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Funeral Homily For Fr. Patrick Sullivan, C.S.C.

“Pat Sullivan was larger than life.

He had a passionate vitality for social justice. It is that which stoked his extraordinary energy and zeal.

There was no stopping his steel determination in making known the rightness of his convictions.

He was feisty, always sure of himself, always sure of his cause.

He was always determined to right the unrightable wrong.

When he got going, you wanted to be on his side.

But if you were going to take him on, you had better put up your dukes.

I often wondered where Pat got his gallant, gutsy, full-blooded, sense of righteousness. 

Perhaps it was from growing up in Hell’s kitchen, a tough neighborhood in New York City. He was born there in 1929, one of 9 children.

His Irish-Catholic parents were blue-collar workers. Whatever they had, they had earned by the sweat of their brow.

Tom Brokaw, called their generation “America’s “Greatest.”

They were the ones who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II.

His book explores their noble themes of faith, family, and sacrifice. 

Pat’s parents must have told their children of their own struggles breaking into the mainstream of American life.

Pat’s dad was an immigrant facing discrimination.

“Irish need not apply” was a familiar sign placed in many New York store windows.

They were also “papists” who practiced an alien religion.  

Pat’s Irish-Catholic faith and his family experience clearly formed his sense of justice. It was part of his DNA. 

His Catholic faith was primary; essential to his life. The pursuit of justice and peace was a moral imperative, taught by Christ himself.

At an early age, Pat already knew what he was about.

He entered the seminary at the University of Notre Dame and was ordained a priest in 1956. 

He was an intelligent young man who could read the signs of the times both in the Church and the nation.

He could see the seeds of social turmoil beginning to take root.

He pursued graduate studies in sociology, so as to immerse himself in the changes of the day.

He wanted to be a force for good; to be a positive influence, both for Church and Country.

Pat integrated his academic prowess with the flair of his iconoclastic personality. He had that broad smile and hearty laugh. 

And as Fr. Jim Lackenmier said in his homily at Holy Cross House, Pat was a colorful figure who liked to stir things up. He was mischievous.

When it came to issues of social justice, Pat could be prickly, displaying a sharp edge and a quick temper when need be.

After earning a Master’s Degree from Fordham University, Pat was assigned to King’s College where he taught sociology. He became Chairman of the Department.

He also took on the responsibilities of Vice-President for Student Affairs and was the rector of King’s first dormitory for men.

As if he didn’t have enough to do, Pat also served as a part-time chaplain for the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution.

A former student at King’s College wrote in part, to Father Tom O’Hara:

“Alas, our great, good friend has died. He has been a huge influence on my life and for that I will always be grateful. …

“Fr. Pat was my first real contact with Holy Cross. He was different from the clergy of my childhood. They were stand-offish and aloof. He wasn’t that way at all. 

“I remember that when we students violated the Saturday night curfew, our punishment was to sit around his office in the evening so we could talk about all manner and form of subjects.

(That was Sully, he made our punishment an academic exercise.)

“We always said that King’s was about transformation. That was true for me.

Through Father Pat, I had been gifted a part of the Holy Cross ethos that stays with me to this day … Thank you, Sully, thank you. “

After his early years at King’s, Father Pat Sullivan returned to his studies in Sociology. He earned a Ph.D. from Catholic University of America.

At this time, across the country, Catholic Higher Education was entering a new phase of its identity.

Religious Communities, like Holy Cross, who once owned and operated institutions of higher learning, were undergoing dramatic change.

Teaching and administrative positions that were once filled by religious were now seeing qualified laity competing for those positions.

Religious could no longer be assigned to an academic or administrative position “ipso facto” by their superior.

Students were relying on academics to prepare them for future work. In attracting students, Catholic Colleges and Universities were becoming more dependent on a reputation of excellence.

Often, highly qualified laity were hired over less qualified religious.

What were unemployed religious going to do?

It was then that Father Pat was brought in to help navigate this new and delicate reality.

He was given a new, never before used job title. 

Sully was now the “Personnel Director” for Holy Cross religious.

It was a groundbreaking assignment, with countless challenges for the structure of Holy Cross, for our religious authorities, and for the individual religious themselves.

It was a sensitive, difficult and controversial responsibility.

And believe it or not, in the process, Pat even made a few enemies!

After 10 years of hard labor, Pat moved into a new milieu, what he called, “the real world.”

He brought his social justice expertise to face challenges in the secular world, perhaps even more difficult that the religious world.

Pat spent dedicated years working for the J.P. Stevens garment workers who were boycotting their company for higher wages and better working conditions.

All the while he lived in an inner-city parish to keep his heart and hands involved in serving the poor and marginalized.

Pat later returned to the University of Notre Dame where he did labor research, writing three books and serving in the prestigious Higgins Labor Research Institute. 

His field of expertise, and the broadmindedness of his iconoclastic personality continued to bring Pat into critical positions of leadership, in Boston, Wilkes-Barre, and South Bend.

Throughout his life, doing the work of social justice, Father Pat Sullivan seemed to become a modern-day prophet, a lonely vocation to be sure, but one needed so desperately.

Father Ronald Rolheiser observed:

“Each age has its own way of defining the word prophet.

“Today the common notion, particularly within church circles, seems to be that a prophet is someone who challenges the institutional status quo, someone who shakes things up.

As such, he or she is almost automatically conceived of as an agitator, as someone who makes others uncomfortable.”

(Pat, that would be you!)

We will now miss you.

(As Rolheiser says:)

“prophets are desperately needed in both the world and the church today.

We need persons, prophets, who have wide enough loyalties,

deep enough hearts,

and extensive enough sympathies

to help hold together a nation and a Church that is dangerously fragmented.”

Pat, we need prophets like you today, with keen insight, with guts and zeal, and with a heart like yours, to keep us together while ever widening our embrace of others on the margins.

Christ’s embraced his little ones, the poor and forgotten; the least ones. 

He wants us to do the same.

Pat, you were never afraid to speak truth to power be it civil or religious.

You served us well, you gave your life for us.

Understandably, over time your enormous energy began to fade.  Your health suffered.

Father Lackenmier succinctly captured the sad reality of your last years:

“It’s a hard fact that Pat’s last years were difficult.

His physical health deteriorated. His dementia advanced. His personality changed. He was not himself.

We heard him rage against the darkness.

His was a heavy cross. His was not a private suffering, but a public suffering, of which we were witnesses.”

A few months ago, I had the blessing of visiting Fr. Pat at Holy Cross House.

There he was professionally and patiently cared for by his nurses, staff and fellow religious.

They tenderly and compassionately served him, graciously caring for him in the midst of his sufferings.

They prayed with him and for him.

We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

Pat could no longer spoke with his lips, though in the dark of night he did cry out.

It seemed to me that in the light of day, Pat spoke with his eyes as if they had a deep sadness to them.

He was dying a long, grueling death, with so much of his life’s labor left, still undone.

The beautiful prayer of the extraordinary Saint Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, came to mind.

“In the evening …

When night comes and we look back over the day,

Seeing how fragmentary everything had been,

how much planned was left undone.

And realizing all the reasons we have

to be embarrassed and ashamed of ourselves;

It is in that moment, we must take everything

exactly as it is,

and put it in God’s hands.

And leave it with Him.

Then we will be able to rest in God, really rest.

And in the next day, we will start again.

Ours will become a new life, a new life in Him, who

loves us faithfully, with a great and steadfast love.”

Pat, as we pray for you, and with you, and say good-bye, you can rest now, really rest, in God’s Reign of justice, peace and mercy.  

God’s force of love is moving throughout the universe.  He holds us fast;  He will never let us go.

Your life is fulfilled now Pat.

His steadfast love will never let you go.”

(Paraphrase and restructuring of a prayer of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein)

-Fr. Hugh Cleary, C.S.C.

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