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Bishop Denis’ Homily at Blessed John Sullivan Mass of Thanksgiving

Blessed John Sullivan Mass of Thanksgiving:                               12.05.24

3pm Mass – Clongowes Wood College


Last Wednesday was the birth date of Blessed John Sullivan. Our Mass in Clongowes marks that birthday, falling on the Sunday before or after May 8th. The February Mass in Gardiner Street honours his death, while the celebration here in Clongowes honours his birth. In someways our task as we gather, whether in Gardiner Street or in Clongowes is to fill in the gap, the dash, whatever we might call it – the time from his birth on May 8th 1861 to his death on February 19th 1933. 

It would be remiss of me at the outset of this Mass of Thanksgiving for the life and work of Blessed John, not to mention the late Fr. Conor Harper who himself entered eternal life on January 25th this year. I welcome members of his family who join us for this Mass. Fr. Conor filled in that dash, that gap, for all of us by making Blessed John’s life and witness so accessible in his role as vice-postulator for the cause. It’s our privilege to honour the late Fr. Conor as we gather this afternoon.

I thank as always 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, the Jesuit Irish Provincial Fr. Shane Daly SJ, Fr. Barney McGuckian SJ, Fr. Donal Neary SJ and Fr. Denis Harrington, Clane who will assist later with the blessing with the Crosses and relics associated with Blessed John. I thank all of you who have travelled a distance to be here this day to add your words of thanks for the intercession of Blessed John in your own life story.

The Feast of the Ascension celebrates Jesus going home to his Father’s house. It is his journey from this world to the next, a journey Blessed John Sullivan took. Let us pause a moment, that we in our weakness and brokenness, might also one day take be privileged to take that journey:

  • Is tusa Tobar na Trócaire – you are the wellspring of mercy: A Thiarna, déan trócaire. 
  • Is tusa Slí na Fírinne – you are the way of truth:  A Chríost, déan trócaire. 
  • Bí linn i gconaí, ós ár gcomhair amach – be with us always, showing us the way. A Thiarna, déan trócaire. 


The English writer Linda Ellis in 1996 wrote a reflective poem entitled ‘The Dash’. It carried a special appeal because of its adaptability to moments and situations where family were struggling to find the words to acknowledge those close to them, passed into eternity. Tucked into the middle of that 24 line composition are two verses:

for that dash represents all the time they spent

alive on earth and now only those who loved them

know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own, the cars …

the house … the cash. What matters is how we

live and love and we spend our dash[1]

For Blessed John Sullivan the dash stretches from May 8th 1861 until February 19th 1933. Born in Eccles Street and baptised in the Church of Ireland, the faith of his dad. Fergal McGrath SJ tells an interesting story[2] of some sort of skirmish during the burial of Blessed John’s great-grandfather in Mallow two hundred and ten years ago. His great-grandfather James Sullivan had been the steward to the owners of Mallow Castle. Brought up a Catholic, on his marriage in 1782 to a Protestant Mary Fitzgerald, he may have become Protestant himself at that time, allowing the children to be brought up Protestants.

James and Mary would go on to have twelve children in their marriage of whom ten survived. McGrath speaks of James’ death bed conversion and a reconciliation with his Catholic faith. They were very different times. The eighth of his twelve children was Edward, the grandfather of Blessed John. In 1822 Edward’s eldest son was born, also called Edward who would in time become the father of Blessed John. When it comes to matters of faith, we don’t need to scratch too far beneath the surface.

The length of ‘the dash’ in Blessed John’s life stretches for 72 years – 35 of them in the faith of his dad Edward, the Church of Ireland tradition; 37 of them in the Catholic faith, that of his mother Bessie. The dash will include his early years, growing up in comfortable surroundings in Eccles Street, Dublin. For those not over familiar with Dublin, the Mater Hospitals are on Eccles Street, indeed the new Respiratory Unit in the Mater was named recently[3] after Blessed John Sullivan. The family moved later to Fitzwilliam Place, his dad being the lord chancellor of Ireland. His years attending Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, where his brothers had all been educated.

The dash will include poignant moments of huge loss, like that of his brother Robert in 1877 in a boating accident at Killiney on Dublin Bay; his dad eight years later. The dash incorporates his years in Trinity College and later his legal studies in England, before being called to the English Bar in 1888. There is little known of how much legal work he did, but he is well remembered in these parts for his visits to the courthouses in Carlow and Naas. There is a silver ciborium in the Poor Clare’s in Carlow honouring his visits there later in life.

The dash is never just about dates in his life or anyone’s life, it is also about the many emotions, interactions, some of them perhaps unfulfilled that one experiences in life. For Blessed John, described by some as “the best dressed young man about Dublin[4], there was the sense that there was more to his life than his work as a court registrar on the Irish legal circuit.

Spiritually he was drawn to the Catholic faith. The dash will include his years of instruction, his reception into the Catholic Church in 1896, later entering the Jesuit Novitiate in 1900, ordained in 1907. His years here in Clongowes will form a large part of the dash, but the most important bit, is how the lives of the sick were touched by Blessed John. His ministry in these parts, no longer the best dressed man, but a recluse in many ways, who cycled and prayed, and whose journeys and prayers were never in vain.

Returning to the actual testimonies in the Positio that led to Blessed John being declared ‘Blessed’ in 2017, many of them refer to his care of the sick, his reputation for sanctity. He was declared a ‘Servant of God’ in 1960, 27 years after his death. He was declared ‘Venerable’ in 2014 and beatified, as I mentioned, in 2017. We must always remember what makes Blessed John special to us all and what leaves more room for our story in the dash of Blessed John Sullivan is his love and attention to the sick, the destitute, the broken that he came upon in his ministry as a priest.

Church processes need miracles to testify to someone’s sanctity; we need to continue our prayers for another miracle. Conor Harper if he was to speak here this afternoon, his appeal would be to keep up those prayers. This is a cause that both Church traditions, Church of Ireland and Catholic have reason to celebrate and promote. This is a cause that will keep the memory of Fr. Conor so alive to all of us.

There is an image of today’s feast, the Ascension, in the College Chapel of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth where I studied for seven years. The late Martin Drennan speaks of the striking feature of this image is how Our Lady is not looking towards her Son, as we might expect, but instead looking out towards us: “Jesus is ascending. Mary is telling us that from now on the place to look for him is in the hearts of his people[5]. The Ascension of Christ is about his coming closer to us, not about taking leave of us. We are not to stand there gazing or gawking, as so many Ascension images suggest, but to grasp that God is unimaginably closer to us than ever before.

Our God does not abandon us, he is closer to us than ever before. The Preface for today’s feast puts it beautifully: “he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we, his members, might be confident of following, where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before[6]. In simple language Blessed John would want us to know Christ is our companion as we live that dash between birth and death, before finally entering into the Father’s house.

Returning to those words of Linda Ellis:

for that dash represents all the time they spent

alive on earth and now only those who loved them

know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own, the cars …

the house … the cash. What matters is how we

live and love and we spend our dash[7]

[1] Ellis, Linda: ‘The Dash’, ©1996 Inspire Kindness, LLC,

[2] McGrath, Fergal: ‘Father John Sullivan SJ’, Longman’s, Green & Co., 1941, pg. 6

[3] 16th December 2023

[4] ibid, pg. 47

[5] Drennan, Martin: ‘Turning Wounds into Wisdom’, Dominican Publications, 2019, pg. 126.

[6] Preface 1 of the Ascension of the Lord, The Roman Missal, 2010

[7] Ellis, Linda: ‘The Dash’, ©1996 Inspire Kindness, LLC,