Photograph of Blessed John Sullivan with a bunch of white lillies in front

2022 Grateful 46: Bl. John Sullivan

Saints and their lives fascinate me. They’re like a throwback from better times. Saints, said St Theresa, are only sinners who keep on trying. They’re there to inspire us.

I was blessed by a man recently whose father had been taught by a saint. That turned the whole yesteryear thing on its head. This saint was alive in living memory. Well someone’s living memory.

Technically Fr Johnny is not a saint. Yet. He’s a Blessed, the penultimate step to sainthood in the Catholic church.

The term Servant of God is used in the first of the four steps in the canonization process [1960 for Fr John]. The next step is being declared Venerable, upon a decree of heroism or martyrdom by the honored [2014]. That is followed by beatification, with the title of Blessed [2016]. After the confirmation of miracles resulting from the intercession of the honored, the final step is canonization, where the honored would receive the title of Saint.

Born to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother in the late 1800s Dublin, John Sullivan was baptised protestant according to the norms of the days – boys took their father’s religion, girls their mother’s. But some years after his dad died, he crossed over. And later again, despite having been known as the best-dressed man in Dublin, he opted to join the Jesuits. I say despite but perhaps because! St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, had by all accounts been a bit of a dandy himself.

Fr John Sullivan SJ spent most of his priestly life teaching the boys in nearby Clongowes Wood College. I used to go there to play tennis as a kid (later, our village would get a tennis club of its own). I used to go there to play golf, too. Mam still does. I even went to one of their debs (a big school dance popular in Ireland in the final year of school). Clongowes is an all-boys school and one of the local parents asked my mother if I’d go with her son. I did what I was told. When I asked a bunch of the lads if they were concerned about their Leaving Cert, one of them said:

Clongowes isn’t where you went to get an education; it’s a place you go to make contacts for later life.

Whether the Jesuit teachers would have agreed I can’t say. It solidified the notion in my head (misguided or not) that it was a posh school for posh boys with monied parents. That’s said, their alumni list includes the likes of James Joyce, Oliver St John Gogarty, and Edmund Dwyer-Gray, 29th Premier of Tasmania. Leaf through their book of notable Clongownians – it’s worth a read. [I can’t remember if it was Charles Handy or Edward de Bono who spoke once about the ludicrousy of people wondering why so many bright people come out of Harvard or Yale? It’s because so many bright people go into those schools!]

More recent alumni of note include Michael O’Leary (RyanAir), Olympian Noel Purcell, and a host of Irish rugby players like Gordon D’Arcy, Tadhg Beirne, the Kearney brothers, and more. [Seriously grateful to the Jesuits for turning out those lads.]

I knew of course that Bl. John Sullivan had taught there and that the village had taken him in as our local saint. I hadn’t known though that when he embarked on the road to canonisation in 1960, his body was exhumed from the college graveyard to be reinterred in a specially built tomb in St Francis Xavier Church in Gardiner St., Dublin. Clasped in his hands, they found a crucifix with the body of Christ worn away, the crucifix he would take with him when he was visiting the sick. This is now used to bless people. The prayer said at the blessing invokes health and peace of mind.

At mass on 19 February, we had a visit from the current rector of Clongowes Fr Michael Sheil. [His dad is listed on p. 97 of the Clongownians of Distinction.] He was speaking to us on the 89th anniversary of Bl. John Sullivan’s death. He died on 19 February 1933. He shared with us some stories his dad had shared with him about his former teacher. There had always been something about Fr Johnny, as the boys called him. An otherness. A calmness. A holiness.

Fr Sheil told us of three miracles he himself had witnessed as a result of the intercession of Bl. John Sullivan: a man doctors didn’t expect to live till morning, another man whose chances of living after a bad car accident were just 10%, and an infant child who is now 14. All three received a blessing with the cross. All three are now alive and well, their testimonies no doubt part of the beatification process.

The road to sainthood is a funny one, though.

After you’ve been beatified you need a separate miracle, which happens afterwards, to become a saint.

Mam and me, we’re waiting for the miracle. Because when it happens, we’re off to Rome to witness the canonisation.

Grateful for the element of reality that Fr Sheil brought to the life of Fr Johnny. Grateful for the blessing. Waiting for the peace of mind.

If you’re in Dublin on the third Saturday of the month, pop along to St Francis Xavier’s Church for 1 pm mass and you can get a blessing with the cross afterwards.


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