Jesuit Father Francis Alfred Sullivan died peacefully on the evening of October 23, 2019. At 97, he was the oldest member of the Northeast Province. He was born in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston on May 21, 1922, the second of four sons of George and Bessie (Peterson) Sullivan. The family moved to Dorchester and then to West Roxbury, where Fr. Sullivan grew up. He attended local public schools — though, as he said, most of his teachers were Catholic women, not uncommon in the Boston school system then. His father’s brother was a Jesuit, Fr. Louis Sullivan, on the faculty of Weston College, so it was taken for granted that he would go to Boston College High School. He took the entrance exam and won a full four-year scholarship.
With seven of his classmates he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Shadowbrook in July 1938. The novitiate and juniorate deepened the piety he had learned at home and his Greek and Latin proficiency. It was an untroubled four years, he said. Once, though, he was dismayed when, because he had taken piano lessons as a boy, he was pressed into service as the community organist. This led to a sort of immortality, when a fellow novice who later gained recognition as a poet, Francis Sweeney, published a poem about him, “Boy Playing An Organ.”
His philosophy studies, at Weston College, he thought dry and uninteresting but he found refuge in reading Plato in Greek. These were the war years (1942-1945) and the scholastics helped local farmers harvest vegetables and apples. For regency, he was assigned to teach Latin and English and, to his surprise, algebra — which he had to teach himself — at Fairfield Prep. For the third year of regency he was sent to Fordham to get a master’s in classics, province superiors having decided that eventually he would join the Weston faculty teaching patristics.
The Holy Spirit had other plans, however. In 1948, he returned to Weston for the theology studies that would lead to ordination. He found theology much more agreeable than philosophy. Under the direction of Fr. Philip Donnelly, SJ, he wrote a thesis for the licentiate degree on Theodore of Mopsuestia, a controversial and influential fourth-century bishop and theologian. Donnelly suggested Fr. Sullivan send it to the preeminent American Jesuit journal in the field, Theological Studies, the first of his many scholarly publications. He was ordained at Weston in 1951 and a year later went to Pomfret, Conn., for tertianship.
In 1953, Fr. Sullivan was sent to Rome for doctoral studies at the Gregorian University, in order to teach at Weston. However, as he prepared to leave for Rome, the recently appointed New England provincial instructed him to prepare to teach not patristics but fundamental theology, specifically the course on revelation. When he arrived at the Gregorian University, Fr. Sullivan took the courses offered in fundamental theology, which included courses in ecclesiology. When it came time to write a dissertation, however, he found nothing in the area of fundamental theology that appealed to him, so he decided he would return to a topic he knew something about and wrote on the Christology of Theodore of Mopsuestia.
In June 1955, with his doctoral studies behind him, he prepared to spend a relaxed summer traveling in Europe on his way back to the States. Midway in his travels, while at a Jesuit community in Barcelona, he was surprised to discover from an American Jesuit friend that he was being assigned not to Weston but to the faculty of the Gregorian University, where he was to teach ecclesiology.
Fr. Sullivan’s father was seriously ill with lung cancer, so Fr. Sullivan first traveled to Boston, to spend time with his family. In 1956, he took up his teaching position in the setting where he would spend the next 36 years of his life. His start was not without its challenges. Not only did he have to lecture in Latin, with a heavy Boston accent, a former student said (later this requirement was relaxed and professors could teach in Italian) but, according to the same former student, Fr. Sullivan’s predecessor as professor of ecclesiology, who had written the textbook in use, would sit in the balcony of the lecture hall during Fr. Sullivan’s classes and take careful note of what Fr. Sullivan was saying.
In 1964, Fr. Sullivan was appointed dean of the theological faculty, in which position he was instrumental in revising the university statutes so that, among other changes, professors were better able to do research and have regular sabbaticals. Over the following years his own scholarly writing, in eight books and numerous articles, ranged widely over topics in ecclesiology: the magisterium and teaching authority in the church, salvation outside the church, interpreting documents of the magisterium, and the development of the episcopacy in the early church. In his years at the Gregorian University, he taught hundreds of students and directed dozens of dissertations; he was especially pleased that some 30 of his students from countries across the world became bishops and at least two — Americans Avery Dulles and William Levada — cardinals.
The years of Vatican II coincided with the period when Fr. Sullivan was tied up in administrative responsibilities at the Greg while still teaching, so he had limited opportunity to be involved with Council matters. Nevertheless, some sentences of his made their way into Lumen Gentium, one of the notable documents of Vatican II. Fr. Sullivan saw a draft of the document and decided that he could do a better job with a paragraph on charisms in the Church. Fr. Sullivan’s text was submitted to the drafters of the document by archbishop John McEleney, SJ, of Kingston, Jamaica, a New England Jesuit who had been rector at Shadowbrook during the years Fr. Sullivan was a novice and a junior. Fr. Sullivan was decidedly pleased when his paragraph made its way into the final version of the Council document.
A surprising interest of Fr. Sullivan’s was his involvement with the charismatic movement. Around the time he finished his term as dean he was asked by the Holy Office, the Vatican’s congregation for the doctrine of the faith, to investigate what the charismatic movement then flourishing in the U. S. was all about. He studied the rich history of charismatic movements in the church and articles by American theologians favorable to it and concluded the movement was a good thing, though he wasn’t attracted to it himself.
But he did mention Pentecostalism and charismatic prayer groups one day in class. After class, a seminarian at the North American College told him there was a charismatic prayer group in Rome and that Carlo Martini — a Jesuit professor at the Biblicum, later Archbishop of Milan — was a member. Fr. Sullivan phoned Martini to find out what the prayer group was all about. Martini invited him to a meeting and, for 20 years, until he left Rome, Fr. Sullivan was a member of the group, even making it possible for it to meet weekly at the Gregorian University. He later said that his membership in the group was a great grace: it renewed his prayer, introduced him to a whole new circle of friends, and led to his giving retreats and workshops for priests in different parts of the world. It also led to a book, Charisms and Charismatic Renewal, translated into many languages.
When Fr. Sullivan turned 70, Gregorian University statues required him to give up his fulltime professorship. He was invited to join the theology department at Boston College, where he taught for another 18 years (and two of these years he also taught at Pope St. John XIII Seminary), until 2010, when he retired from teaching, at age 87. He had been teaching for 54 years. In 1994, the Catholic Theological Society of America gave him its John Courtney Murray Award, for his achievements in the field of ecclesiology. In 2012, the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University conferred on him an honorary degree.
In 2012, he moved to Campion Health Center and continued to write and take part in community life. His health slowly declined, before he passed away on October 23, 2019.