A few days before his Golden Jubilee Mass celebrating 50 years as a priest, Father Bill Sullivan opened up a box that had been sitting in storage for quite some time. Inside it were all the cards he received at his ordination to the priesthood back in 1972.
“I always told myself, if I ever get to my 50th, I’m going to read them all again,” said Father Sullivan. “So, I did just the other day, and all the memories just came flooding back.”
These memories from the last half century – along with many of the friends and family members who helped make them – were at the forefront of Father Sullivan’s mind as he celebrated his Golden Jubilee Mass on Aug. 7 at his home parish of St. John the Baptist in Fort Wayne.
“Just your presence blows me away,” remarked Father Sullivan to begin Mass, as he greeted the nearly 30 priests and hundreds of lay people in attendance. “Thank all of you for gathering today. In a very special way, I’d like to thank Bishop Rhoades, my brother priests, my family sitting here, and each and every one of you.”
Indeed, represented in the congregation were former parishioners from each and every one of Father Sullivan’s priestly assignments. But the connections extended even beyond that, as Father Wayne Jenkins, a classmate of Father Sullivan at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Cincinnati was present to proclaim the Gospel.
Then it was Father Sullivan’s turn to address those gathered. In his homily, he credited “two giants of this diocese” with giving him a firm foundation: Monsignor Edward Hession, with whom Father Sullivan spent his diaconate, and Monsignor William Lester, who served alongside Father Sullivan at his first parish. He also referenced St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, and the joys of ministering to others as a member of the clergy.
“How blessed I have been, as my brother priests are as well, to serve as a mediator between God and God’s children,” said Father Sullivan. “As a priest, each of us has been walking with you, guiding you, our brothers and sisters in Christ, so that at the end of our pilgrimage here on earth, we may be reunited with those who have gone before us in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Throughout his homily, Father Sullivan reflected on his different stops on his priestly journey. From St. Jude in Fort Wayne, where Father Sullivan first engaged in hospital ministry, to Bishop Dwenger High School, where he served as chaplain and teacher – though “my family disowned me” as a proud alum of rival Bishop Luers High School – Father Sullivan recalled key memories and events along the way. He recounted his travels from St. Joseph in Fort Wayne to St. Monica in Mishawaka, then to St. Thomas in Elkhart and finally to St. John the Baptist in New Haven. However, his church family continues to grow in retirement, as Father Sullivan has been active filling in wherever he is needed.
“I’ve been fortunate since I retired to go to 15 parishes to say Mass, and many others to hear confessions. Some of these parishes I had never been to before in my 50 years. Some of the priests I hardly knew at all, but now I know them a lot better. We have a fraternity that is very, very special.”
Father Sullivan ended his homily by sharing a personal message affirming the sacramental life of the Church. He highlighted three sacraments in particular – the Eucharist, Reconciliation, and the Anointing of the Sick – and recalled various ways that each have touched his life.
“To sum it all up,” said Father Sullivan, “if one of you were to ask me, ‘Would you do it all over again,’ my response would be a resounding, ‘Yes.’”
At the conclusion of the Mass, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades stepped forward to share a few words of gratitude to Father Sullivan. Describing him as “a gift to our diocese,” Bishop Rhoades thanked Father Sullivan for his leadership, charity, and dedicated service, particularly to those less fortunate.
“One thing that has edified me so much since I’ve been here has been Father Bill’s devotion to the service of the poor, the sick, the disabled, the elderly, and those in hospitals and nursing homes,” said Bishop Rhoades. “Father Bill, that’s really the heart of the good shepherd, and I thank you for that.”
Bishop Rhoades also commended Father Sullivan for championing Catholic education throughout his priesthood, from his time teaching at Bishop Dwenger to his continued support of Bishop Luers, and every stop in between. Bishop’s final blessing captured the love of Christ that Father Sullivan so often shared with his parishioners.
“Father Bill, I thank you for being a truly exemplary servant of the Lord. I join my voice to so many who have been touched by God’s grace through your priestly life and ministry. May the Lord continue to pour out his graces upon you, bless you with good health, and watch over you.”
Following Mass, a reception was held at St. John the Baptist School. As hundreds gathered to offer congratulations and thank Father Sullivan for the gift of his priesthood, the words of his homily illustrating the reciprocal nature of his vocation rang true: “How fortunate I was to have ministered with you and having been ministered by you.”
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