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Portora Royal School toasts Venerable John Sullivan

By Sarah Mac Donald - 20 October, 2015

Church of Ireland archbishop describes Jesuit priest as "a sign of ecumenical respectfulness and a form of spiritual reconciliation in a post-Troubles Ireland".

fr john Sullivan1The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough has said Churches need to ask what “religious boundary-crossers” can teach them about how welcome they make “border-crossers” and what blessing they give them on departure and arrival.

In an address proposing the toast at Portora Royal School, Archbishop Michael Jackson, a past pupil of the Co Fermanagh school spoke about one of its most famous students, Jesuit priest, Venerable John Sullivan.

John Sullivan was a member of the Church of Ireland; his mother was a Roman Catholic and his father was a member of the Church of Ireland.

The Jesuit priest who was renowned within his own lifetime for his healing powers was baptised in St George’s Church, Hardwick Place in Dublin.

The son of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, he became a student at Portora in 1873 when the school was the place to study Classics and many student of Portora went on to Trinity College Dublin and he higher echelons of the law, the civil service in Ireland or London or abroad.

In his address, Archbishop Jackson considered how John Sullivan, “the Portoran … living successfully in London” became a Jesuit priest.

After leaving school he trained as a barrister in London and, being comfortably off, travelled abroad to visit the scenes and the sites of which he would have known in the Classical texts that he read in Portora.

On 21 December 1896 John Sullivan was received into the Roman Catholic Church; and he took his first vows as a Member of the Jesuit Order on 8 September 1902. He was ordained in Milltown Park in Dublin on 28 July 1907 and went straight to Clongowes to teach.

Clongowes was effectively to be his home from then until his death on 19 February 1933 in a Dublin Nursing Home. He also spent a five-year period as rector of the Jesuit House in Rathfarnham Castle, Dublin during his lifetime.

Recalling the service in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin in June this year to recognise the life of John Sullivan, the Archbishop paid tribute to the significant number of staff members and pupils from Portora who attended and were joined for the service by students from Clongowes Woods College, where John Sullivan spent most of his life as a Jesuit.

Dr Jackson said the link between Portora Royal School and Clongowes Wood College had a very positive association through the Joyce-Beckett Literary Award. It had “transcended the Border, at a time when the Border was a real feature in the geographical psychology of Irish life”.

“Crossing the Border; heading Down South; going Up North – many of these phrases now have no fear-content. Once they had,” the Church of Ireland Primate commented.

Portora Royal School

Portora Royal School

He also paid tribute to the courage of young students from both schools who were willing to cross the border, “particularly when the Clongowes boys were in Enniskillen laying a wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday year after year”.

He said this gesture was a powerful symbol of hope at a time when hope eluded many people, not least in Enniskillen itself.

“Mercifully, things are different today and we trust that they will continue different. It is our duty to future generations to ensure this,” Archbishop Jackson said.

Speaking about Fr Sullivan’s life as a priest, he said the Jesuit “manifested a simplicity that bore no relationship to his earlier life and he seems to have contrived hardship beyond what many would have regarded as necessary or fruitful”.

He said his reputation for holiness grew as did people’s attribution to him of the capacity for healing and miraculous intervention in their illnesses.

“He seems also, however, to have distinguished between situations of illness where he could intervene and where he could not in ways that brought about change. This remains part of his deep, innocent honesty.”

Mulling the contribution to Churches of people like Fr Sullivan – the religious boundary-crossers – Archbishop Jackson said the priest was someone who as a boy from the Republic of Ireland attended a school in Northern Ireland as a member of the Church of Ireland and became a priest and a Jesuit, spending exactly half of his life as a Protestant layman and half of his life as a Roman Catholic priest.

He highlighted that those who have advocated his cause, like Fr Conor Harper SJ, would argue that the John Sullivan phenomenon can be a genuine pointer to the holding together of difference, a sign of ecumenical respectfulness and a form of spiritual reconciliation in a post-Troubles Ireland, if we can only see it.

Referring to the Vatican’s elevation of Fr Sullivan to the status of Venerable, Archbishop Jackson said “it is surely remarkable that the cause of an Old Portoran is being advanced at the same time as that of Oscar Romero, an international name and another, yet different, advocate of the poor and downtrodden, martyred in El Salvador, South America.”

“Both point to the poor and the needy as the focus of human conscience and of God’s care and grace”.

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