The Key Is Community
It was my last day in the seminary, nearly forty years ago, and for some reason I looked into someone else’s room and saw a book called ‘Rien de Chretianite sans Communauté.’ It struck me immediately that I did not understand the statement and that I was mystified by it. For me, Christianity was not a matter of community -- that sounded a bit like reducing it to sociology. Christianity was about fighting that lonely battle, going counter-culture against the tide and earning the crown. Well yes, I knew the theology of grace but nevertheless, when it came down to hard tacks I was out there on my own fighting the good fight.
It wasn’t long before I was working in the mountains of Kabankalan, in the island of Negros in the Philippines. We had 2 or 3 priests for seventy thousand people. So the majority of the little hamlets spread throughout the foothills and mountains were only receiving Mass once a year or maybe once every few years or maybe not at all. The people were expected to trek into the central church and they did on special occasions. With my Irish background that was not satisfactory. I wanted to see them being able to worship every Sunday. I had read the Vatican Council document on the Liturgy which was just out and it made it quite clear that you could hold the Liturgy of the Word independently from the Liturgy of the Sacrifice in places where that needed to happen. This was surely revolutionary. I was delighted with the idea and my parish priest, Fr. Mark Kavanagh (the brother of the late Bishop James Kavanagh) was very open to the idea.
There were indeed a lot of fundamentalist sects, quite anti-catholic, in all of these areas and they had worship services every Sunday. The Church was certainly being left behind. So, I set up a worship service, taking it from the Liturgy of the Word, adapting it from something similar being done by the Mill Hill Fathers over on another island. I called it the Panimbahon or Worship Service. Now medium-size villages throughout the parish had a worship service every Sunday overnight. I had a monthly book printed for those islands which have the same language; I visited their bishops, and had it introduced to quite a vast area -- possibly of about 6 million people. Sailors on boats away from home even used this at times on a Sunday. In the larger centers where we were able to do it people went out with Holy Communion to give during the Worship Service. But normally it took place without Holy Communion.
Sometime later I was moved to the inner mountains of Kabankalan with a lot more problems. In fact, I was the first permanent priest in this parish of Tabugon. I immediately thought of setting up my worship service, the Panimbahon; but before I did I had a stroke of luck. I invited young Filipino priests to share with me what they were doing in their parishes. These were young people who I myself had taught in the seminary. I was quite surprised to hear the radically different approach they had to mine. And I still recall vividly Fr. Peter Hiponia standing up at the blackboard saying, “Niall, we are very grateful to you for setting up this Panimbahon throughout these islands, they have done a lot of good. They’ve introduced prayer on a Sunday but they do not create a Christian Community. For a Christian Community, you need to have five things,” and he drew a star on the board. On separate points of the star he srote:
- sharing time, talent, and material goods;
- sharing decision-making;
- standing up as a group for justice;
- forgiveness and reconciliation; and
- prayer together.
“Prayer together, I mention last,” he said “not because it’s less important but because it is the crowning of the others but without the others, you do not have a Christian Community.” I was hardly listening to him because for some reason or other when he mentioned sharing of time, treasure, talent, material goods, my mind flew far away; I suddenly had one of those little insights which build up for some time: A Christian is someone who shares; then I remembered years before that book by Henri De Lubac saying, ‘No Christianity without community.’ I took up vigorously this new approach and within a couple of years, I think we had, something like 50 or 60 small Christian Communities throughout our parish. It would be a longer story if I were to tell you of the dead ends, down which I went before I got them up and going. That needs another article. Our attendance on Sunday worship increased from 200 to 2000 within a couple of years and when I lay down at night I knew that in the farthest hills of the parish there were justice committees, health committees, catechetical committees looking after the people and a stream of prayers going up to heaven in a way that I never could have dreamt of. The key was community.
You can make a difference
You can help the Negros Nine in so many ways