An Interview with Father Michael O’Sullivan, SJ

Updated: Oct 6, 2018

by Eileen Quinn Knight, PhD



Dr. Knight: This is a time of hope in the Church as we deal with the issue of forgiveness and redemption from the sexual abuse crisis who understand that as a Church we are both saints and sinners. How do you think our Pope inspires a professor teaching spirituality in a secular society?


Father O’Sullivan: Like me, Pope Francis is a Jesuit, and so we share a common spirituality. In order to understand him better it is necessary to attend more to his Jesuit spirituality. For that reason I wrote an article, “The Jesuit Spirituality of Pope Francis” and it was published in Spirituality 20 (September-October 2014): 295-300. The article ended by referring to what he said in his unscripted interview with the journalists on the plane travelling with him from Brazil: [1] See http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/francis-press-conference-on-return-flight-from-brazil-part-2. The press conference took place on 28 July 2013.


“I feel myself a Jesuit in my spirituality, in the spirituality of the Exercises, the spirituality I have in my heart. I feel so much like this that in three days I’ll go to celebrate with Jesuits the feast of St. Ignatius: I will say the morning Mass. I haven’t changed my spirituality, no. Francis, Franciscan: no. I feel myself a Jesuit and I think like a Jesuit”.


Jesuit spirituality is particularly well suited to engaging with societies that are increasingly secular because it holds that God can be found in everyone and everywhere. With such an experience of God and with a belief in such a God a Jesuit looks for the good in everyone and everywhere. I believe a way to understand this Pope is to see him as someone who has undergone a profound conversion to the beauty of God’s goodness and love so that he does not see life in black and white or with a view that one size must fit all. He believes that God’s goodness and love is so understanding, so merciful, and so embracing that Christians living a spirituality of such goodness and love will radiate the joy of the Gospel, as he calls it, and lives of this kind will attract and inspire people, as his life and person do for me.


I am engaged in the development and spread of spirituality as an academic and applied discipline (www.spiritualityinstitute.ie). Pope Francis inspires me in this work by what I see as his spirituality of attraction to the beauty of God’s love. I believe that the study of spirituality in higher education and what can be learned from such study is a powerful transformative resource for people and the planet.


As Pope Francis becomes more informed about the tragedy and atrocity of sexual abuse by some in the Catholic Church and its cover up by some in authority and leadership, and all that contributed to it, he will undoubtedly be moved by his spiritual experience to take a more robust stand against the abuse, its cover-up, and what has brought it about. We see this happening already. For example, he has ‘defrocked’ two well-known priests in Chile and has sought and accepted the resignation of seven bishops in that country. He has also moved against bishops in other countries, and In a move seen as unprecedented, he has effectively taken away U.S. prelate Theodore McCarrick’s cardinal's title, and has ordered him to conduct a life of prayer and penance before a Church trial is held.


Dr. Knight: How did you receive your call to be a priest? How has this call changed over time? How has it led you to the professorate?


Father O’Sullivan: I was at school with the Jesuits and my experience of a possible vocation came as a call to be a Jesuit first of all. I was attracted by the stories of how God had come into the hearts and minds of the founders of the Jesuits and moved them to do great things for God and the world. I was attracted by the intellectual character of the order and by the breadth of what Jesuits did. I saw my call to priesthood very such in terms of my being a Jesuit priest. I never experienced a vocation to be a diocesan priest, for example.


I joined the Jesuits in 1969, just a few years after Vatican II, therefore, and its openness to the world and to what Pope John XXIII, who convened the Council, called ‘all people of good will’. And then, in 1974-75, the Jesuits worldwide decided that their mission today, as they put, was to be the service of faith and the promotion of justice as an absolute requirement of that service. I was attracted to this vision of living a faith that would engage deeply with the struggle for social justice and a better world for all. My first university degree was in social science which gave me a grounding in how to analyze social reality. I came to a leadership role in the Student Christian Movement (SCM) at that time. This was a movement with strong connections with university students and graduates and which sought to forward a form of Christian faith which was very much in line with the decision of the Jesuits at a world level to commit to a faith that does justice.

On behalf of the SCM I co-organised and chaired the first conference in Ireland on liberation theology. After philosophy studies I worked as a researcher with the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace and in community development in the north inner city of Dublin reaching out to people on the margins. The academic and applied sides of me developed through this work. During my theology studies I and a few other Jesuits founded a Jesuit community in that part of the city and lived on the old age pension and in very modest accommodation, sleeping four to a room, for example, and sharing the house with elderly tenants. During that time, also, I was involved in solidarity campaigns against apartheid in South Africa and US foreign policy in South and Central America. I also worked with Chilean refugees in Ireland from the Pinochet military dictatorship to raise awareness of the situation in Chile. As my ordination to priesthood approached I found myself drawn to go to Chile to serve the people there and to learn more about the theology of liberation that had come from that part of the world. After a little over two years in Chile as a missionary pastor with economically marginalised and politically oppressed people I had to leave the country. I went to Canada to do further studies in liberation and feminist theologies and on my return to Ireland in 1986 began to teach theology at the Jesuit Milltown Institute and to continue my solidarity work on behalf of people in Latin America. I went to live with economically deprived people in the north of Dublin which also gave me the opportunity to exercise priestly ministry among them. In that way I learned a lot about the situation of women in particular and the violence that could be part of their lives. I started up bible study groups with women to study how Jesus was a person who wanted them to live a life of dignity so that they would be empowered to see themselves in renewed ways and to be able to take steps that could improve their lives. It seemed to me particularly important as a priest to bring out the liberating message of Christian faith for and with women given that the male clerical structure of the Church was experienced by many women as oppressive. I did the final stage of my Jesuit formation, a spirituality year, in Mexico and spent some time also in El Salvador and other parts of Central America. I had worked a lot in Ireland in solidarity with the struggle for social justice in El Salvador and in solidarity with my Jesuit companions and Archbishop Romero who had all been assassinated there. The creation of a Department of Spirituality at the Jesuit Milltown Institute, where I was teaching theology and philosophy, led to my move into developing spirituality as an academic and applied discipline. I have continued in this work since the beginning of the millennium and am now seen by peers as an international leader in the field. My Jesuit spirituality led me to see very early on the value of Vatican. It’s vision that God works through the signs of the times. I believe that the growing interest in the study of spirituality across the world is such a sign so that responding to it for me is a way of being with God working to attract people to share in the beauty of God’s loving dream for them.


Dr. Knight: How about an easy question: what is your favorite film at this time? Book?


Father O’Sullivan [I do not get to see films as much as I would like. I liked very much the last one I saw which told the story of Jesse Owens leading up to the Berlin Olympics. I was attracted by how he overcame adversity to make people aware of his great gifts as an athlete. At the moment I am finishing Austin Ivereigh’s excellent book about Pope Francis.


Dr. Knight: do you think the books and articles you’ve written about spirituality will be helpful to people who are seeking to be better in this area?


Father O’Sullivan: Yes, I know they are being read by a lot of people, and I get good feedback from my students. I am concentrating on developing the praxis of authenticity in common human subjectivity as a discipline-specific foundation and framework for the study of spirituality. People who live the spirituality of authenticity live a receptive, relational, reflective, responsible, and reflexive self-presence that raises up the quality of life around them. Readers will need to consult my writings to appreciate what I mean by the spirituality of authenticity and its transformative effects.


Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that the use of social media in our parishes can assist young people to think about knowing/loving/serving God through their ‘cyber-neighbor’ and by example become more spiritual individuals?

Father O’Sullivan{: One of my MA students did her dissertation on ‘Spirituality in the selfie-culture of the Instagram’. She hopes to go on now to do a PhD in the area of social media and spirituality. I spoke earlier about God speaking to us through the signs of the times. Young people live very much in the world of social media, so it is essential that we bring spirituality into that world.


Dr. Knight: As a priest of the University you are able to educate and spiritually form many people in the society through your work. What issues are predominantly on your mind and heart?


Father O’Sullivan: Many people are disheartened and even disillusioned with the institutional Church, and not only because of the abuse scandals. How they feel also has to do, for example, with the situation of women. The study of spirituality with a community of co-learner staff and students is seen as a hospitable setting to make the journey of life in these troubling times, and to do so with an openness and integrity that, in the words of graduates, is found to be “life-transforming”.


Dr. Knight: There have been very influential professors/priests throughout the ages including saints. Who influenced you the most?


Father O’Sullivam: :Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, Mary Ward, who has yet to be canonized, Oscar Romero who will be canonized in October, and Therese of Lisieux come to mind immediately. In the academic world, my deceased Jesuit colleagues, Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, and Teilhard de Chardin, as well as Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Mary Frohlich, Stephanie Paulsell in the USA, and Bernadette

Flanagan in Ireland.


Dr. Knight: It seems that this interview would help us understand your leisure activities and purposeful work that would be of interest to our readers such as the help that has been provided to immigrants. What other issues do you have as a priority for our work as a society?


Father O’Sullivan: Planetary well-being, and inter-religious dialogue and cooperation


Dr. Knight: Thank you very much for your time in completing this interview. For our students to see educated men and women striving to improve their relationship with Jesus is important to all disciples to bring us closer to the kingdom.

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