Jesuit and Freetown native examines Pope Francis at work

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By Linda Andrade Rodrigues
Anchor Correspondent

FREETOWN, Mass. — Who is Pope Francis?

According to The Anchor: “The first Jesuit pope; the first non-European pope in a millennium; the first Latin American pope; the first Argentinian pope; humble; compassionate; devoted to the poor; an advocate for social justice; a scholar and teacher; lives simply; rides the bus; a man of the people; unpretentious; wears a white cassock and simple wooden cross; slips out of the Vatican to pay a bill and then again to visit an ailing priest in the hospital; preaches from the pulpit like a parish priest rather than sitting and reading in the tradition of his predecessors; the first pope to choose Francis (with no Roman numeral after his name) in honor of the saint; a servant of the sick and poor.”

“When I see him at work and what he says, he is clearly following the “Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius,” the heart of Jesuit Spirituality,” said Father Paul Michael Sullivan, S.J., a native of Freetown. “Each religious order has its own particular slant on things.”

The founder of the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola was a 16th-century soldier-turned-mystic who is known for his practical Spirituality. His writings, traditions, practices and Spiritual know-how have offered guidance since 1540.

“The Way of Ignatius” is about finding God in all things, becoming a contemplative in action, recognizing the nearness of God in our own lives, and seeking freedom and detachment.

People of all cultures and faiths are attracted to the pontiff’s personality and style.

“Pope Francis is down-to-earth and interested in the common folk,” said Father Sullivan. “His experience as a bishop in Argentina dealing with the poor in a pastoral sense was a major influence in his life and certainly formative.”

People marvel at the pope’s lack of concern for his own personal safety. 

“Well I would have to say he is trusting in God’s providence,” said Father Sullivan. “He is here to serve the people.”

Pope Francis appoints bishops who are involved in people’s lives.

“Bishops need to put aside palatial living like princes and become more ordinary in their ways,” Father Sullivan said. 

Pope Francis wants to make Church finances accountable the way any nonprofit should be.

“He wants basic honesty and transparency, knowing where the money is going,” said Father Sullivan. “The Church is big business and can’t turn on a dime. Some are in favor, some lesser, some opposed.” 

The pope’s upcoming synod on family will look at the rules.

“I don’t know what will happen and where Francis stands,” said Father Sullivan. “He wants discussion, and that is what is different about his style. He is doctrinally conservative, but pastorally he will look, as Jesus did, at the situations of people who are suffering, who have been turned off by the old religious establishment. This is a key interest of his.” 

Again, Father Sullivan returns to the “Exercises” and finding God in all things.

“Where is God in this?” he asked. “The nitty-gritty incarnational life is not outside reality. We have a God Who wants communion with us, Who cares about our daily lives and struggles.”

Father Sullivan points out the significance of the pontiff’s choice of a name. In a vision, God told St. Francis to rebuild His Church.

“Pope Francis is the real thing — no question about that,” said Father Sullivan. “He can do things. He celebrates Mass daily with off-the-cuff homilies. He knows the freedom of God’s love.”

Born in Fall River and baptized at St. Anne’s Parish, Father Sullivan moved to Assonet when he was six. 

His calling to the priesthood came gradually, a gentle nudge throughout his high school and college years.

He attended St. Bernard’s Parish in Assonet, a mission church at that time, and was influenced by the devotion of the mission priests. When he inquired about the possibility of a vocation, he was advised to go to college first.

Father Sullivan attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. 

“I got to know quite a number of Jesuits, many of them in their late 30s and 40s, who seemed interesting and happy,” he said. 

He attended seminary at the New England Province of the Society of Jesus in Boston. At the end of two years, he also took his first vows which are perpetual. 

Then he was sent to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., entering its master’s degree program in philosophy and earning his licentiate.

Sullivan taught at Cheverus High School in Portland, Maine, for three years, then applied for a third year of teaching and was approved as a scholastic in theology and assigned to Berkeley, Calif. 

The Jesuit School of Theology is located at Santa Clara University, and he completed his senior thesis work under the tutelage of the Episcopal School faculty. 

“It was not only possible, but encouraged,” he said.

Three years later Father Sullivan was ordained on June 18, 1983. He was reassigned to Cheverus and spent the next four years in Maine. He also would earn a doctoral degree in ministry from Bangor Seminary.

His next assignment brought him back home to Bishop Connolly High School for three years, teaching and working as admission director for the last two years. 

Father Sullivan then was assigned as pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish and its mission church of St. John’s in Eastport, Maine, for 12 years, and at St. Joseph’s Church in Gardiner, Maine. 

His next four-year assignment took him to St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Storrs, Conn., where he would also serve as director of the Catholic Campus Ministry Center at the University of Connecticut. 

Most recently, Father Sullivan served as Spiritual director of Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester for four years. Based on the “Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius, the retreats offered guidance to people of diverse backgrounds and traditions who sought God in their lives.

He currently serves as pastor of Our Lady of Hope cluster parish in Portland, Maine.

“Everybody has a vocation,” he said. “We give what we are in gratitude. God is no further from ourselves than we are.” 

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