Jean Sulivan (1913-80): Rebel Prophet of God's Kingdom

Back in the 1950’s, when I was a kid in a Jesuit high school, a novel called Mr. Blue, by Myles Connolly, was all the rage. The eponymous hero was a mystical type who combined the social activism of Dorothy Day with the contemplative reserve of Thomas Merton. In short, he made Catholicism cool. (Kerouac wasn’t one of our crowd.)

I’ve thought about Mr. Blue a lot recently as I’ve read and reread two novels and a spiritual journal of Jean Sulivan (né Joseph Lemarchand), a prolific French priest-author, now deceased, who is still little known in this country despite the heroic efforts of Joseph Cunneen, the founding editor/publisher, a half century ago, of the journal Cross Currents. Like Mr. Blue, Sulivan’s heroes (clerics in both these cases) are always crossing boundaries, making radical faith claims and generally upsetting the bourgeoisie. Like St. Francis, they tend to be literalists of the imagination, presuming that Jesus took the Sermon on the Mount seriously and expected his followers to do the same. Not surprisingly, they get into trouble with the institutional church, even when one of them is himself a cardinal!


Central to Sulivan’s ecclesiology is a fairly traditional view, not talked about so much these days: that the church has always recognized, in theory at least, two hierarchiesone of grace and the other of office. Which explains how Dante in the 14th century could put popes in hell without causing too much of a stir, or why Thérèse of Lisieux in our own age could be canonized virtually by popular acclaim within 30 years of her death in an obscure French Carmel. This notion has also served as an occasional brake on the despotic tendencies of the church’s constitution. As Garry Wills has recently reminded us, Lord Acton’s famous dictum about the corrupting effect of absolute power was aimed first of all at his own church. But even the most autocratic bishop must consider that the errant priest or layperson before him may someday be his judge.

Sulivan mirrors this dualism in the structure of his novels. In The Sea Remains, we follow the journey of a powerful Spanish cardinal as he resigns power and takes up a contemplative and solitary life by the ocean. But first we meet the unnamed narrator, who idly stops one day, struck by the barrenness of the countryside, and discovers a puzzling story about an old man, a young child and his parents. For the rest of the novel we move back and forth in Juan Ramon’s life, with the narrator attempting to understand and explain the transformation begun in the cardinal by the boy who one day brings him a wounded bird. Gradually the prelate drops the mask of office and rediscovers his human feelings, which were never too far below the surface. He eventually meets the boy’s guardian, a Yugoslav woman named Minka who lives to paint but who has promised to care for the boy while his father is imprisoned for political reasons in a nearby fortress.

For Sulivan it is a quintessential conversion storythe only kind that really interests him. Juan Ramon’s journey from office to grace involves him in situations he would have publicly deplored in his former life but now embraces with courage and humor. Conversely, in looking back over his career, the cardinal winces at the image he presented: the compleat ecclesiastical politician, used by and using the apparatus of the state to shore up the church. Only once had he publicly broken ranks, acting on instinct to support strikers against the police, for which he was humiliated on his next visit to the Vatican: Like a child, he treated me like a child.... Thus does the institution keep even its highest officials in line.

But Juan Ramon has slowly shed that skin and is ready now for a dramatic gesture worthy of Dumas. In order to free the boy’s father, he ingratiates himself with the governor of the prison and ultimately changes robes and place with the prisoner. Such is the plot of this slim novel, but what gives it depth and breadth is the narrator’s pursuit of Juan Ramon through his friends and family who provide the complex background to the theatrical finale. All of this allows Sulivan to play out his favorite theme of the running conflict between grace and office in the life of a flawed but passionate cleric who ultimately responds to his identity as an alter Christus in a fashion both literal and highly imaginative.

The first giveaway of Eternity, My Beloved is the epigraph, which informs the reader that the title is borrowed from Nietzsche: I have never found the woman by whom I would want to have a child except this woman that I lovefor I love you, eternity, my beloved. Official Catholic teaching rarely quotes that particular German philosopher for a defense of celibacy! But the phrase very aptly captures the spirit of the novel’s protagonist, Father Jerome Strozzi, aka Tonzi (based on a real worker-priest named Auguste Rossi) who immerses himself in the demi-monde of Paris’s prostitutes, pimps and petty criminals. Once again the narrator plays a major part, this time complaining that Strozzi has hijacked his plan to write a novel about a prostitute named Elizabeth. But Strozzi’s combination of anti-bourgeois sentiment, Gospel conviction and humility proves irresistible. Freedom, that elusive gift Juan Ramon spent most of his life seeking without realizing it and only finally grasped in an act of self-incarceration, is Tonzi’s hallmark. It allows him to plunge into incriminating circumstances daily, to see God’s providence in an act of betrayal, a missed train or an eviction, to touch the hearts of streetwise prostitutes simply because his agenda is entirely unhidden.

A long time ago he had recognized as a secret vice the habit of embracing formulas [e.g., Arise, take up...’], building arguments, using the Son of Man as another object, situating Jesus in history instead of, even today, living one’s life sufficiently within His so as to grasp the meaning of those phrases and trying over and over to understand them. He apologized for being tactless, because it seemed to him that no one had the right to use these words if his own life had not first transformed them into bread and wine, into flesh and blood, and if he couldn’t say them in his own personal voice.

As the novel develops, the narrator (now identified as Sulivan) becomes more and more obsessed with Strozzi and his powerful influence over people, especially prostitutes. Like a true modern, he professes skepticism about Strozzi’s celibacy but can find no evidence to impugn it; rather, the women speak of his friendship and his demand that they exercise their spiritual freedom. All that he was good for was to rekindle light in eyes that had become dead. Meanwhile he was paying the price. He is regularly roughed up by the pimps whose business he threatens and is reported to the chancery by virtuous Christians whose wayward pleasures he subverts.

By the end Sulivan has abandoned all pretense of plot and is simply describing Strozzi or quoting him. The pages read like the spiritual journal that is so far only his third book to appear in English. As an introduction to it, here is a final Sulivanism from Eternity, based on Strozzi’s life, that makes explicit the paschal character of that priest’s mission: Love wants eternity; it is closer to death than to life: nothing can prevent it from sooner or later being crucified.

In Morning Light Sulivan offers his insights directly without cover of narrative or character, on the model of Pascal’s Pensees or Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace. The book has six sections, ranging in length from 75 pages to five. Word is the first and longest chapter, not surprisingly for a priest released to do full-time writing by his cardinal archbishop, who is perhaps reflected in the sympathetic portrait of Juan Ramon Rimaz. For Sulivan the Word is primarily paradox and parable, the natural enemy of intellectual systems and political schemes; it is addressed always and only to the individual because it demands a metanoia, a change of heart that can only come from within. The results can be controversial: Can you see [Jesus], for example, like our shrewd modern bishops, trying to use democracy to impose Christian laws regarding divorce and abortion on non-Christians? As if Christian morality doesn’t have to come to birth freely in each individual conscience?

On the issues of social justice, he sees the same intransigence in Jesus’ preaching; the liberation is first and foremost interior, whether for rich or poor. If, without illusion, the poor are preferred, it’s because they are more apt, having nothing, to be open to hope. This has long seemed to me to be the only Gospel logic for proclaiming a preferential option for the poor that does not falsely romanticize either the squalor of real poverty or the moral character of poor people as a group. Conversely, I think Sulivan would likely have agreed with his countryman Anatole France in his famous dismissal of society’s sham logic: The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

Sulivan is relentless in his opposition to fitting the Gospel message into any system of thought, whether Platonic, Aristotelian or Hegelian; the result is inevitably a distortion. But he also expresses his dismay at parts of the Gospel itself, like the parable of the wedding feast, where invitation appears as command, with dire consequences for refusal. He much prefers John to Paul, whom he suspects of slipping in a new law to replace the old. In reply to the question of responsibility for Jesus’ death, he sees no shortage of blame: Every society, Jewish or Gentile, that is founded on money, power, and law, condemns him.

In addition to Weil, he quotes Eckhart and salutes Teilhard de Chardin the poet, while rejecting the ideologue with a total explanation tinged with science. He is very French, like Bernanos, in his distrust of the institutional side of the church or indeed any translation of the Gospel into a system of power. For what society would endure if it glorified the faithless steward, the prodigal son, the worker of the eleventh hour, and didn’t wage war against its enemies?

For Sulivan the Gospel is always in opposition, always challenging our complacency; its role is to be corrosive...the grain of sand which disrupts the machine. Thus, the interiorized naked faith of today better reveals the contingency and humility of thingsthat is, the truth of the Christian condition. Crowds, structures, ideologies, political cloutall of these are inimical to real faith and inevitably corrupt it.

This view of the church as a community of committed believers in the midst of a largely secularized society resembles Karl Rahner’s ecclesial sketch of the future, especially in Europe: pockets of Christians scattered everywhere, joining in worship and prayer and supporting one another’s faith and pursuit of justice with very little official superstructure. Nor is it very distant from a number of intentional Christian communities already in existence today around the country, whose members gather for prayer and Eucharist and pool resources of money and time to help those in need both within and beyond their ranks. They too will inevitably have to deal with the necessity and the peril of institutionalizing at some point, and so the challenge of the Gospel message will go on, always calling us out into the desert to renew and purify our faith.

Sulivan, not surprisingly, has something to say about that, too. It is only fitting that these parting words of his should be about language, to which he devoted so much of his priestly energy:

Humor should be part of Christian language. Along with freedom of thought, irony, a laughter that would slowly break things up, adoration that would come as a great blast of wind, a language that would reduce the separation between knowledge and esthetics, between faith and human acts, that would open up to the beyond. There is a future for such a theology; may its time come soon.


Books Discussed

The Sea Remains. Trans. by Robert A. Donahue Jr. and Joseph Cunneen. Crossroad. 1989, 118p $13.95

Eternity, My Beloved. Trans. by Sr. Ellen Francis Riordan. River Boat Books. 1999, 146p $15

Morning Light. Trans. by Joseph Cunneen and Patrick Gormally. Paulist Press. 1988, 180p $12.95

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