John Curnow

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 39, Advent 2006

Honouring the Prophets: John Curnow—Development Prophet

He was unquestionably the most influential priest of his time, and arguably the most influential of the last century in New Zealand. John Curnow, West Coast-born priest of the Christchurch diocese, was a dynamic speaker on behalf of the poor and under-privileged, with a brilliant mind and a commitment to match. In the booklet of tributes published after his death in 1990, many were really struck by the fact that practically every single contributor called him a prophet.

He was a great teacher, a great mentor and a great orator with a deep understanding of the best of theology and scripture, absolutely loyal to the Church yet constantly challenging it in so many ways. Indeed, a holy man. It is certainly rare in our culture to have so many follow the spiritual teachings of one man.

He preached that it was possible in every age for those who acted out Christian love to participate on earth in the kingdom of justice, peace, love and truth which led to the eternal Kingdom of God. He challenged people to make the choice to of being part of the solution or part of the problem.

His greatest contribution to the Church was that he opened hearts and minds to the possibilities of real development and change both before and after Vatican II. He was middle-aged by the time the Council came along but had been preparing for it for two decades. John drew on the see, judge, and act mantra of Joseph Cardijn, the charismatic Belgian priest who devoted his life to the education of young workers, which sits at the heart of the Document on the Church in the Modern World from Vatican II. John had used that tool to inform himself and thousands of others in the years preceding the Council. In countless meetings, people would gather to reflect on a scripture passage, look at their life situations and seek to love their neighbour. John empowered people to do this – and to take this tool over into the rest of their lives.

He recognised that the pre-Vatican II position of the traditional Church had stifled the lay vocation and he was determined not to miss the chance that the Council’s new vision offered lay people in the Church. Some were not comfortable with the constant challenge he presented. How dare he challenge their Gospel values? How dare he present a new vision of where they might head as a pilgrim people? His vision, clarity and encouragement became a strength to each one who encountered him with an open mind and heart.

After the Council, he moved from being the chaplain to the Catholic Youth Movement into helping found the Christian Family Movement and then on into being a foundation member and eventually executive officer of the Catholic Commission for Justice, Peace and Development. This enabled him to develop diocesan Justice and Peace commissions and gave him an outlet for the many gifts he had developed in previous years. It was a job that took him all over the world to conferences and structural analysis workshops, for which he had a particular gift. It was upon his return from an exhausting three-week series of structural analysis workshops in the Pacific that John suddenly died in July 1990. It seemed appropriate that he died in harness, so to speak, busy and committed to the vision he had carried and shared for so long.

John was a living example of a prophet committed to reflecting God’s light. His impact on the development world was significant. His incisive mind and clear-cut interpretation left all with a better understanding of the issues. He empowered people in so many countries through his passion for justice and his brilliant speaking skills. He was able to explain to people of all cultures that they had a right to expect better than they had and they were valued more than their governments often suggested. He challenged governments in the ‘developed’ world to take responsibility for the trade practices which saw so many Third World countries denied justice for their products and their labour. He carried the Church through from a childhood paternalistic ‘black babies’ level of awareness to a radical new concept of development and dignity for all. In confronting the powers of this world, he often found the road lonely and difficult.

But as Terry Dibble said in his 1990 tribute, ‘John knew from experience the bitter nature of the struggle to bring about the Reign of God. He also knew that only solid spirituality would survive in the heat of the battle. John knew the value of the dedicated, aware Christian and the need to maintain the integrity of the Christian contribution to the human struggle.’

John was a prophet in and for our times. People who journeyed with him – often along rocky pathways – considered it a privilege and a great blessing.

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