The heroic virtue of John Sullivan
A Man Sent by God: Blessed John Sullivan SJ by John Looby SJ (Messenger Publications, Beatification souvenir hardback edition, €14.95, paperback €9.95)

This Saturday in ceremonies at the Jesuit church in Gardiner Street,  the Venerable John Sullivan will be raised to the status of Blessed, another stage on the path to his eventual canonisation.

This is the first time that a beatification has been held in Ireland. And more: the public request for  his beatification will be made by both the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin and his Anglican counterpart, in what is being called an unprecedented act  of ecumenism,  John Sullivan having been born into a Church of Ireland family.

This has been a long route for his devotees. John Sullivan was not a spectacular man. Teaching in Clongowes for so many quiet years, one might have thought him cut off from the world.   

But the People’s Chapel there was used by many of the local people, many of whom came also to Fr Sullivan as a much loved confessor. 


Over the years he built up a devoted following in Clane and it was this that brought him alive for Fr Looby when he, in his turn, became a teacher there. The school boys among whom he passed his life also recognised him as a saintly figure.

John Sullivan’s life was a remarkable one, one filled in its way with examples for today. In six very approachable chapters the author gives a considered life of the holy man. Like all those who write about John Sullivan, he draws a great deal from Fr Fergal McGrath’s biography of 1941; but that is a long time ago and there is much to be said about John Sullivan that was not apparent then, but which is clear now.

His span of years fall into two parts: he was born and reared an Anglican, educated at Portora in Fermanagh and at Trinity College, and was called to the English Bar. Outwardly it was an arc that many followed; but his interior life took another direction. He converted to Catholicism, which many have also done, but he also entered the Jesuit order, and it was this that shaped his spiritual life.

Though he served elsewhere as well, John Sullivan is especially associated with Clongowes. He served the boys who were students, there but it was his ministry to the local people, as I have suggested, that made a special impact on the memories who knew him in life. 

And it was this that may have led Pope Francis to accept that he is a person of heroic virtue worthy of beatification – and his admirers hope eventual canonisation.

But somehow it is the quiet, deeply working nature of his spiritual life that is the most influential. The ceremonies this Saturday will be a crowning moment for Irish Jesuits, but also for all Irish people, for John Sullivan is the sort of man with admirers in many walks of life, and many or no faiths.

The miracle that has served to bring about John Sullivan’s beatification transpired at the Royal Hospital in Donnybrook. In my childhood we knew this as the “Royal Hospital for Incurables” – a name that was changed, or rather softened, in recent times. Some find it striking that the miracle in question demonstrated that there is, for those of faith, no such thing as an “incurable” condition.

John Looby will be familiar to many, many thousands as a former editor of the Sacred Heart Messenger, and this is a book which many people will want to have.  His deeply understanding, but accessible, portrait will perhaps introduce many younger people to John Sullivan; one suspects that will result in interesting developments.

John Sullivan (and his biographer) helps us to understand what heroic virtue is and what it can achieve. He gives to our 21st Century Ireland an image of effective piety that cannot help but be moving.