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An ecumenism of holiness

· The Jesuit John Sullivan in the work of Ethel Mannin ·

Jorge Milia’s article, “Memoirs of a student” (L’Osservatore Romano. English Edition, 15 May, 2015), sent me scurrying back to find a copy of Ethel Mannin’s novel, Late Have I Loved Thee. I have reread it in the meantime and must admit that I have found it more inspiring the second time round. Perhaps I read it too quickly when I first came across it in the 1960s. It now does not surprise me that the novel is credited with leading a large number of people to embrace religious life in the Catholic Church, although the author described herself as non-Catholic. Her treatment of the subject is remarkably insightful and appealing. 

An added interest for me in reading the article was that, like Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Jorge Milia’s young literature teacher, I too joined the Society of Jesus in 1958, and like him, spent some time as a Jesuit Scholastic teaching boys in a secondary school in the 1960s. We learn from the article that their teacher used Ethel Mannin’s novel to expand the horizons of his students both in literature and indeed in life.

In the first edition of this novel, published just at the end of World War II, there are a number of significant details in the author’s dedication which reveal the inspiration for the book: “To Isabel Foyle in devoted friendship, and deep gratitude for introducing me to Fr McGrath’s Life of Father John Sullivan, SJ, without which I should not have discovered that most human of saints, Augustine of Hippo, or been moved to write this novel, which if it does no more than introduce non-Catholics like myself to read Fr McGrath’s book, and the beautiful impassioned writings of St Augustine, will have been worth doing”.

Ethel Mannin

Milia rightly asserts that the “thread of the book (Mannin’s) is not the work of a Jesuit but of St Augustine”. However, the inspiration for the character of Francis Sable, the hero of the novel, was actually an Irish Jesuit, Fr John Sullivan. In fact his name appears several times in the body of the novel, as does that of another great Jesuit priest, the renowned poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. After an attentive reading of Milia’s perceptive article, I wonder if he or indeed, his teacher, the then Jesuit Scholastic, Mr Bergoglio was aware of the remarkable story of the Fr John Sullivan in question ,who had died three decades earlier on 19 February 1933 in the odour of sanctity. His reputation for holiness, widespread and sustained throughout Ireland over subsequent decades, led to the exhumation of his body from the Jesuit cemetery in Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare in September 1960 and translation to the Sacred Heart Chapel at the Church of St Francis Xavier, Gardiner Street, Dublin, where it has been an object of ongoing cultus ever since. This devotion of the faithful received official approval as recently as 7 November 2014. On that day the same inspirational Professor of Literature, now Pope Francis, authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate the Decree for the heroic virtues of the Servant of God, now Venerable Father John Sullivan, SJ (L’Osservatore Romano. English Edition, 14 November, 2014).

There are many echoes of John Sullivan’s life in that of Francis Sable, the novel’s protagonist. John was a member of the Protestant Ascendancy. His father, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, was married to a Catholic. It was the practice of the time that boys followed the religion of the father and girls that of the mother. John was reared in the Anglican faith of his father. In his teenage years he was an excellent student at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, alma mater of, among others, Henry Lyte, author of the popular hymn, “Abide with me” and such literary greats as Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. He later distinguished himself in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin, became a barrister and was described as “the best dressed man in Dublin”. In 1896, after some years of inner conflict ( he rarely spoke about his personal spiritual odyssey), he was received into the Roman Catholic Church by the Jesuits at Farm Street, London. Some years later, in 1900, he entered the Society of Jesus in Ireland and was duly ordained priest on 28 July 1907. The greater part of the rest of his life was spent on the teaching staff at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare where he was a much-loved Spiritual Father to the boys. He became known to the wider public through his pastoral work in the People’s Church attached to the College. It was his prayerfully ascetic life, widely acknowledged gift of healing and thread-bare appearance, a far cry from the sartorial elegance of his earlier years, as well as his self-sacrificing concern for the poor and sick that made him a legend in his lifetime and indeed right up to the present day.

The profoundly edifying life of John Sullivan is presently leading to a healing of divisions among Christians in Ireland. His early formation in the Anglican tradition and later maturing as a Catholic were highlighted recently in a joint celebration in the Anglican Cathedral of Christ Church, Dublin on Sunday, 14 June, 2015. On that occasion, the two Archbishops of Dublin, Michael Jackson, Anglican, himself an alumnus of Portora, and Diarmuid Martin, Roman Catholic, presided at Choral Evensong and a Service of Celebration of the Life of Fr John Sullivan in the packed cathedral. Among those present were vested-clergy of both denominations, representatives of the two schools with which he was linked, blood relations of the Venerable, a number of his fellow Jesuits and a large mixed congregation. In his sermon, Archbishop Jackson referred to the universal esteem in which Venerable Father John is held. The whole event witnessed to the wonderful ecumenical effectiveness of holiness.   

By Bernard J. McGuckian, SJ




St. Peter’s Square

April 22, 2019