MASS IN THANKSGIVING FOR THE LIFE AND WITNESS OF
BLESSED JOHN SULLIVAN S.J.
Homily notes Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin
Church of Saint Francis Xavier, Gardiner Street, 22 February 2020
“Once again, we gather to give thanks to God for the life and witness of Blessed John Sullivan. We remember in particular the witness of simplicity of life that he developed and his extraordinary outreach to the sick and the dying. His intercessory care for the sick is something that has continued over the years and some of you here present are witnesses to it. We come today then to invoke the grace of his intercession in our lives and for those who are dear to us.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, we celebrate today as the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle. The Gospel reading brings to our attention the special mission within the Church assigned to Saint Peter.
The Gospel narrative however makes clear that the ministry assigned to Saint Peter was not a ministry due to some outward privilege. In the first instance, the ministry of Peter is the fruit of receiving, despite his human inadequacy, the grace of being led into a closer understanding of the identity of Jesus Christ.
Jesus reminds Peter that that gift of attaining a deeper understanding of who Jesus is, is not something that he received simply though his own talents or through “flesh and blood”, which means through belonging to any family or specific religious tradition. We come closer to understanding who Jesus is through allowing the grace of the God our Father to touch our hearts and change the way we live.
Still today, the question of the identity of Jesus is something that is on the minds of many. Different individuals and groups come up with different answers. The easiest temptation is for each of us to seek an idea of Jesus that is convenient to us ourselves. We create our own Jesus, a Jesus who leaves us comfortable, rather realising that Jesus is the one who opens our hearts to be shaken up by the challenge and transformative power of the Father. Each of us is called, as we heard in the first reading, to be an example that the whole flock can follow.
Jesus recognises the faith of Peter and he assigns to Peter a special role in his Church. In this way he is telling us also that the path towards finding the answer to Jesus’ question “Who am I?” is the path of the Church.
Today there are many who would think differently. Many will say I believe in God but I have little time for the Church. Very often, this comes from a mistaken understanding of both Jesus and of his Church.
Jesus assigns to Peter a special role in his Church. He is to be the Rock. Jesus however knows well that on his own Peter is anything but a Rock. This is the same Peter who refused to recognise that the path of Jesus towards glory would be a path of suffering and death and to whom Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” At the moment of Jesus’ final suffering, Peter wishes to observe what is happening to Jesus but at a distance and when he finds himself in difficulty, without a moment’s delay, he denies Jesus three times.
Mysteriously Jesus wished that the power and the holiness of the Church would be discovered through the ministry of weak and confused men and women who are not perfect, but who in the face of their own human inadequacy strive to carve out a place of integrity in their hearts that allows the hidden power of Jesus to break through.
Jesus shows his power not through signs of human strength. The Church must mirror this Jesus who serves. The first reading reminds us that leadership in the Church must never be the path of the dictator. Jesus reveals himself not through imposition but through mercy and forgiveness. If we remain trapped in an idea of our own of who Jesus is, then we will end up still on our own, still trapped within ourselves and never experience the extraordinary power of the mercy of the God of love.
Catholics consider full communion with the Bishop of Rome as an important dimension of Catholic life. The problem is that we often have the idea that the absence of full communion as meaning no communion.
Communion with the bishop of Rome is, however, not some sort of mechanical and empirical bond. Communion with what the bishop of Rome stands for can appear fully in men and women who do not espouse the full Catholic tradition as we understand it. Catholics can learn from the faith and the expressions of faith and holiness in other Churches. Catholics must learn from the faith and the expressions of faith and holiness in other Churches.
In that sense, John Sullivan is the modal of an ecumenical Saint. It is not just that he spent the early part of his life as an Anglican and the latter part as a Roman Catholic. What is true is that even after becoming a Catholic and a Jesuit he remained faithful to the understanding of faith that he learned as a child and as a young man. His faith and his humility and his intense prayer life have their roots in both traditions.
It has been an inspiration for me to see the way Archbishop Michael Jackson has followed the path of John Sullivan so closely. They both attended the same school and both were nourished by the same Christian tradition and spirit. Archbishop Jackson is also a friend of Rome.
Communion with Peter is true only when it is about the realisation of communion with Christ and with his caring message. Communion with Rome involves the concept of fraternity in the faith and in the search to understand fully who Jesus is. The task of the Church in our contemporary world is to lead people to understand the God revealed in Jesus Christ when so often they who no longer know where to seek or find Jesus. This missionary task is a task for all believers over and beyond denominational divisions.
John Sullivan inspires us along such a path. He renounced the wealth and celebrity life that he lived as a young man. He opted for the simplicity and austerity of the Jesuit tradition and a ministry towards those in various forms of distress.
He offers to us today an indication of the path we must follow ecumenically if we are to allow the saving grace of God to be fully embraced by the man and women of our times. Blessed John Sullivan pray for your Church.” ENDS