Ireland was once known worldwide as ‘the land of saints and scholars’, a branding that today would probably be investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority!
But the legacy is virtually unmatched anywhere on the planet.
Whilst we’ve honoured and commemorated some of them in various ways and means (and some, sadly, not at all) there has never been a beatification ceremony for a saint in Ireland, north or south - until tomorrow.
Father John Sullivan will be beatified at 11.00am on Saturday May 13, 2017 in Gardiner Street Church, Dublin.
Beatification, which confers the title ‘Blessed’, means that a man or woman is considered to be truly holy and worthy of veneration at a local level.
The next stage after beatification is canonisation, or sainthood, which is the recognition of this holiness by the universal Church.
Whilst tomorrow’s ceremony is the first in Ireland, it’s even more extraordinary because it’s being bestowed by Anglican and Catholic Archbishops together.
The unprecedented ecumenical gesture reflects the fact that Father John was C of I for the first half of his life and Roman Catholic for the second.
He also attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, a place which had a profound effect on his future vocation.
He was particularly fond of the monastic serenity of nearby Devenish Island and referred to Portora’s “remarkable incentive to make us thoughtful in the right direction.”
The principal celebrant and homilist tomorrow in Dublin is Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
The Cardinal will be assisted by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin with the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Michael Jackson, also present on the sanctuary.
Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland will be in attendance, along with Brendan Carr, Lord Mayor of Dublin, and church dignitaries from Europe and around the world.
Members of Father John’s family from England are expected, with representatives from Portora and Trinity College Dublin, where he studied Classics and Law.
During the Mass, a large portrait of Father John will be unveiled and a relic of his hair, which was kept by his barber Charlie Barrett, will be brought to the altar.
John Sullivan was born in Dublin on May 8, 1861.
His father, the future Lord Chancellor of Ireland Sir Edward Sullivan, was a Protestant.
His mother, Lady Bessie Josephine Sullivan was a Catholic. John was baptised in St. George’s Protestant Church on 15 June 1861 and brought up in the Protestant tradition of his father.
In 1873 John followed his brothers to Portora, where he was known as Johnny. He was very happy there, in later years admitting that he went “bathed in tears” but when the time came for him to leave Portora he “wept more plentiful tears”.
He loved exploring the countryside.
After an ornithological excursion to Ballyshannon he noted that they’d “sailed all day on river and on lake.”
He also became an energetic cyclist and walker, useful for a future city-centre parish priest!
As a responsible senior pupil he was given overseeing duties and was “monitor of the junior dormitory number four”.
His fellow pupils liked Johnny.
In Trinity in 1885 he was awarded the Gold Medal in Classics and proceeded to study Law.
His father died suddenly, which greatly affected John, and he moved to London.
He was called to the Bar in 1888 which, with his inheritance,
ensured a healthy bank balance.
Handsome, rich and fashionable, he travelled Europe, and memorably, stayed at the Orthodox monastery of Mount Athos in Greece where he became friendly with the monks.
In December 1896 at the age of 35, he made a momentous decision and was received into the Catholic Church at the Jesuit Church, Farm Street, London.
His life and lifestyle changed dramatically.
On a visit home to Dublin he stripped his room to bare essentials - no carpet, no luxuries - just a bed and a chair.
He wore the plainest clothes and devoted his time to visiting hospitals and convents.
In September 1900 he embarked on the lengthy journey of becoming a Jesuit.
He was ordained as a priest on 28 July 1907 and was then appointed to the staff in Clongowes Wood College, County Kildare where he was to spend the greater part of his life as a Jesuit, apart from the period 1919-1924 when he was Rector of Rathfarnham Castle, the Jesuit House of Studies in Dublin.
Despite his brilliant mind and academic achievements, Father John’s tireless devotion to others and to God set him apart.
People in need of spiritual or physical healing flocked to him and asked for his prayers and many were cured.
When he wasn’t helping the needy he was praying.
“Father Sullivan is very hard on himself,” said one of his parishioners “but he is never hard on others”.
He ate the plainest food and lived a life of severe penance.
He sacrificed everything for others and was greatly loved by all.
The number of cures attributed to him during his lifetime and after his death is impressive.
Father John died in the old St. Vincent’s Nursing Home in Leeson Street, a short distance from the Sullivan family home on February 19, 1933.
Wherever you are you can watch history unfold tomorrow as the entire beatification ceremony is streamed live on www.jesuit.ie/beatification