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Homily of Bishop Denis at Blessed John Sullivan Mass, 8 May 2021

Blessed John Sullivan Mass, Saturday 8 May from the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow.


John’s gospel on this Sixth Sunday of our Easter journey is saturated with an invitation ‘to remain in God’s love’. In doing so we get to a deeper understanding of a notion that has been with us since the moment of our birth and earlier conception – the notion of friendship.

The friendship of parents who brought us into the world; the friendship of a mother who nurtured us and nourished us; the friend we had on our first day of school; the friends we continue to have to this day. And on a much deeper level, the friendship we enjoy with the Lord. 

May 8th marks the feast of Blessed John Sullivan. It honours the date he came into the world: May 8th, 1861 – Blessed John Sullivan would have been 160 this day! A warm welcome to the many Jesuits and friends of Blessed John who join through the Cathedral webcam for this evenings Feastday Mass coming from the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow.

Pandemic restrictions determined that we could not gather as we usually would in our thousands in the Boys Chapel and surrounding concord at Clongowes Wood College or in St. Francis Xavier Church, Gardiner Street, Dublin. 

Blessed John Sullivan had a deep friendship with the Lord, everyone respects that. A friendship that was shaped by two faith traditions – Anglican and Roman Catholic.

When it comes to friendship with the Lord, as adults we realise how unworthy, how unearned, how unmerited that love is, that friendship is … let us call to mind our sins …


I don’t know what time you get out of bed in the morning, this morning for me and for many like me, was earlier than usual as we partook in a very wet but very important ‘Darkness into Light’. On most mornings I catch a nice slice of Shay Byrne’s ‘Risin’ Time’ on RTE Radio 1[1].

Often I’m early enough to hear the podcast ‘A Living Word’, sometimes reflective, sometimes over wordy or as the teacher might say sometimes: ‘it tries too hard to do what it does!’

Sometime past ‘A Living Word’ was presented by a First Communicant’s young mother, Rachel Hegarty. It was all about Cathal and Cathal could be and maybe is any of young children preparing to make their First Holy Communion in parishes right across our dioceses as the pandemic eases and restrictions lift. We all accept it may still be a few months away, but there is no expiry date on crystallising or cementing our friendship with the Lord.

Cathal, through his First Communion programme seems to have brought Rachel and her hubby back to some experience of faith. Will it last long enough until the Bouncy Castle is deflated? Will it last long enough until the spray tan fades? Will it last long enough to get as excited about the second, third and fourth communion? Time will tell, but we hope so.

160 years ago Blessed John Sullivan was born at 41  Eccles Street, Dublin, where his father had lived since the beginning of his 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, be raised a Catholic. But Blessed John being a boy was baptised in St. George’s Church on George’s Place, which adjoining Eccles Street. At that baptism his parents Edward and Elizabeth promised to do the best for their son. No more than the promises made by Rachel and her other half for little Cathal. No different than any parent who presents their little ones for the sacraments.

The Jesuit Fr. John Looby in his very well produced book celebrating the Beatification of John Sullivan pondered if John’s dad had been asked at the door of St. George’s Church in Eccles Street what he wanted for this son as he presented him for baptism on July 15th, 1861, what might he have said? Imagine if he said he wanted him to be a saint! It is the challenge of 2021, where do we find the Saints, the role models, the gentle, sincere examples today of heroic virtue and honour? Many may mention the young millennial Blessed Carlo Acutis who was a wizard on the computer and used it to as a tool to evangelise. Or Francisco and Jacinta Marto, two of the little children of Fatima.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Remain in my love”[2]. This is the invitation offered to all of us on this sixth Sunday in our Easter journey. This is in simple terms the road to sainthood, the journey of heroic virtue. it’s not complex.  Blessed John Sullivan heard those words and perhaps would have heard them in this very Cathedral on his way to the Courthouse in Carlow. There are various recollections of the young aspiring barrister appearing in the Court here in Carlow in company with Judge William O’Brien. While in Carlow he frequented regularly the Poor Clare’s. The great authority on Blessed John, the Jesuit Fergal McGrath recounts their receiving a gold ciborium and a sacristans manual from John Sullivan, on August 30th, 1900. Seven days later he would begin his Jesuit Novitiate in Tullabeg on September 7th, 1900. The ciborium is held with great pride by the Poor Clare community here in the town. Interestingly there is no trace left of the sacristans manual, although McGrath adds: “there was a touch of irony about the latter gift, for the sacristan of the time was a very vigorous lady who corrected the eminent lawyer-acolyte for some breach of the rubrics”[3]. Obviously Sullivan who had served four Masses that very day knew how to get his own back on the sacristan!

Unlike Carlo Acutus or the young Marto children at Fatima, Blessed John used the simple tools of being present with people in their moment of crisis. Amongst the many cures associated with Blessed John goes back to the spring of 1919, a woman living here in Carlow, whose son worked in Clongowes. She was very ill, facing serious surgery with a young family who still needed their mother. She wrote to her son, who was employed in Clongowes asking him to ask Father Sullivan to say Mass for her. He promised to say Mass the following day, adding “and she’ll, be all right in a few days”. The Mass was celebrated on a Tuesday and on the Wednesday morning she found the swelling had completely disappeared and there was no need for surgery. She lived for a further 21 years. This is one of many stories. And they are still happening today.

Blessed John Sullivan died in 1933. He was laid to rest in Clongowes for 27 years before being exhumed and resting today in a side chapel in Gardiner Street – but he really rests in the hearts of those who have deep faith in his power of intercession and healing. He was odd in ways, probably not the best in company. He preferred being on the sides rather than centre stage. And yet his relationship with God, his living of the gospel mandate: “you did not chose me, no, I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last”[4] has put him centre stage 160 years after his birth.

He bore that fruit on his bicycle visiting the sick and destitute around the roads of Clongowes. He bore that fruit in his witness to the students. They saw him maybe as a poor teacher but a holy man. He bore that fruit in his option to leave behind a lucrative professional career for a deeper calling. In the words of Blessed John: “God always leaves the door unlatched”[5]. It’s up to each one of us this Easter evening to push through that door and to remain in His love. 

[1] RTE Radio 1: Monday, May 7th – Friday, May 11th: 5.30am – 7.00am

[2] Jn. 15:9

[3] McGrath, Fergal: ‘Father John Sullivan S.J.’, Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd, London, 1941, pgs. 73-74.

[4] Jn.15:16

[5] McGrath, Fergal: ‘Father John Sullivan SJ’, Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd, London, 1941, pg. 219.