Fr Niall O’Brien’s Enduring Influence

Apr 25, 2024

Fr Niall O’Brien’s influence is enduring and still bearing fruit in the places he served, writes his friend Hannah Carter.

We were so blessed to meet Fr Niall O’Brien in May of 1997 while he was still in Bacolod. It was my first trip to the Philippines along with our son, Joseph. His dad, Larry, took us to meet Fr Niall at the Columban house.

I felt I already knew him from several readings of ‘Revolution from the Heart’, though I never had hoped or dreamed I would actually see him.

Revolution from the Heart by Fr Niall O’Brien.

I asked for his blessing on Joseph, and he said the beautiful words, “May you bring joy, Joseph, wherever you go.”

Years passed, life was busy and of course I never forgot that encounter but had not tried to contact Fr Niall since. During the autumn of 2003 I felt a sudden urgency to reach out to him, found the number for the Columbans in Bacolod and called, only to learn that Fr Niall had just left for medical treatment in Pisa a day earlier.

Fr Niall’s inscription to Hannah.

We were able to connect very quickly by email and so began a cherished correspondence through the last six months of his life. He often suffered from shortness of breath due to his illness. Joseph was having serious asthma difficulties at the time as well.

In one email, Fr Niall told me the story of a family with a sick child struggling to breathe: “One dark night in the mountains a mother arrived at our house with her child who had whooping cough. All night the child coughed and I did not know what to do; then Connie arrived – mentioned in my books! We had no medicines at all, and the child was heaving and struggling. Connie heated some water and wet a towel and laid it on the child’s breast. I think it may have expanded the child’s airways. Anyway, within a half hour — long time I know — the child fell asleep.”

Eventually there was relief, but that experience stayed with him. And with me.

Some 16 years after Fr Niall’s death, together with our family members in the area, the untiring Rosette and her daughter Quenn, we started a small foundation serving asthma and COPD patients in a remote barangay in southern Negros Occidental, near his mission field.

It is called Huyop sang Kabuhi (Breath of Life) Niall O’Brien Respiratory Outreach. There have been so many blessings of Providence along the way and we feel Fr Niall very near in his patronage. He is still beloved among the people of that place. And still beloved in the hearts of our family. “Think of all the things that were thought impossible — until they happened!”

By Fr Brendan O’Sullivan

There will be a National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis July 17-21. It will be the first one in the United States in almost 50 years. Why? Bishop Cozzens who is leading the Eucharistic revival on behalf of the Bishops Conference said, “We are really aware in these times that the church needs to become more missionary.”

He added that we need to become like the early church and become missionaries again. That missionary conversion is what we are seeking through the Eucharistic revival. Those two points reminded me of something Columban Fr Niall O’Brien wrote over 20 years ago.

Fr Niall O’Brien was assigned to the Philippines in 1964. Before arriving in the Philippines Niall’s dream had been to bring mass and the sacraments to people who had not seen a priest in years. When he ran into situations of injustice in the Philippines, he wondered if providing people with mass and the sacraments is what a priest should be doing. He wondered what his vocation as a missionary priest demanded of him.

The situation he encountered on the island of Negros answered that question. There was poverty and injustice and all that goes with them. He served the poor in many ways especially by defending their human rights. He was also a strong proponent of non-violence. Of course, this caused him problems with those who were oppressing the people.

RTE reporter Charlie Bird in 1984 with Columban missionary Fr Niall O’Brien who was imprisoned in the Philippines along with eight others on trumped up charges under the Marcos regime.

He, another Columban priest, a diocesan priest and six lay people were falsely accused to being involved in the assassination of a local politician. They spent some time in jail before being released. At one stage the priests were offered freedom but refused to leave the jail unless the lay people were also released with them.

This experience renewed Niall’s commitment to justice through non-violence as revealed in the books he subsequently authored, ‘Seeds of Injustice’ and ‘Revolution from the Heart’ and ‘Island of Tears, Island of Hope’.

After that experience he continued his work for justice. He was also active in lay formation, retreat work, and provided the first liturgical texts and rituals in the local dialect, in which he excelled. Niall was a creative and joyful missionary, a man of prayer and an eloquent advocate for peace. What sustained Niall through his missionary life in the Philippines was his love for the Eucharist.

Shortly before his death, Fr Niall reflected on his life as a Columban missionary priest. He wrote about a moment of conversion he experienced after some time in the Philippines, “suddenly the mass and sacraments, which had begun to pale in importance in my mind when compared to the great challenge of injustice became more relevant than ever.”

He continued to write, “I found no conflict between my original dream and the dramatic circumstances in Negros, in which I now found myself. The dream and the reality work together. If I separated them, I knew I would be in trouble.”

Niall realised that the communities he served were built around the Eucharist. Niall went on to talk about the missionary vocation in our age being needed as never before.

That is exactly what Bishop Cozzens said about the need for a missionary outlook and the power of the Eucharist. Fr Niall lived this truth to the full.

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