John Sullivan SJ: a saintly priest whose story the world needs to hear

A drawing of Fr John Sullivan by Sean O'Sullivan. (Image: CNS, courtesy Irish Jesuit Communications)

Telling the tale of the saintly John Sullivan SJ’s life of heroic virtue could do some good to Ireland’s reputation. Were the life of this priest better known it would go a little bit towards counterbalancing the damage done to Ireland’s standing on the international stage by the clerical sex abuse committed by criminal priests.

John Sullivan SJ did not have the typical upbringing of an Irish Catholic, never mind an Irish Jesuit who voluntarily takes a vow of poverty. His father was a Protestant who was very rich and a highly esteemed barrister who housed his family in Georgian Dublin. John was raised Protestant, even though his mother was Catholic.

John Sullivan converted to Catholicism and was received into the Catholic Church in London’s Farm Street Jesuit community in 1896 when he was a 35-year-old barrister. Throughout all his years as a Jesuit, which were spent in County Kildare, Ireland, there was a touch of Pope Francis about him. He had tremendous affection for the poor, sourcing and making gifts of goods that for the impecunious were ‘luxury’ gifts such as tobacco, fruit, snuff and even drink so that they could have a wee dram.

I find it all the more noble that a cleric who came from such a privileged background was able to identify with the underprivileged people of Ireland in the early 1900s despite never having experienced their hunger pangs himself.

Yet the part I find most impressive is that as he aged and grew in holiness, more and more people spoke about the great efficacy of his prayers, especially for the seriously ill. A cleric who did not allow his ego to inflate with each favour granted by Heaven, he never claimed that his prayers were the reason for miraculous cures.

This week, I believe that praying to Blessed John Sullivan SJ won me a favour. I had been feeling anxious, but after inviting Blessed John Sullivan to pray for me, I felt my burden was lifted and I was granted a sense of serenity about the future.

John Sullivan SJ’s prayers were answered during his lifetime and now that people are praying to him and getting graces, the Vatican is putting him on the path to sainthood. If it is God’s will and if Blessed John Sullivan is a soul in Heaven, then the process of making him a saint will show that Ireland is capable of producing exceptionally kind-hearted, benevolent priests.