The 19th Century French academic, Frederic Ozanam (1813 – 1853), is not remembered by the world today for his Doctoral thesis on the Florentine poet, Dante Alighieri – but for something far more profound than even Dante. Ozanam’s father had been a General Practitioner in Paris, and he had nominated his son, Frederic as the Executor of his estate. Thus after his father passed away, Frederic sought to tie up the estate, by chasing up the debts owed to his father. As Ozanam began to do so – he became shocked. He realized going through his father’s ledger that one third of the patients had not paid at all; and another one third had paid in kind – eggs, cake or other foods. Ozanam Sr. had brought up his family on the remaining third of patients who could pay the consultancy fees. But more than this – as Ozanam went from house to house, he wrote-off most of the debts. Frederic Ozanam would not collect a fee when his father refused to do. Frederic’s visits as an executor, were an education for a man very well-educated in the university sense. He saw one bedroom homes with six children; or rooms with cockroaches crawling in such numbers, that they changed the colour of what were originally white curtains. Ozanam saw what misfortune or class structure had turned poor but proud people into. He wrote on what he had seen: “At the end of a kind of cellar there lived a family whose only bedding was a little straw scattered on the stone floor. Their only other furniture was a rope stretched across the room. These poor people tied to it a shred of cloth, in which they hung their bread to keep it safe from rats.” (Newspaper article ‘To People of Means’, Ere Nouvelle, 15 September 1848)
- Dr.Kania: The Big Lie – Part One (cf. Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4, RSV)
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Soon after Ozanam wound-up his father’s estate he gathered a group of university students, who like himself were barely out of their teens, and convened what was to become the first meeting of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. At twenty years of age – Ozanam helped found an institution that has assisted millions of people live a materially better life. All this because an individual dared to care enough, to ask his confreres at the University to bring in spare clothing – so as to clothe the naked – a corporal work of mercy. (cf. Matthew 25: 36 – 40, RSV).
Harry Emerson Fosdick, would write in The Hope of the World, (1933, p. 25): “Any church that pretends to care for the souls of people but is not interested in the slums that damn them, the city government that corrupts them, the economic order that cripples them, and international relationships that, leading to peace or war, determine the spiritual destiny of innumerable souls—that kind of church, I think, would hear again the Master’s withering words: ‘Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!’” Ozanam would summarize his social manifesto of the Church by writing: “Parish priests must give up their little comfortable parishes, their flocks which are highly-selective but still surrounded by a teeming population which they do not know. They must turn not only towards those who have nothing but also to all those other poor who do not beg and yet who might still be won over by a special kind of preaching, by charitable societies, by the love which is shown to them and which touches their hearts more than we might think. Now, more than at any other time, we need to meditate on a beautiful passage in St. James’s Epistle (Ch. II), which seems especially written for our own time.” (Letter to Fr. Alphonse Ozanam, 12th of April, 1848)
In both cases, Fosdick and Ozanam have a perception of the Church that is one of social action – a by-product of spiritual nourishment and maturity. The Church must not be of the world – but be very much a part of it.
Here in Australia, the crisis in Ukraine has been at the forefront of many peoples’ minds this year, both those with Ukrainian ancestry, and those without. The situation in Ukraine is an international crime – for it affects the world not only by uprooting the Ukrainian people from their homes – but callously threatening the entire world community due to one man’s greed and his threats of nuclear warfare. Putin’s plan to ‘freeze out’ the Ukrainian people, is, we must remember, (if we are to believe the rationale of his Special Military Operation), all for the salvation of the Ukrainian people in his process of de-Nazification. Therefore the killing of children by bombing schools; the raping of women and children, the torturing of civilians, the levelling of hospitals, the destruction of power grids, are all a part of what Putin regards as ‘saving’ the Ukrainian people. It is utter wickedness.
Snow has begun to fall in Ukraine indicating to the people of Ukraine that Christmas is nigh upon them. A star will soon rise high in the night sky. This star will tell families to gather for whatever morsel they can find in order to have their Christmas Eve meal. The star is yet more poignant this Christmas as it will stand out stark, due to the absence of electrical or gas lighting. Paraphrasing the words of the Prophet: A people experiencing an enforced great darkness – are awaiting a great light. (cf. Isaiah 9:2, RSV) This Light is the Light that comes into the world to bring peace and freedom – and to bring all things that are hidden – to the fullness of justice and Truth. (cf. Luke 8: 17)
So what can we in Australia do to help this Christmas in halting the ‘freezing out’?
One initiative that I have witnessed is the collection of: winter clothing, blankets and sleeping bags here in Australia to ease the suffering of those in Ukraine. Let me share what I have seen. I have seen first-hand an Australian Tennis great, the winner of twenty-four Grand Slam Singles titles – collect in the space of one week, five tonnes of clothing; I have seen a local Roman Rite Catholic Parish community– loan out their old Parish Church as a warehouse to store items; I have seen a Chaplain of an Anglican School in Perth, collect so many items of clothing that he lined the entire walls of his Chapel with boxes of items awaiting collection for Ukraine; I have witnessed Australian parents, boys and girls cancelling holidays and birthday parties in order to donate for the freight costs of consignments. Support has poured in from rural areas: grandmothers knitting socks on farms in the South-West; country pharmacies donating medical supplies; children sending in their unopened presents to donate as Christmas gifts for Ukrainian orphanages. In another case, thirty-five Kindergarten students at a Catholic School in Perth, grew fruit and vegetables in a small patch given to them at their school. These children – watered their garden every day, and later sold their crop at the Famer’s Market – raising just shy of $200. A teacher of a Year Four Class encouraged his students in a fund-raising venture – collecting near five thousand dollars. Across all age groups, from the city to the farms, generosity has risen in tidal proportions. The Australian individual has not only seen the horror – but is acting to assuage it. Standing in the old Parish Church is a Christmas Tree with toys donated beneath its branches – all ready to be boxed and shipped to the orphanages of Ukraine. I have been dumbfounded at how closely the spirit of generosity has echoed Holy Scripture: “While the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennes′aret. 2 And he saw two boats by the lake; but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 4 And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, 7 they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 9 For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zeb′edee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (cf. Luke 5: 1 – 11, RSV)
The boats were beginning to sink with generosity, until the old Church was loaned out. Who would have predicted this?
Then yet another miracle occurred – people filled the old Parish Church – volunteers, up to fifty on one day, sorting clothing, boxing, sealing, carrying. People of all ages. Members of a Rowing Team from Aquinas College came down – another team from Christian Brother College, Fremantle joined them. People had seen the need in Ukraine through the media and they just wanted to help – in any way that they could.
Our Father among the Saints, John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople once appealed to his listeners: “Do you want to honor the body of Christ? Then do not despise his nakedness. You come to attend church services dressed in the finest silks which your wardrobe contains; and it is right that you should honor Christ in this way. But on your way, do you passed naked beggars in the streets? It is no good coming to the Lord’s table in fine silks, unless you also give clothes to the naked beggar—because the body of that beggar is also the body of Christ. Do you want to honor the blood of Christ? Then do not ignore his thirst. You have donated beautiful gold chalices for the wine, which becomes a symbol of Christ’s blood; and it is right that you should honor Christ in this way. But on your way to services, you passed by beggars who pleaded for food and drink. It is no good putting gold chalices on the Lord’s table unless you give food and drink to the poor from your own tables. The service which we celebrate in church is a sham unless we put its symbolic meaning into practice outside its walls. Better that we do not come at all than we become hypocrites—whose selfishness can only besmirch the Gospel in the eyes of others”. (cf. Excerpt 55: Robert Van de Weyer. On Living Simply . Liguori Publications. Kindle Edition).
By our Corporal Works of Mercy – we seek to save people from physical and subsequently moral perdition. If something we give can make the burden lighter on the shoulders of a man, woman, or child – then we have done good. We can’t save all – but we can save some; and the saving of some, is better than the saving of none. In the Letter to the Hebrews 13: 2, the author tells the Christian never to neglect hospitality to a stranger – because it is in this guise that the angels so often come into our lives. This Christmas there will be Ukrainian civilians – a child for example, nestled close to their mother in a bomb shelter; a group of orphans singing a carol, or a soldier in a trench longing in the cold for his warm home and family – or a soldier’s widow crying herself to sleep. If you cannot give alms – then give with prayer that the God of the world will see a tyrant’s plans vanquished.
There is an old Roman Rite Parish Church here in Perth, a Church that now houses within its walls humanitarian aid in the form of items to cheer the spirit and warm the body. It stands as an example of what a people can do – when their hearts are heavy with compassion – and their minds are clear with purpose. What this old Parish Church has given the people of the Parish and beyond the borders of this Parish is an ability for the individual to be part of an act of love – to do something to help.
Over two thousand years ago, a carpenter with his heavily pregnant young wife, could not find a place to stay the night in the little town of Bethlehem, other than a manger. I do believe that this Holy Family would have found in the old Parish Church, a place to rest a night, or two – a place to gather swaddling clothes, a place to feel safe, a place to bring into the world – the hope of a New Life, and a new way of living.
By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania