Frs Peter and Kevin O’Neill [right]. Photo: St Columbans Mission Society
Over the years, many people have asked me: “What is it like being a twin?” I always stop and pause but never really seem to be able to give much of an answer because I do not know what it is like not being a twin. Sometimes people also ask: “What is it like to have a twin brother who is also a Columban missionary?” I guess the same pause takes place because when I joined the Columbans in 1984, my twin brother Peter was already in formation with the Columbans. Peter joined in 1982. However, when I was discerning my call from God, it was a bit tricky for me having a twin brother already with the Columbans but probably also very helpful in clarifying God’s call.
During our last two years of high school, we had annual class retreats at the Christian Brothers College in Geelong, Victoria. Those retreats got my twin brother Peter thinking about becoming a missionary priest. I didn’t know this at the time. I did notice that during our last year at school, Peter was spending a lot of time having meetings with the Principal, who was a Christian Brother. I thought that Peter was perhaps finding it hard to decide what he wanted to study at university, and I wondered why it was taking him so long to decide. I had already made up my mind that I was going to study Chemical Engineering. Peter finally decided to defer his acceptance into an Applied Science degree to work for a year and continue his discernment with the Columbans. After a year working as a laboratory technician and doing university studies part-time, Peter headed to Sydney to begin his formation to be a Columban missionary.
Getting back to my discernment. When God started prodding my heart, I began wrestling with God. It took me a while to figure out if my desire to be a missionary and join the Columbans was a desire to be with my twin brother, or was it also a calling from God. I knew as twins we were close, but I also knew it didn’t mean we were destined to be taking similar paths in life. I had to work that one out with God.
Columban Fr Kevin O'Neill with Pope Francis. Photo: St Columbans Mission Society
Our parish community, Holy Spirit Manifold Heights, Geelong, now a part of St Michael’s parish, was always a big part of our family life growing up. Our parents, now in their mid-80s, are still members of the parish. As teenagers, Peter and I were members of the parish tennis club and youth group. As a family of six kids, we took up a whole pew at Sunday mass and never missed Holy Days of Obligation. Good Friday always seemed to be a day when we spent more time in the church than at home! All four boys in our family were altar servers. It was always a thrill to be asked to serve on special occasions such as Easter ceremonies, benediction, weddings and ordinations. We never really minded getting up early in the morning and riding our bikes through the winter mist to serve at the 7 am weekday masses when it was our turn. During those days, our parish priest was Fr James Feenan (RIP) from Northern Ireland. Twenty years after joining the Columbans, during the six years I worked in Ireland, and the occasion my parents came to visit, I was to discover that Fr Feenan’s home village was only a few kilometres away from where my ancestors used to live – the O’Neills who came to Australia in 1867! Peter and I used to ask our parish priest why he left his homeland of Ireland to be a priest in Australia, not knowing that about 10 years later, we too would be leaving our homeland to work in Asia - Japan, Taiwan, China and Hong Kong. Perhaps those conversations with our parish priest began to kindle the missionary spirit within us.
Frs Kevin (left) and Peter O’Neill. Photo: St Columbans Mission Society
During our teenage years, our parents belonged to an organization that helped Vietnamese refugees settle into life in Australia. For several years, most months, our family was blessed to have up to four young adult Vietnamese come and stay with us for the weekend. It was always great fun yet tinged with much sadness, too as we listened to the tragic stories of how our Vietnamese friends had to flee from their homeland. Looking back, these experiences too perhaps kindled the missionary spirit in Peter and me, and possibly also in our younger sister Kate who is a Sister of our Lady of the Missions. Kate has been working with street children in Manila, the Philippines, for just over 20 years.
Over the past 40 years, Peter and I haven’t spent a lot of time together in one place or country. As a part of our formation to be Columbans, Peter spent two years in Japan and I spent two years in Taiwan. After his ordination in 1990, Peter went to Taiwan and I followed after my ordination in 1992. We were blessed to have 8 years together on mission in Taiwan where I worked as a prison chaplain and Peter, for 26 years, worked in advocating for the human rights of migrant workers who came to Taiwan from other parts of Asia to find work to support their families back at home. From Taiwan, I went to Ireland, then to China and Hong Kong. In China, I worked as vocations director and in Ireland and Hong Kong, I worked in central leadership for the Columbans.
After each of us working overseas for about 28 years, we are now back in Australia as members of the Columban Peace, Ecology and Justice team based at the Columban Mission Center in Melbourne. Peter is also the Columban Leader in Australia. Asia still beckons both of us! I hope to return to China next year and Peter to Taiwan sometime in the future.
Columban Fr Kevin O’Neill is assigned to China. He is currently working at St Columban’s Mission Society, Melbourne.
- Read more from the current Columban eBulletin