From growing up in Limerick to leading the conversation in applied spirituality, the path of one Jesuit priest carried him through the Chilean military regime and guided him through his ongoing commitment to social justice service in the modern world.
Dr Michael O’Sullivan, Director of the Spirituality Institute for Research and Education (SpIRE), was ordained to the priesthood in 1981, worked for many years in Chile as a Jesuit missionary priest in Chile during the dictatorship of General Pinochet in the 1980s, and worked for 13 years in Ballymun to support economically disadvantaged people.
“I see my ordained priesthood very much in the context of my vocation to be a Jesuit with its spirituality, tradition, and community life,” Dr O’Sullivan said, “And so my training, studies, and formation follow wed a Jesuit path.”
Educated by the Jesuits from the age of seven, Dr O’Sullivan became part of the Jesuit Church just after the Second Vatican Council, whose ideas focused on the idea of solidarity between the Church, the communities, and the world at large.
It was the Jesuit order’s strong commitments to intellectual endeavours, diversity in its approaches, and broad outlook on world engagement that drew Dr O’Sullivan to become a Jesuit priest.
This progressive approach would be crucial in Dr O’Sullivan’s experiences in missionary work abroad. In the early 1970s, Ireland welcomed Chilean refugees as the military government under General Pinochet took root. Dr O’Sullivan began getting to know them, soon becoming close with many of the Chileans he met.
“I wanted to do what I could in Chile to enable these people to be able to return home, and also to help for the cause of social justice in a time when it was under repressive military rule,” he said. “In 1974, we had our General Congregation and it was decided that the mission of Jesuits into the future was to be a mission in the service of faith and promotion of social justice.
In Chile, Dr O’Sullivan found himself working right on the front lines with disadvantaged and persecuted groups in the town of Arica. “It was a very sort of practical pastoral work engaging with the people and their issues,” he said.
While there was a Catholic government in place at the time, there were conflicting views of how to be Catholic or Christian. Dr O’Sullivan even found himself accused of being a communist and a threat to national security. “I saw it as my duty as a Christian with the background I was bringing, in a faith that does justice, to commit myself to these people and see how they could bring forward social justice and end the military oppression that was in the country.”
After he left the country in 1984, he was unable to go back until after the government had shifted. His experiences in Chile have since become the subject of a documentary film, A Jesuit with the People.
“There was a return to democracy and people were able to live without fear. But there was a long legacy of hurt and unresolved loss.” Over 30,000 people were direct victims of human rights violations during the regime of General Pinochet, many of whom were never found. “Many people in Chile suffered a great deal to bring about change and didn’t necessarily gain a great deal when change did come, whereas those who did not work so much for change gained more than their effort justified.”
The biggest drive for Dr O’Sullivan in pursuing social justice work through his priesthood was the study of liberation theology. “It was a theology and a spirituality that was guiding people in how to be engaged with the concerns of economically poor and persecuted people and offering a faith-understanding as to why and how this engagement was required of Christians,” he said.
“It is consistent with the idea that the Christian faith should be serving the modern world.” Dr O’Sullivan also chaired and co-organised the first conference in Ireland on Liberation Theory in 1976. He also began studying feminist theology after seeing the suffering of women in Chile, who had lost their husbands and sons to the regime. “I came to see what women were suffering because of their gender.”
“I worked for 13 years in the flats at Ballymun, and one of the initiatives I undertook was to start a Bible study, mainly with women, about reading the Christian story in ways that could be empowering for women,” he said, “Because sometimes it had actually been disempowering for them.”
“Spirituality can be a source for transformation,” Dr O’Sullivan said. “It takes people outside themselves to look at the world.” In 2010, he published his book How Roman Catholic Theology Can Transform Male Violence against Women, pulling from his own experiences and learning from women themselves about what suffering they were experiencing in their lives.
“I felt a responsibility as a man, as a priest, as a Jesuit to address it,” he said. “As I studied feminist thinkers, I could see there was a lot to be learned from them on how to read the Christian story, and I was keen that people would realise that violence against women is not just something to be left to social workers and healthcare workers and lawyers and women’s refuges and so on but that also the theological community and the community of spirituality and theology scholars needed, too, to take up these issues.”
Dr O’Sullivan’s main focus now is the study of applied spirituality, an academic discipline aimed toward creating a positive resource out of Christianity without forcing it on people. “It’s about engaging with people while recognising their struggles,” Dr O’Sullivan explained. “God tries to accompany and serve in their journeys, and the programme has proven to be life-transforming.”
He has also later entered the arena of pilgrimage and spiritual tourism. Last year, he and SpIRE put on an international conference on the growing interest today in pilgrimage. “We want to see that guides are trained properly with an appreciation of the sites,” he said. “It’s taking people where they are, finding what is speaking people today, and this is one of the things that’s speaking to people today. They go to these sites, they experience a sense of spirituality there, and it helps to sustain them.”
Dr O’Sullivan, is now on the organising committee for a major international spirituality studies conference in May. “The conference is further evidence of the growing influence of spirituality in the academy, the professions, and the wider society.”
An earlier version of this article said Dr O’Sullivan joined the Church in 1969, rather than the Jesuit order. This has been updated accordingly.