War ‘difficult to justify’
Twins, sister inspired by 'boat people'
Twins Peter (left) and Kevin O'Neill and, at right, sister Kate
By Dan McAloon
Twins Peter and Kevin O'Neill, both Columban priests, and their sister Kate, a Sister of Our Lady of the Missions, believe their family's befriending of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s helped transform three curious kids into crosscultural Christian missioners.
Asked what motivated them to join the Columban Order and work in overseas mission, identical twins, Peter and Kevin O'Neill, aged 40, say the "spark" that fanned their interest in crosscultural ministries began when they met Vietnamese "boat people" in rural Victoria as teenagers.
"Our family belonged to an organisation in Geelong that welcomed Vietnamese refugees," recalls Peter today.
"Once a month young Vietnamese came to our family for weekend activities. We'd listen to them describe family life in Vietnam and we'd share each other's cooking."
Kevin adds: "We'd pick up a little Vietnamese language and try to teach them our Aussie slang.
"It was the first time any of the six O'Neill kids mixed with people from another country and culture, and this went on regularly for three or four years.
"To this day our parents still keep in touch with Vietnamese friends from that time."
It was during two successive retreats the twins took in their senior school years that Peter realised his attraction for the missionary priesthood.
"There was a Passionist priest at both retreats whom I found very inspiring, to the point where I found myself thinking: 'If this is what a priest is maybe I might be interested in being a priest.' It hadn't occurred to me before."
Soon, Peter was speaking with vocational directors at missionary congregations.
The charism of the Columban Fathers seemed to speak directly to his heart's unfulfilled ambition to serve in the crosscultural mission.
"The Columbans seemed so down-to-earth, and I was attracted to the excitement and challenge of their mission and their charism of crossing boundaries of culture, language and religion," Peter says.
He deferred his place at university and spent a year in the workforce before entering the Columbans early in 1982 to begin the first of nine years training for the priesthood.
For twin brother Kevin, who was studying for a degree in chemical engineering, there was curiosity about this new life that had taken his "big" brother away.
While Peter talked animatedly about his seminary studies, Kevin found himself dealing with a conflict: "I was feeling these deep stirrings, emotions I'd never felt before, but I was putting down this strong suspicion that I just wanted to be with my brother.
"I spent a whole year turning this over in my mind."
Then came the day when Kevin says he knew with certainty about his own calling to the Columban priesthood after a spiritual breakthrough filled him with an abiding sense of God's purpose for him.
"It was my first adult experience of God and it made a lasting impact on me."
Two years after Peter, Kevin also entered the Columban seminary.
The twins linked up in Taiwan for two years during their formation. By then, Peter's determination tomission in "Pakistan, Peru or Chile" had quietened after working with the homeless men of Tokyo.
This ministry, he says, overturned his prejudices that all Japanese people were "rich, cool and reserved".
The shopfront Church-run health clinic he ministered from offered daily, raw encounters with Japan's "forgotten people".
These were homeless youths and the elderly, and professionals - "lawyers, teachers, doctors" - who'd had severe mental collapse and "fallen through the cracks" from their former high status in Japanese society.
Today Peter is an administrator at the Columban mission in Taiwan, set up as a non-government organisation to protect the undervalued rights of Taiwan's guest workers.
"Our clients are among the 315,000 migrant workers pulled to Taiwan by the promise of jobs. They're doing the "DDD" - Difficult, Dangerous, Dirty - work so that their families at home have an income."
Through the Columban mission, workers are offered pastoral counselling, financial planning and legal representation.
Each month in this demonstrably faith-filled community, 10,000 guest workers, mainly Filipinos, join about 200 Taiwanese parishioners for the Masses celebrated by the Columbans at Sacred Heart Church, Chungli.
Kevin ministered for seven years in the prison system in Taiwan, working with intellectually disabled and HIV-positive inmates, and with young people on remand.
After his election to the Columbans' general council in Ireland, he is now administering the order's lay missionary programs, co-ordinating the work of 70 lay missionaries in 12 countries.
But what of younger sister, Kate? She made her final vows as a Sister of Our Lady of the Missions last April.
Like the twins, she sought out a missionary congregation working at society's margins.
Much of Kate's formation was spent in New Zealand where she worked for four years in an outreach program in Christchurch, offering street people "support, advocacy, crisis and longer term intervention".
Today Sr Kate is finding her feet in the vibrant, "very noisy, very heavily polluted", city of Manila, thecapital of the Philippines.
"Currently my focus is on acquiring language skills, but I'm looking forward to hopefully working with the people on the streets."
For Kate "the special gift" she experiences in her religious community is "the mutual sharing and openness in both the joy and pain of life".
In Manila her community numbers 12. "We are like the United Nations really ... from 10 different nationalities."
Finding the lingua franca within this group, she admits, isn't always easy: "It requires a lot of patience and understanding, but I believe it is well worth it."
Reprinted with permission from Australian Religious Vol 6/2