edward Sullivan, was the Lord Chancellor in Ireland from 1883-5 and a Protestant. His mother was a Catholic. John was brought up in the Protestant faith and converted to Catholicism at the age of 35. His reception into the Church at Farm Street took place on the day of the winter solstice, 21 December 1896. He was received by Michael Gavin SJ, a Jesuit from Limerick.
Speaking after Holy Communion, Archbishop Jackson said that he was inclined to think that one way to understand John Sullivan is as a proto-ecumenist. He explained:
Of course, he lived before Vatican II and before so much of what we all take for granted as full-bodied ecumenical life across the Christian churches. But he lived half of his earthly life as a member of the Church of Ireland and half as a member of the Roman Catholic Church, being received into the Roman Catholic tradition here in this place. This journey, this peregrinatio, is an ecumenism in itself. It deserves to be honoured as such. During the second half of his life, he did not reject the first half – and this is the key issue at play here.
Blessed John Sullivan SJ was born on May 8, 1861, in Dublin, Ireland, and died on February 19, 1933. He joined the Jesuits a few years after his conversion. After his novitiate in Ireland, he was sent to Stonyhurst College SJ in Lancashire, England, to study philosophy.
Because, as Archbishop Jackson noted, half of his life was spent as an Anglican and half as a Roman Catholic he is often referred to as a ‘bridge between the two traditions’. Indeed, the Church of Ireland, along with Archbishop Michael Jackson, has played an important role in the beatification process of the man who they see as also their saint. Fr John himself was known for his ecumenical approach, extending compassion and support to people of various denominational backgrounds or none.
But he is particularly known for his ministry of healing and love of the poor. He was devoted to the sick and the suffering, often visiting hospitals and cycling or walking long distances to do so. He was a man of deep prayer and his life was a simple and ascetic one, with little personal comforts.
Blessed John Sullivan died in 1933, and his reputation for holiness that he had during his lifetime continued to grow. In 2016, Pope Francis approved a miracle attributed to his intercession, leading to his beatification on 13 May 2017, in Dublin, Ireland. He is now referred to as Blessed John Sullivan, and his life serves as an inspiration for those seeking a path of holiness, service, and ecumenical outreach within the Church.
Archbishop Jackson, in his address, also focused on the theme of the ‘household’, including the household of God. He quoted a Collect prayer from an older version of the Book of Common Prayer: Lord, we beseech thee to keep thy household the Church in continual godliness; that through thy protection it may be free from all adversities, and devoutly given to serve thee in good works, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. He went on to note that
Many of the qualities and characteristics of John Sullivan, whom we honour today and in whose name we dedicate a room in this very household of Farm Street, shine through the words of this chance Collect. He was renowned for his devotion to God through the church; he was renowned for his care and attention to the poor people of rural Ireland in particular; he was renowned for devoted service in every part of his life. We are invited in the Collect to follow in his path of faith.
Commenting on the dedication ceremony, Irish Socius Terry Howard said, “It was a privilege to represent the Irish Province at the event and in particular to represent the postulator for Fr John’s cause, Conor Harper SJ, known so well to Archbishop Jackson and the Lloyd family. Indeed the Archbishop has become a good friend of the Jesuit community in Ireland. We look forward to continuing our relationship with him and the Lloyd family into the future.”
During his lifetime many flocked to Fr John in times of trouble and anxiety, confident of the power of his prayers – and that confidence continues. There is a steady stream of visitors to his coffin shrine in Gardiner St Church and to his former grave in Clongowes Wood College, from which his body was disinterred and brought to the city centre location as devotion to him grew. He is still loved and remembered.
Fr Howard also welcomed the fact that the dedication of the room in Farm St Church, with the portrait of John Sullivan gifted by the Irish Jesuits, raises the profile of his connectedness to England and offers Christians there a dedicated space in which they can pray to him.
Read the full text of Archbishop Jackson’s address below.
Blessed John Sullivan SJ -‘Proto-Ecumenist‘
It is always an honour and a pleasure to be invited to attend and to address a group of people gathering to worship God and to honour the life and the memory of John Sullivan SJ. I look forward to doing this in The Jesuit Church of St Francis Xavier in Gardiner Street in Dublin in February of each year when there is a pilgrimage for many from right across Ireland and for members of the Sullivan family. Gardiner Street is where the mortal remains of Father John Sullivan SJ are enshrined.
The formal act of worship along with the more informal gathering of people in overcoats and anoraks, in trainers and in walking shoes, with hastily hidden umbrellas more often than not, which follows the service itself, clustering around the shrine as we approach noonday, is a poignant reminder of veneration and esteem. It reminds us also of the essential humanity and absence of pretension of the man himself.
John Sullivan was clever and humble, faithful and altruistic, on the side of those who had no voice and little advocacy. These values equipped him well to be a Soldier of Christ in the Jesuit Order. It is, therefore, a similar honour and pleasure to be in The Church of The Immaculate Conception, Farm Street this morning at your invitation, a church renowned for its critical vigour and expansive compassion along with its expression of good liturgy. I must also record my thanks to Father Conor Harper SJ and all the Jesuits in Ireland for their friendship, their generosity and their constancy.
I am inclined to think that one way to understand John Sullivan is as a proto-ecumenist. Of course, he lived before Vatican II and before so much of what we all take for granted as full-bodied ecumenical life across the Christian churches. But he lived half of his earthly life as a member of the Church of Ireland and half as a member of the Roman Catholic Church, being received into the Roman Catholic tradition here in this place. This journey, this peregrinatio, is an ecumenism in itself. It deserves to be honoured as such. During the second half of his life, he did not reject the first half – and this is the key issue at play here.
It is for this reason that I take as a basis of a short reflection every time I am invited to speak on an occasion like this something from the heartbeat of the Anglican tradition and to present it as an offering in a thoroughly Roman Catholic and ecumenical act of worship. That is the relevant Collect from the Book of Common Prayer. Such a Prayer Book would have been used for worship throughout his time in Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, where John Sullivan was a pupil, as were many boys from the Dublin of his generation who went there for a Classical education.
Of course, the onward march of ecumenical life has given us a Common Lectionary and mutually compatible Collects in both of our traditions. In the face of our continuing divisions, this affords us a spiritual and unbreakable togetherness being one in Christ as The Father and the Son are One. We are called to live in the divinity at the heart of our humanity. Today is The Fourth Sunday before Advent. We are encouraged to change gear in preparation for the mordant voice of John the Baptizer: Prepare ye the way of the Lord! In the older Book of Common Prayer in the Anglican tradition, it is The Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity. I offer The Collect for that day to you today:
Lord, we beseech thee to keep thy household the Church in continual godliness; that through thy protection it may be free from all adversities, and devoutly given to serve thee in good works, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
A Collect creates a focal point for those who worship. Its purpose is to enable them to grasp in ecclesia and then to leave in persona with a single, simple idea, often a single word. It facilitates concentration as we move directly into the space already occupied by God ahead of our own spiritual arrival there and as we weave together the pieces of our own lives into a honeycomb with the life of God as we intuit that life of divine being. The concept of a gathering prayer is common to every Christian tradition. Its expression can be developed and expanded a bit like a piano-accordion, depending on the immediate and direct experiences that we, the worshippers, bring to our engagement with it.
Here the single idea is that of household. We are transported into the nuclear community of human identity and solidarity and, by extension, into the ecology and the economy of all life which surrounds us and to which we belong and with which we are interdependent. We are today all in it together. The psalmist long before the verbal dexterity of Thomas Cranmer took us to the heart of the relationship between the household and God, in psalm 127.1 and 2: Except the Lord build the house: their labour is but lost that build it. Except the Lord keep the city: the watchman waketh but in vain.
What this adds to our own understanding of the household is that the whole experiment of human community is fruitless unless the Lord both builds in proactive forethought and protects in sleepless care. This is hammered home by the twice-iterated use of the Latin word: nisi/except. If we set the Lord at the heart of the household, then the Lord will oversee, uphold and sustain the lives of its inhabitants whether they be asleep or awake at any given time. This is a powerful and an energetic portrait of God. It is one that commends itself to every generation of Christians because it gives cohesion to our vision, content to our ideals, context to our actions.
The household of the Church needs to keep a clear head and needs to develop an equally clear focus. The fruit of divine protection is not solely freedom from all adversities but also devout self-giving to serve God in good works. The household is not being encouraged to close its doors and windows against the outsider but actively to go outside and do something.
In the spirit, therefore, of The First Letter of Peter chapter 2.4 and 5: So come to him, to the living stone which was rejected by men but chosen by God and of great worth to him. You also, as living stones, must be built up into a spiritual temple, and form a holy priesthood …the accepted are those who follow the rejected. This is quite revolutionary. It is not that values are turned upside down. It is that an upside-down world is acknowledged, stabilized and redeemed by God for God. This is the radical response of the disciple to the radical Master.
So, what about us? We are invited to open our hearts to being this particular type of household, whether we live in family, in community or on our own. Many of the qualities and characteristics of John Sullivan, whom we honour today and in whose name we dedicate a room in this very household of Farm Street, shine through the words of this chance Collect. He was renowned for his devotion to God through the church; he was renowned for his care and attention to the poor people of rural Ireland in particular; he was renowned for devoted service in every part of his life. We are invited in the Collect to follow in his path of faith. And we are invited to do so at the very point when we prepare to move imaginatively from the green Season into the Season of Advent. The stable of Bethlehem will once again draw us to God Incarnate, as heaven and earth come together in little space in our annual remembrance of Christ at Christmas.
We live in days and times different from those of Thomas Cranmer and of John Sullivan SJ. Their influence still impacts us nonetheless in both church and society. Their words and actions still inspire us. So many people speak of the untold and unselfconscious acts of charity performed by Father John Sullivan. Connection and generosity, faithfulness and reconciliation were his lifeblood as indeed they are and always have been the essence of God. It is in such a spirit that we are invited and called to walk as the household of the Church on this day when we honour him as a child of God and as a proto-ecumenist. And we do so in the place where he made his generous commitment to the Christian Church and to the world of God’s creation in the Roman Catholic tradition.
The Most Reverend Dr Michael Jackson, Archbishop of Dublin
John Sullivan Commemoration Farm Street Church, London
Sunday 5 November,2023.