Neal Carlin’s mustard seed is already producing fruit in Ireland
Intimations of renewal and reform
Some time ago, or maybe on several occasions, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said something to the effect that for reform and renewal of the Church, something much deeper than structural change is needed. I wonder if he was foreseeing structural change as an outcome, but not the beginning of a process of reform and renewal. The functional, changeable structure of a pilgrim Church has to be relevant at any given time and place to the ultimate unchangeable goal which is to establish the reign of God on earth, a reign of justice, peace and love.
Diarmuid Martin did not, as far as I know, indicate any specific process for embarking on this inner renewal and reform, beyond recommending forming community prayer groups, presumably within the existing parish structure. I don’t know if he had in mind, as a way forward, the possibility of transforming the clerical Church into a community of small Christian Communities. But that would surely require people of creative vision and initiative ‘at the base’.
The best starting point for Church reform doesn’t seem to me to be with the Church Reform Movements such, Call to Action, Voice of the Faithful, We are Church and so many others. Why? Because confined largely to reflection and awareness-raising on all that’s wrong in Church practice and structures, the Movement people tend to see reform as the province and responsibility of the clergy, from Pope and Roman Curia down to local parish. Movement people are basically pew people.
- They tend to focus on Church rather than on reign of God towards which the pilgrim Church is or should be leading.
- They seek to contribute to reform by identifying the source of decay in the system. Then they confine their action to trying to pressurise the clergy into embarking on a journey of reform.
Yet they have succeeded in raising awareness of the need for reform and renewal in some areas. For example, in tandem with the communications media they have to some extent, at the end of a long struggle, succeeded in breaking down resistance to urgently needed action for change, such as in the field of cover-up of clerical sexual abuse, and getting some possibly temporary structures for reform in place.
In this period of paradigm change in society, with an ailing Church lashing about in the sand, to get from here to where we need to go will depend on contemplative creatively active visionaries emerging from among the people, ‘mustard seeds, the least of all the seeds planted in the earth’. The seeds have to be transformed by contact with soil, rain, air and sun to develop, flourish and bear the fruit of personal and society transformation.
But are there any creatively active visionaries here in Ireland embarking on reform and renewal? Yes, I can think of at least one visionary, Donegal priest Neal Carlin who has been actively contributing in his own way through planting ‘a mustard seed’, and the seed he planted is now growing, developing, and beginning to bear rich fruit.
In his book, Freedom to Captives, Neal outlines the stages that led him to founding the ecumenical Columba Community for Peace and Reconciliation which had its beginnings in Derry in the late seventies. Geographically the Community straddles the Derry/Donegal border, while time wise it straddles the border between the era of the Troubles and the Peace Movement in Northern Ireland on the one hand, and on the other, between the era of Celtic Tiger and Recession in the Republic. It also belongs within the era of troubled Church teetering on the brink of uncharted reform.
How it all moved from notion to action
It all started with Neal’s standing back from his own experience of restlessness in face of what was happening in Northern Ireland and across the border, and disenchantment with his virtual imprisonment within the confines of clerical life, withdrawn from the people. As he describes it in various writings and in his book, while still serving in parish work in the cathedral diocese of Derry and visiting prisoners during the years of the Troubles, he was becoming aware of the total reality of self, of the Troubles and of the current society crisis. He was engaging with the local people in trying to identify the source of the on-going crisis in society and in Church.
Eventually he received permission of his bishop to go on retreat, and some time later, to visit Basic Christian Communities in USA. ‘I spent six months questioning myself about the system into which I was ordained’, he says,’ and looking at the small Christian communities of Pecos New Mexico, I became convinced I still wanted to be a priest in a lay organisation. I saw an ideal model there for the kind of priesthood I felt called to. I was testing my vocation and at the same time developing my spiritual life. I returned to Ireland with this ideal as the foundation on which I would, God willing, build a Christian Community’.
On returning to Derry, he got the go-ahead from his bishop to relinquish parish work and become inserted among the poor, people rejected by society, imprisoned as a result of addiction to drugs, alcohol, or gambling, or involvement in the political violence. As Neal tells it, ‘A small group of individuals met to pray… we have witnessed God’s grace at work in many people’s lives and we have been guided to start many good works. These works, in the height of the Troubles, included weekly visits to the political prisoners and ministry to the relatives of prisoners and ex-prisoners who were in grave need during those days. This little Columba Community of Prayer and Reconciliation founded in 1979 opened its first premises in Derry’s Queen St. on June 9th 1981’.
Listening, observing, engaging with the people, and standing back to hear the inner voice was to characterise the Columba Community for Peace and Reconciliation. As Neal put it in an April 2011 open letter to the City Council and the Urban Regeneration Company of Derry, ‘..after listening prayer, we have opened four other places in Donegal and Derry and now employ 35 people’.
The social environment and the functional structures of the Columba community have been changing and growing over the thirty years of its existence. What has not changed is its inner life and its initial and enduring inspiration and empowerment to carry out its mission. In that sense, it represents a cell of the true pilgrim Church on the move towards the Kingdom.
While maintaining on-going outreach today within the local population and beyond, the Columba Community is ministering on six fronts in Derry and over the border in Donegal. A broad outline of the shape of its mission may reflect something of its unchanging spirit and its developing works and structure:
- COLUMBA COMMUNITY FOR PEACE AND RECONCILIATION 11 Queen Street, Derry BT 48 7EG. Tel. 00442871 262407. www.columbacommunity.com
- Members: Full time 14; Active 20; Auxiliary 300. Administrators: Tommy McCallion / Ann McCay Treasurer: Kathleen Devlin Spiritual Director: Neal Carlin, St Anthony’s Retreat Centre, Dundrean, Burnfoot, Co. Donegal, Tel. 0035374 9368370
- Columba House, Queen Street, Derry: Quiet space for meditation, Pastoral Counselling, Listening Ear Prayer for Healing. Columba House is open from 9.30 to 5.00pm Monday to Friday.
- The Y.A.R.D (Young Adults Reality Dreams) Project Pastoral and educational initiative for the Youth and their families, based in new buildings to the rear of Columba House. The Y.A.R.D. project has as its thrust the spiritual regeneration of the vulnerable youth and their parents. The Community believes that it is only when one gets a sense of dignity and self worth that one can get to live contentedly and develop one’s gifts to build a better world, to build the kingdom of God on earth’.
- St Anthony’s Retreat Centre, Dundrean, Burnfoot, Co Donegal Private and directed retreats for individuals and days of renewal for groups. Built on a four-acre plot, it provides Hermitage accommodation for individual retreatants. Young Adults Taizé Prayer on first Friday of every month at 7.30pm.
- White Oaks Residential Rehabilitation Centre, Derryvane, Muff, Co.Donegal The sixty-bed facility is situated on a 35-acre farm. Over a minimum six-week residential stay, treatment focuses on detoxification, spirituality, physical work therapy and counselling, with a two-year after care facility. It is also a bridging point for those re-entering “normal” society, offering help for those burdened by the cross of their addiction as well as for those who suffer with them. The treatment provided in this centre complements the good work already being done in this area by other local agencies.
- Recognising that Interdenominational faith is central to the healing process of marginalised people acutely aware of boundaries, White Oaks Centre is fittingly interdenominational. The project has united all four Christian churches through the support of Rev Alan Falls of the Methodist Church; Rev Matt Moore, Church of Ireland and Rev Joseph McCormick, Presbyterian.
- I.O.S.A.S. ( ISLAND OF SAINTS AND SCHOLARS) CENTRE I.O.S.A.S. Celtic Peace Garden, Derryvane, Muff, Co.Donegal The six-acre garden across the road from White Oaks is inspired by the 5th – 12th Century spiritual renaissance in Europe. The Garden with its representations of the Cross of Patrick, the Boat of Brendan, the Island of Columba and the Oratory of Canice, inspires visitors to a spiritual re-awakening and renewal following the recent Troubles in this land.
- Using the Guide/Prayer Book, the pilgrim can visit the dry-stone cell of St Columba (Colmcille); St Canice’s straw-bale Oratory; the bird sanctuary of St Ciaran; the cave of Columbanus; and the Trinity Circle with the magnificent bronze statue of the Risen Christ.
- Facilitated retreat days for schools, community or church groups are also available. School parties and other groups welcome.
- I.O.S.A.S. Visitors Centre Derryvane, Muff, Co.Donegal. The video of The Celtic saints shown at the Visitor Centre introduces the pilgrim to the elements of the spirituality of Ireland’s Golden Age. There’s a gift shop, coffee shop, a meeting/dining space for groups on retreat and for visitors. The gift shop stocks a variety of products as well as some hand crafted work by the residents and tutors of White Oaks Rehabilitation Centre
A Personal Experience of the Columba Community
In June 2013, Year of the Gathering Ireland and the Year of Faith, I had the privilege of a close-up experience of the life of this Basic Christian Community. It was when the Community organised the Welcome Home to Missionaries event at the I.O.S.A.S. Centre .
For me it was an impressive three-day experience of the vibrant missionary life of the Church in Derry/Donegal and to the furthest ends of the world –South Africa, East and West Africa, the Philippines and South and Central America. Facilitated by one of the core Community members, Marguerite Hamilton, we got off to a joyful start on the Friday evening to the rhythm of the drummer band from Marguerite’s college in Derry, of which she is Principal. The event was an in-depth experience of the Church on mission in the world. As we took our seats to the rhythm of the drums, a choral group of young women, also from Marguerite’s college was moving forward to the stage. With an opening song to mime and dance, the chorale created an atmosphere of deep silence, an inner awareness of who we are as disciples of Jesus on mission today. “I have no hands but yours, no eyes but yours, no ears, no feet but yours”. Perhaps it was partly our rural surroundings that suggested to me the parable of the seeds and the weeds. Don’t start by digging up the weeds. Let the seeds grow and become the main growth, and then get started on the weeds.
As part of the 1,450th Columba anniversary celebration, we participated in the life of the Columba community through its hospitality and outreach in Derry and beyond. We didn’t visit the White Oaks Rehabilitation Centre, but the extensive vegetable garden and greenhouse between it and the Sanctuary plot were in full view, as was the marketing van which appeared each day to collect the vegetables for sale in the Derry market.
This Basic Christian Community seed, small and beautiful, has in thirty years grown to become a tree. The birds of the air from all over Derry and Donegal and beyond, as well as the migratory birds from South Africa, East Africa, Philippines, West Africa, Central and South America come home to roost, and bring joy.
I see it as one of the mustard seeds planted in the soil and already producing fruit. Hopefully the Church Reform Movements will continue to identify and carefully root out the weeds as they appear.