Speaker: Fr James O’Halloran SDB
Is a Salesian who has worked with Christian communities for forty years as member, coordinator and promoter. This mission he has carried out worldwide from the halls of universities to cities, rural villages and far flung mission stations. Twenty of the forty years were spent between Africa and Latin America. At present, based in Ireland he is involved in a project for homeless young people and in Sean McDermott Street Parish. Author of thirteen books mainly centered on subjects of prayer and the development small Christian communities, he continues with a scaled-down apostolate abroad.
Theme: How Can We Rebuild Our Church?
Speaking Notes 18th February 2012 of Fr James O’Halloran SDB
Heading: I Have a Dream
Being a seminarian in Italy for the opening of Vatican II, the council caught my imagination. I followed its course with great interest and was enthused by the vision that emerged from the historic gathering. Ever since, my dream has been that it be fully implemented. There has indeed been notable changes from the church I knew as a boy, yet there is still a way to go for the dream to be realised. After nearly fifty years of priesthood, spent largely abroad, I share my thoughts on the inspiration and riches that flow from that kairos (earth-shaking) moment in history.
Paragraph 4 of the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church says: ‘the universal church is seen to be “a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.’ These words I find among the most significant uttered in the last century, implying profound implications for the church and, indeed, the world. In effect we are asked in the church to be a community as the Trinity is community. Communities of love here on earth take their style from that unity.
Historically, Jesus then entered the picture. ‘Though in the form of God, he did not regard equality in the Godhead as something to hold on to. He willingly became as human as they come and showed us how to pattern our communities on that of the Trinity. He also prayed earnestly that we would enjoy the unity with the Father that so marked his own earthly life.
Being asked to be a community in the image of the Trinity obviously begs the question as to what sort of community the Trinity is. Just to choose a few challenging facts, the Trinity is a community where there is:
intimate loving and sharing,
full participation of the three members,
absolute equality of persons and
outreach to the other – and, indeed, to all creation.
The challenge lies in how we are to realise such elements in the church.
The good news is that the vision of the Council is quietly being worked out in practice throughout the world. The Holy Spirit was active in this regard before that momentous event and has not ceased to be active since. Only a few days ago, I had an e-mail from a friend in Kenya, Maryknoller Fr Joe Healey, who is currently researching small Christian communities in the AMECEA region of East and Central Africa. He has established that there are 110,000 small Christian communities in the nine AMECEA countries. But their numbers are growing throughout all of Africa and throughout the world, even in Ireland. Why haven’t they made a bigger splash? They tend to be low key – people getting on with their ordinary lives.
One important way, therefore, in which the vision of the Council fathers is being achieved is through these small Christian communities that are open to one another and flow into larger assemblies, such as the parish, to form a communion of communities. It may not be that everyone is a member of a small community, yet everyone is touched by their lives. They bring a chemistry of cohesion to bigger gatherings. There is a sense of déjà vu about this development, because this was somewhat the shape of things in New Testament times, when the church was markedly communitarian (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37).
Purpose of structures
The focus in the early church was on persons rather than on institutions. We need structures; otherwise our relational projects can run into the sand. But the structures are there to foster community; they are secondary and must never become an end in themselves.
Despite the proliferation of small Christian communities on the planet, if we are honest, we will admit that the old institution is alive and well and hampering the implementation of the Council’s project. Small communities are not an added extra in the church. It would be theologically more exact to speak of basic ecclesial communities, because they are church. They are of the essence. Here we see the relevance of Tertullian’s statement: ‘Where there are three, a church exists, although they be laity’.
One of the major weaknesses in the church is the lack of consultation. Decisions are handed down without due prayerful discernment in the community. If we believe that the church community is the body of Christ and that the Spirit of Jesus is present there, then surely leaving the members out of the decision-making process cannot be sound theology. Among the members are the clergy, who are not an entity separate from God’s priestly people, but an integral part of the community. The Council led to many advances, but decision-making is crucial. If people are not part of the decision-making process are they really part of the community at all in any meaningful sense? Pope Paul VI said that the will of God for religious community (and surely the same applies to Christian community) is discovered through trustful dialogue in the collective.
In the light of this truth, should not our decisions in the church emerge from dialogue and consensus in community. Someone going on a solo run in doctrinal or pastoral matters is not theologically desirable. In this process, we have the scriptures and tradition to help us. The word of God is clearly recorded in writing; tradition is not as easy to access. We have to strive to ensure that it springs from a genuine Christian source and not from something that is socially or politically conditioned. Rather than being guided by theological considerations in the church, for example, the approach to women has been deeply distorted by social and political influences.
To speak of the church as a hierarchical community is surely a contradiction in terms, if we are thinking of community as a top-down structure. On the other hand, seeing the Holy Father and the bishops as servants is another matter altogether and, above all, in tune with the gospel: ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20:25-28). The mind of Jesus could not be clearer. We are one community, but have different roles; no one role is above or below another. All merit respect and everyone uses their gifts for the well-being of the community. I dream that the injunction of Jesus will, at last, be taken to heart, because it honours the equality within the Trinity.
Seek ye first
So far, we have been considering the music of unity within the church itself. But this harmony is not confined to the church. It overflows its borders to reach the whole world and continues on into the hereafter, where it reaches a crescendo in a great eternal symphony. This cosmic reality we call the kingdom of God. All our lives, many of us have been reciting the Lord’s Prayer and using the words, ‘Your kingdom come’. Yet what did those words mean to us? Did we ever consider the question? Speaking for myself, I admit that for years I didn’t give the matter much thought. I vaguely equated church and kingdom.
Then came the day that the words of Jesus, ‘But seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well’ (Matthew 6:33), struck me forcibly. The word ‘church’ is only used three times in the gospel (Matthew 16:18; 18:17) while Jesus speaks frequently of the kingdom. According to Paul VI it is the “absolute good” to which everything else must defer. Clearly, as for Christ, the kingdom has to be the priority for us. But in what does it consist? I have tried to deal with that query scripturally and at length in Living Cells, Vision and Practicalities of Small Christian Communities and Groups (The Columba Press). Suffice to say here that wherever we find goodness, wherever there is harmony rooted in justice, the kingdom of God is there; it matters not whether the goodness and harmony is found among Muslims, Hindus, Jews or people who would profess no religion – we will support it as a priority.
This openness is a key feature of the kingdom. For forty years, I have been working in community building. This apostolate involved a lot of travel and I continually found myself challenged to openness by the Spirit. The challenge often caused me pain, because we all have constraints depending on the time and place in which we live. Even Jesus had constraints. One such was that he was sent to minister to the lost sheep of the house of Israel only (Matthew 15:24) and was put in a quandary when Gentiles sought his intervention. Yet the interesting thing is that he always responded to faith; we saw him do it with the Roman centurion (Matthew 8:3-13) and the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). I daresay Jesus came to ask himself how he could possibly refuse healing to people who obviously had faith. Despite our constraints, if we maintain open minds and do our best, God’s purposes will be achieved. In the context of openness, I believe that Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Turkey (2006) and outreach to the Muslim community, did immense good. His joining the people and their leaders in prayer was particularly striking.
On a sadder note, I was upset to hear from some young migrants with whom I work in Dublin that they were taunted on the streets and pelted with missiles by thoughtless youths. The victims kindly attributed this reprehensible behaviour to youthful immaturity. On the same subject, three impressive travelling ladies in a recent interview on television with Vincent Browne discussed their research which revealed a high incidence of racism against travellers in Ireland. One of the most insistent appeals in the Bible is to welcome the stranger (Exodus 20:20-24; Matthew 25:35).
In pleading for the openness to the other that characterises the kingdom and by recognising it as the priority, there is no thought of diminishing the church, or downplaying the role of Christ. We believe that Christ is the Saviour of all, and church members are part of his body. The church is not the whole of the kingdom; it is part of it. But surely it is meant to give powerful witness to it and to be an effective instrument for building it on the planet. Furthermore, what more effective way is there to attract people to Christ and the Christian community than to have a church that promotes the kingdom, or a better world?
Given my growing appreciation of the primacy of the kingdom, I would now amplify and restate my vision. I would encourage small Christian communities, which through their openness to one another and wider situations, such as the parish, would create a communion of communities in those situations. But I would affirm groups of all kinds, whether religious or other, that are doing anything to build a better world or, if you like, the kingdom. And I would urge them to support one another in their endeavours.
Three dancers one dance
Spirituality is not something I dream up in an ivory tower and then impose on life. It might be defined as ‘a lived experience of faith’, and people who have reflected on their communal path in small Christian communities, which give practical expression to the vision of Vatican Council II, have come up with a spirituality that will give joy to all Christians. The spirituality obviously takes its inspiration in the community of the Trinity, as already indicated. They take their style from the unity of the Three-in-One. As they say in Africa, there are three dancers but only one dance. Jesus becomes human and through his unity with the Father shows us the way, while praying earnestly that we follow his path of love. Jesus is in a special way regarded as a friend in the communities: his presence is palpable, his the empty chair at the table. The influence of the Holy Spirit is so pervasive in the Acts of the Apostles that the book might well be called the Acts of the Spirit. It is the same in the communities. Spirit consciousness is high. There are other aspects to the spirituality, but the Trinity is the anchor.
The fact that the church as community is rooted in the Trinity gives Christians a profound sense of being permeated by the love of God – God who is love (John 4:8). We belong to God. God holds us in the palm of the divine hand. Even before we were born, or could begin to love God, God first loved us (John 15:12). And this love of God is without conditions. The Lord doesn’t say, ‘I will love you but only if you are good’. Whether we are good or bad, God still loves us and works for our salvation. God is love and cannot do otherwise. God’s love is something that we have to know, not just in the head but in the heart or, more graphically, in the gut.
When we are conscious of this love, it can change the whole way in which we see life. We know that, when we give a person an experience of unconditional love, we are giving them an experience of God, because God is love – the infinite source. So our human love is the channelling of the love of God to one another. But if I channel God’s love to others, then I will always love sensitively and well. The poet William Blake puts it tellingly when he says that we are ‘put on earth to bear the beams of love’.
The spirituality of community might be graphically stated as befriending one another in God, Three in One. It’s about intimacy. That love and relationships are of the essence has sometimes been expressed more vitally by secular rather than by spiritual authors. Hilaire Belloc, undoubtedly Catholic, yet secular, delves the mystery when he writes:
From quiet homes and first beginning,
Out to the undiscovered ends,
There’s nothing worth the wear of winning,
But laughter and the love of friends.
I chose ‘I Have a Dream’ as the title for this article. It was inspired by the memorable speech of Martin Luther King Junior whose dream of civil rights for Afro Americans was at last achieved only after his assassination. I believe that the eventual implementation of Vatican II’s vision of the church as community in the image of the Blessed Trinity is historically inevitable. Otherwise, the future of the church will be a bleak one.
Association of Member Episcopal Conferences of Eastern Africa.
James O’Halloran, Living Cells, Vision and Practicalities of Small Christian Communities and Groups, Dublin: The Columba Press, 2011 (cf, for a complete resource on the subject).
Paul VI, The Evangelisation of Peoples, no. 58.
Exhortation to Chastity. 7. 3.
Renewal of Religious Life, 25.
The Evangelisation of Peoples, no. 8.