“The Gospel reading we have just heard reminds us of how central the care of the sick was in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus, in fact, reserved not just a special place for the sick, but caring for the sick became a pillar of his activity almost always accompanying his preaching of the Good News.
Everywhere Jesus went he preached the good news and he healed the sick. There is something fundamentally interwoven between preaching the Good News and the care of the sick. Wherever Jesus travelled, when the news of his arrival became known, they immediately brought out the sick so that he could touch them. A Church where the sick would feel marginalized or alone or forgotten, would not reflect the way the Good News was preached as Jesus did. There is a sense in which without that charism of caring for and embracing the sick we will never properly understand the Good News. Those who show a special charism for caring for the sick reflect a special closeness to Jesus.
The life of John Sullivan, who holiness we recall this morning, was marked in a special way by a great care for the sick. Reading his biographies is like reading a directory of the hospitals and the homes for the sick in the Dublin of his days. There was nothing that would hold him back from visiting someone who was sick and who had asked for his prayers. In his years in Clongowes he would travel by bicycle or on foot when he heard the news of someone who was ill. He was not a medical expert or a faith healer, but a man who through his own prayer and personal holiness was able to transmit to those he encountered something of the healing power and the Good News of Jesus Christ.
We gather to give thanks to God for the recent recognition by Pope Francis of the heroic virtues of this truly remarkable man.
Some would contrast the early life of this successful professional man, well well-known within the social circles of Dublin and London, “the best dressed man in Dublin” – as he was called – with the later image of a man totally detached from elements of luxury, in his food and in his lifestyle, and in the stark way he then dressed without any even minimal trace of personal indulgence. Yet right throughout his life you can see common qualities: that of sensitivity to the needs of others, a sensitivity to seeking what God was asking of him, a generosity which sought no recognition. The roots of his goodness were very deep and marked by a total lack of self-seeking. Indeed most of his good works were done in secret unknown to others.
He was a man who even at the height of his socialising and in the moments when he doubted and questioned never closed himself to the possibility of faith and of prayer. His seeking for God led him towards the Catholic Church and then towards priestly ordination, but he never renounced the initial formation he had received in the tradition of the Church of Ireland. Indeed some of the roots of his spirituality can be identified in a special way with his time at Portora Royal School.
We are all so happy that Archbishop Michael Jackson, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin and himself a past pupil of Portora is with us celebrating this morning and that he has followed with enthusiasm the path of the Roman process which has led to this day.
The holiness of John Sullivan was adapted and developed and deepened as his life progressed. John Sullivan was one who in his own time understood what many decades later the Second Vatican Council would call “the universal call to holiness”, that call to holiness which is the fundamental vocation of every Christian, whether lay or cleric. The presence of Archbishop Jackson and of some Anglican relatives of John Sullivan here this morning reminds us that holiness knows no denominational boundaries. Indeed in our ecumenical reflection and activity we pay too little attention to the fact that Saints can be a bridge between what is deepest and common in all our traditions.
Ecumenism is not the possession of theologians or activists. There is an important ecumenical transformation which comes through personal encounters with authentic Christians of other traditions. There is an important ecumenical transformation which comes through entering into the prayer traditions and the piety of other traditions. John Sullivan’s faith was the product of two traditions and always remained so and was enriched by that fact.
Most of his priestly life was spend among young people and he had a remarkable effect on their lives, as spiritual director, as a teacher and as someone who struck the young people, through the authenticity of his life as a priest and as a person, as being close to God. The former “best dressed man in Dublin” began to attract young people to Jesus Christ through a total renunciation of anything superfluous for himself, thus witnessing to nothing other than the care and loving kindness of Jesus. His deep prayerfulness in no way reduced his complete dedication to the regular duties of his ministry. If anything his renunciation of the superficial gave him the added energy which enabled him to a life of service way above the call of immediate duty. The radical renunciation which marked his spirituality led him not to any sense of isolation within his own personality or idiosyncrasies, as can often happen, but led him to be a witness of a truly caring person not looking for any reward and not counting his own energies.
In our times we worry the fact that our Churches have difficulty in reaching out to young people and helping them be fascinated by the person and the message of Jesus Christ. The life of John Sullivan teaches us that perhaps our Churches do not fascinate young people because we do not fascinate our young people with the way in which the radical holiness of John Sullivan did. We can so often get excited about programmes and strategies, and fail to realise that it is the integrity of our lives and piety which win hearts.
The fundamental message of Jesus remains as attractive today as at any moment in the past. “Everyone is looking for you”, we hear said in the Gospel reading. Yet Jesus wishes to move on. He realises that many were looking for him for the wrong reasons. He moved out in secret in the early morning not simply to get away from the pressure of the crowd, but to remind the crowd and all of us all of us that we need to find in our hearts the “lonely places” where we can set aside what is superficial and find ourselves and find God.
Having spent time in the lonely place, Jesus was refreshed and set out again from town to town preaching and healing. We pray that as we remember the unique holiness of Father John Sullivan we will be renewed in our search for holiness in our lives and in our desire to witness to the care and healing of Jess in our day and by the enthusiasm of our faith open the hearts of others, especially our young people, to the joy of the Gospel.”