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Venerable John Sullivan honoured in Christ Church Cathedral

Brian O’Leary SJ describes a remarkable happening in Dublin last Sunday

Choral Evensong is the jewel in the crown of Anglican liturgical worship. Each Sunday this beautiful service is celebrated in Christ Church Cathedral, the mother church of the diocese of Dublin and Glendalough. What made the occasion special on Sunday, 14th June, was that it became the context for honouring Fr. John Sullivan S.J. (1861-1933), recently declared Venerable by Pope Francis. This has put him on the road to beatification and eventual canonisation.  John was born into an Anglican family and baptised at St. George’s parish church in inner-city Dublin (no longer in use). He became a Roman Catholic at the age of thirty five and later entered the Society of Jesus. Most of his life as a Jesuit was spent in Clongowes Wood College.

John’s heritage is therefore twofold: Anglican and Roman Catholic. Both churches played a role in his spiritual development and both want to honour him now. Sunday was the opportunity for the Church of Ireland to take the lead, but the attendance, clergy and lay, was truly ecumenical. Both Dublin Archbishops were present. The packed Cathedral hosted the Headmaster, along with present and past pupils of John’s alma mater, Portora Royal School in Enniskillen. They mingled with the Headmaster, along with present and past pupils of Clongowes Wood College. The congregation also included members of the Cathedral parish as well as friends and associates of the Jesuits.

The Jesuits had been informed beforehand that a special place would be reserved for them in the Cathedral. What in fact occurred was much more satisfying. The Jesuit priests who wished to robe did so in the sacristy alongside their Anglican counterparts. Together, in twos, they participated in the ceremonial entrance procession through the Cathedral and together they sat in the sanctuary throughout the service. As the Anglicans wore albs and stoles similar to the Catholic style there was no way to distinguish priests of one denomination from those of the other. This arrangement was both appropriate and symbolic. Other Jesuits chose to remain among the congregation. In all about thirty attended.

Dr. Diarmuid Martin gave a brief address at the beginning of the service, recalling the significance of the ecumenical gathering and the witness offered by John Sullivan. Then Evensong itself unfolded with its psalms, scripture readings and canticles, all taken at an unhurried pace. The Christ Church Chamber Choir sang polyphonic music by William Byrd and Henry Purcell as well as leading the congregational hymns. The sermon at Evensong always comes towards the end of the service, and when the time came the Anglican Archbishop, Dr. Michael Jackson, ascended the pulpit.

Dr. Jackson spoke with a marked warmth of John Sullivan and of how the two traditions that he represented look to him as a model of personal holiness and of humble, priestly service. He had first come to learn about John Sullivan during his own schooldays in Portora. In fact he has a preference for referring to him as John Sullivan, O.P.S.J. (Old Portora and Society of Jesus)! Dr. Jackson also referred with great appreciation to three other Jesuits who had influenced him in important ways: Fr. Michael Hurley, R.I.P. (ecumenist), Fr. David Tuohy (educationalist), and Pope Francis. The full text of this sermon is available here.

After the final procession of choir and clergy the congregation sat to listen to a sonorous organ voluntary that filled the high-vaulted building. Then it was time for refreshments which were served both within the Cathedral (at the west end of the nave) and also, since the sun was shining, in the cloister garth outside. The atmosphere was relaxed and convivial.

Much gratitude and admiration must go to Fr. Conor Harper, Vice-Postulator of the Cause of Fr. John Sullivan, who has worked tirelessly in this role. Along with Archbishop Jackson he has been involved in initiating and bringing to fruition this memorable ecumenical celebration in the ancient and hallowed environs of Christ Church Cathedral.

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