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Homily of Bishop Denis at Blessed John Sullivan Birthday Anniversary Mass 07.05.22

Fourth Sunday of Easter – Year C

6.15pm – Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow – Blessed John Sullivan Birthday Anniversary Mass


We gather on Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter – Vocations Sunday. Ar dtús báire, ba mhaith liom míle bhuíochas a gabháil le gnáth-phobal an Aifreann Gaeilge, who normally have an entire Aifreann as gaeilge this Vigil evening. Thank you for allowing us to mark the Birthday Anniversary Mass for Blessed John Sullivan. I am delighted to welcome all who have travelled a journey to be with us for this evenings celebration – Fr. Barney SJ, Fr. Donal SJ (representing the Jesuit Provincial), Fr. Paul (Clane) and all of you including the many joining us on webcam. I include and greet Fr. Conor Harper and Fr. Michael Sheil. I am delighted that both Fr. Barney and Fr. Donal has brought the two Blessed John Sullivan Crosses very much associated with him, which I look forward to blessing you with, at the end of our Mass.

Normally we would be gathered in Clongowes Wood College for this celebration but just like last year, it was decided to offer this Mass streamed from the beautiful Cathedral of the Assumption here in Carlow. We gather on Good Shepherd Sunday. The image of the ‘Good Shepherd’ is one that speaks volumes to all of us.

The Shepherd continues to call His sheep. Blessed John Sullivan’s call was unique. Nurtured in the Anglican tradition, he felt drawn to our Catholic faith because of the example of his mother and her prayers, and the many religious he met on his legal journeys around Ireland. Among those religious were the Poor Clares here in Carlow!

The call to take up a Priestly Vocation; the call to become a Religious; the call to enter Community life is still made today, but maybe we don’t recognise that call, those promptings, ach caithfimíd bheith ag éisteacht i gcónaí. We pray for God’s love, God’s mercy and God’s Spirit to allow us simply to be open and responsive to that call …


“The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice.” Listening is critical. The Universal Church for the past number of months has embarked on a synodal journey, asking simple questions around the joys, the pains and the hopes we all have for our Church today. Thank you for engaging in this journey. Today our team tasked with facilitating our diocesan synodal journey are taking a day to reflect on the many submissions to this journey but doing so in a spirit led context.

Let’s return to that area of listening. Sometimes we are not the best listeners. When someone speaks, we can’t wait our turn, even if it’s not our turn, to throw in our tupence hapenny worth! We are invited by the Lord so often in life, simply to listen. This night week the Eurovision Song Contest final will be held. Fifty years ago our first and only Irish entry sung by Sandie Jones was ‘Ceol an Ghr’. It began: “Éistigí, Éistigí, cloisim arís, sin ceol an grá”.

Pope Francis offers us a frame for this listening – he is a master of the simple refrain, remember his message to families at the World Meeting in Dublin – the three most important words: “Please, Thanks, I’m Sorry” (“Más é do thoil é”; “go raibh maith agat” agus “tá brón orm”). Well his refrain for our journey of synodal listening is “See, Judge & Act”.

We are not the best candidates at seeing or sometimes even stepping back and making a judgement call; often we jump in too quickly to act! In good conversations, and there have been and will be many during this synodal journey, there is often a healthy tension that we must live with, a tension that allows all voices to be heard, especially those we perhaps most ardently disagree with. This is the real synodal journey.

Blessed John Sullivan’s synodal journey began the day he was born on May 8th, at 41 Eccles Street, Dublin, where his parents had lived since the beginning of his dad’s legal career. His dad was Church of Ireland; his mother Roman Catholic. Apparently his mum wept at his birth, hoping and praying for a girl, who could, as practice dictated at that time, be raised a Catholic. But Blessed John being a boy was baptised in St. George’s Church on George’s Place, adjoining Eccles Street. At that baptism his parents promised to do their best for their son. At every Confirmation Ceremony I love that moment when the young candidate stands on their own two feet and owns the promises made by parents and god parents at baptism. Blessed John’s life would take many turns.

In 1896, the thirty-five year old barrister was received into the Catholic Church at London’s Farm Street Jesuit Community. In 1900 he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Tullabeg, Tullamore ordained a Jesuit priest in Milltown Park in 1907. It seems his Jesuit leaning might not have been always his first choice. Fergal McGrath speaking in his authoritative work on John Sullivan says: “John Sullivan’s first leanings were towards the Franciscan Order, no doubt owing to his love of poverty, he frequently visited the Capuchin Friary at Church Street” .

The ream of documents and testimonials that make up the 700 page Positio that led to his Beatification in 2017, has testimonies of those who saw John Sullivan as “a poor man among the poor”, as “the personification of the spirit of poverty”. While his was a wealthy and well-endowed background, once he became a religious he was oblivious to comforts and contented himself with that which was purely necessary. Bhí ana-mheas ag muintir Cill Dara air. Chreid siad gur fear íseal uasal a bhí ann, sagart a bhí lán de ghrá Dé.

So how did John Sullivan listen to hear God’s call? How did he make that transition in his professional and personal life? How did he and how do any of us hear it on this Good Shepherd Sunday? An tAthair John heard that call through the sick he attended on his bicycle across north Kildare. He heard the call through his mother, who never stopped praying for him. And he heard it through his own listening, his own ag éisteacht le focal Dé, listening to God word.

Locally he listened to God’s word through his acquaintance with the Poor Clares. His early legal work brought around Ireland and indeed here to Carlow Court House. When the Poor Clares moved to their new convent in 1900 from their earlier house at Graigue Bridge, John was by then very familiar with them and came to Carlow for the occasion. He served four farewell Masses, presenting them with a gold ciborium and a Sacristans Manual. Apparently the sacristan of the day had reproached John Sullivan for some minor misdemeanour, maybe he missed ringing the bell at the proper time, but you couldn’t but feel here was John Sullivan getting his own back! Even the Saints know how to rile people!

The Cross of Blessed John Sullivan continues to be that instrument that attracts so many still to his healing and intercession. I think of the petitions and intentions sent to me during the week. The Cross for all of us is Christ, the Risen One who lives among us and allows us to travel our synodal journeys. A Athair John Beannaithe, guí orainn. Blessed John, pray for us. Amen