Fr Noel Connolly - A great welcome for ourselves

Columban Fr Noel ConnollyI once knew a priest who was the life of the party but prone to take over any party he attended. Most people enjoyed his company but he was also said by many to “have a great welcome for himself”.

I think that could be said of the history of Western mission. We often had a great welcome for ourselves. We rarely asked the people what they wanted and presumed we knew. We were, after all, carrying the Gospel to people whom we assumed were devoid of any saving relationship with God. We saw ourselves as preachers to whom everyone should listen, because we were working for and guaranteed by God. But we did not have to listen and we did not expect to hear a Gospel word from our people.

This is changing mainly because of two strong forces. First, it is no longer a credible way of doing mission in a secular and plural society like Australia. People will not listen to preachers who seem to have all the answers and a “road map to heaven”. It is just too arrogant. We have lost their trust and have to win it back. People only listen to us when we seem to believe they have something worthwhile to say. That is why Pope Francis puts so much emphasis on getting close to people, listening and conversing rather than preaching to people. In Amoris Laetitia he says, “Take time, quality time. This means being ready to listen patiently and attentively to every­thing the other person wants to say. It requires the self-discipline of not speaking until the time is right. Instead of offering an opinion or advice, we need to be sure that we have heard everything the other person has to say.” #135

In a conversation no one preaches. Instead together we patiently and respectfully engage mutual insights, questions and doubts. Both people give and receive, evangelise and are evangelised, change and are changed. In the most effective evangelisation there is a commitment to relationship and mutuality in transformation.

The other major influence has been the end of colonialism and the growth of the “Southern” churches. Although many missionaries challenged the Enlightenment, in retrospect we seem to have been heavily influenced by it and its stress on Western superiority, progress and the individual. But with the end of colonialism and the growth of the “Southern” churches we have been forced to take a humbler position. In churches where previously we would have supplied the leadership we may not even know when the most important meetings are happening. And in Australia we are now more of a missionary receiving than sending country.

Theologian, Fr Michael McCabe SMA reminds us, “The Church today is challenged to abandon the crusading spirit of the Enlightenment paradigm with its arrogant superiority complex, naïve optimism, and pragmatic activism, and to pursue its mission of witnessing to Christ in a more humble, contemplative and dialogic key.” And the Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama, reminds us western missionaries that we need to give up our “crusading minds” and “teacher complexes” and take on what he calls a “crucified mind”, one which comes from being in relationship with and suffering with others. The age of one directional mission where the missionary does everything is over. Fr Antonio Pernia SVD, theologian, assures us we are not the “owners” of the faith and should not dictate how it must be understood, lived and celebrated.

As missionaries we are called to be with people, patiently waiting to discern with them what the Spirit is calling us all to. Our lives should be characterised by attentiveness, graciousness, humility and contemplation rather than frenetic activity.

We are not the centre of the party.

Fr Noel Connolly SSC is a Columban missionary priest. He is a member of the Columban Mission Institute in North Sydney and a lecturer in Missiology at both the Broken Bay Institute and the Catholic Institute of Sydney.

Read more articles from the current E-News

Comments (7)

  1. Clara Markoulis:
    Jul 21, 2016 at 12:28 PM

    This article from Fr Connolly is brilliant and one that I will mention at our next Catechist meeting. As a Catechist, I too often forget, not just to read or do lessons from a book and speak constantly, but stop, ask questions and engage the students and to listen to their answers. On another note, The Golden Rule Poster is fantastic and I have used it in my lessons many times.

    Last Edit: 21 Jul, 2016, 01:27:03 by Columban Missionaries


  2. John Brennan:
    Jul 21, 2016 at 12:33 PM

    Thank you for Fr Walker and Fr Connolly's articles. I learnt a lot from them. God bless. John Brennan

    Last Edit: 21 Jul, 2016, 01:26:02 by Columban Missionaries


  3. Alex Pollock:
    Jul 21, 2016 at 02:03 PM



  4. Declan Coyle:
    Jul 21, 2016 at 05:32 PM

    Excellent article. As Karl Rahner said, "The future of the church has to be contemplative." To create the space where people can encounter the God of unconditional love, compassion and justice. As missionaries we often forgot that the ground we were walking on was holy. We should have taken off our shoes before we walked on that holy ground. Often we just ploughed through. We were the blind who needed new sight. God was already there to be discovered and celebrated in the people's daily struggles for food and justice and hope. Then the challenge was not to become a western deodorant on the stink of oppression, but to engage with the people in their struggles against injustice. You cannot put a 6 foot 5 man in a three foot cage and tell him to take that hump off his back. Unlocking the cage would be a start.

    Fr Seamus Cullen put his finger on the heart of this insightful article when he wrote recently in The Far East: "The Church needs to facilitate the experience of God, instead of teaching about God. This is essentially what Zazen is about. It is contained in the phrase from Isaiah which says, “Be still and know that I am God”. “Knowing” in the Bible means “Becoming one with”. It is Japan which has taught me that the Gospel incarnate in me is what resonates with other people, and enables them to discover God incarnate in them, and that they are made in the image and likeness of God.

    Japan, like China, is an ancient culture. Japan is our closest contact with our original mission field in China. We have been enriched enormously by our contact with Japan. In the West, we used to have a tradition of contemplation. This died and was effectively replaced with an exclusively rational perspective on reality. This resulted in a culture which saw the human being’s capacity to rationalise and analyse as his/ her only way of knowing. The ability to know through contemplation was no longer recognised, and spiritual realities were dismissed as things that belonged in a world that did not exist.

    Why didn’t I see that the very use of Chinese characters, which are originally pictures or ideograms, reflects a culture which sees the whole of reality and everything in it, without interpreting it, or presuming to contain it in one way or another? The Chinese character for God is a classic example, it is a symbol of an altar and of lightning. The altar depicts the attitude of worship and adoration. The lightning icon reflects reverential fear. Both are dispositions to be found in the person who has experienced God. The character does not presume to say anything about God. It is only the person who has not experienced God who would be so presumptuous.

    The humility with which the Shinto believers approach the divine reality in nature is inspiring. It reminds me of the spirituality that used to be in Ireland in St Columban’s time in the sixth and seventh centuries, when considered nature in all its wonder, beauty and awesomeness to be the original mediator of God.

    The (Chinese/Japanese) ideogram for the God-reality is an icon which describes the awareness that arises in a person who has an encounter with the divine reality, rather than attempting to explain the divine reality in itself. It speaks of worship and awe. I find this most helpful. It does not imply that we know something about God, something that is capable of expression in words."

    I also like St Patrick's missionary approach to the Irish:
    "I am not here to give you rules. I am here to tell you just one thing - you are loved by God. God will take care of you.
    That is my experience, and I want it to be your experience.”

    Last Edit: 25 Jul, 2016, 10:10:34 by Columban Missionaries


  5. John Mittiga:
    Jul 21, 2016 at 06:20 PM

    Be missionaries to those that have not heard the word of God but what about all our young people in Australia who give up the faith because our teachings are so antiquated. Spend some quality time rewriting the Gospels to current day language and hopefully they will come back. We need the young back in the Church for it to survive so that we will have missionaries in the future to hear God's word.

    Last Edit: 25 Jul, 2016, 10:06:51 by Columban Missionaries


  6. Pamela Virgona:
    Jul 22, 2016 at 12:09 PM

    Your reflections on being present to people, rather than being frenetically active, is so true. It requires discernment and awareness that the relationship between people is all important. I am also reminded of the story of Martha and Mary, where to "be" with people, listening and sharing, is so important. Thank you Noel for this article and especially for always inspiring us with Pope Francis 'optimism and faith in all of us.

    Last Edit: 25 Jul, 2016, 10:04:37 by Columban Missionaries


  7. George Tatnell:
    Aug 01, 2016 at 10:03 PM

    Great to see Fr Noel (John) Connolly making his mark. John was our student leader at CBC Gympie in the 1960's.


Write a comment

Required fields are marked *

Allowed tags: <b><i><br>Add a new comment:*