History of our Community
Dramatic scientific advances, the discovery of ancient religious documents, and new age philosophies were strong factors in drawing Roman Catholics away from their Church in the 20th century. It became difficult to accept simply “on faith” some of the dogmas and precepts which were required of Catholics. Reform was necessary for the future of the Church. In l963, Pope John XXIII opened the Vatican Council II with his vision to bring fresh air into the Catholic Church through “aggiornamento”, which means to “bring up-to-date”, as well as to encourage a full ecumenical movement among all churches. Although some changes were made during the Council which closed in l965, there still continued to be an on-going struggle between traditionalists and innovators.
Into this climate in l987, came Father Seán ÓLaoire, an Irish missionary priest, who was expelled “persona non grata” from Kenya for fervently championing social justice for the poor. He came to California to attend the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (ITP) and affiliated himself with the Catholic diocese of San Jose in the parish of Palo Alto.
While he worked on his PhD, Father Seán directed study groups, bible studies, and a large, double blind study on the effects of prayer. Many of the people involved in these activities were looking for a deeper spiritual path and Father Seán’s commitment to his own personal search and his willingness to share his thoughts with others brought hope to people already making the journey and gave courage to those who were just beginning.
Father Seán was dispatched from church to church round-robin fashion and drew large crowds from diverse religious persuasions. However, when he completed his PhD, his living quarters in the parish were no longer available. Some, in the nascent community who had enjoyed his gifts, found him a chaplaincy at Sacred Heart High School in Atherton. The community was invited to celebrate Mass on a regular basis in the auditorium of the school and this Mass became very popular. Unfortunately, the Bishop of San Francisco decided that the auditorium was an inappropriate venue for Mass, which should only be celebrated in a parish church. At this point the community bonded together and incorporated as The Thomas Merton Center with Father Seán as Spiritual Director. The community moved to the First Congregational Church on Louis Road in Palo Alto, where it continued to thrive.
However, after a number of years certain factions within the community wanted a more formal connection with the diocese and the Roman Catholic Church, thinking that the changes needed for the future of the Church could only come from within. They decided to return to the Palo Alto parish. Father Seán believed that the Thomas Merton Center would be an independent entity and when he discovered that he would be under the auspices of the Bishop of San Jose he decided to remove himself from the Thomas Merton Center.
A split in the community occurred and those who did not wish to return to the Church incorporated as Companions on the Journey (COJ) and Father Seán again became Spiritual Director of the new community. COJ incorporated with the State of California in 1997 and found a home on Sundays at the Seventh Day Adventist Church on the corner of Channing and Guinda and on weekdays at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Colorado in Palo Alto.
Through the years various priests and ministers have participated in services as paid and invited guests.
In 2007, in order to bring our liturgy and our theology into alignment, Father Seán authored a revision of the Mass called “A Liturgy Celebrating Christ Consciousness.” In his words, he tried to “combine elegance and tradition; to prune bad theology and bad psychology; to uncover lost treasures; and to graft on new ideas.”
In 2010 Father Seán penned a Eucharistic celebration called “A Cosmic Journey” suitable for children. The emphasis is on a cosmic spirituality where all of God’s creatures are beloved and which builds upon and further encourages children’s innate love of all life forms. Children participate in “A Cosmic Journey” on the second Sunday of each month.
2010 and 2011 have been watersheds in the spiritual growth of our community. In a year of renewal, COJ has deepened its commitment to making the community more open to new thought and to creating ways to encourage more individual interaction and participation. On the fourth Sunday of each month, the liturgy is conducted by the community and this has opened a marvelously creative opportunity for members to draw from their own spirituality, and women, especially, have found a voice in sharing their path with the group.