The Ozanam Lecture celebrates the spirit of our founder, Blessed Frederic Ozanam, and the work of the St Vincent de Paul Society. On the 20th anniversary of the annual event, Marcelle Mogg delivered the lecture in Melbourne on 26 February.
My first connection with the Society was through my great uncle, Oswald (Ossie) Hehir. Ossie was the younger brother of my grandmother Ida. As
a young man, he worked on the docks of Melbourne, hauling cargo on and off ships. Raised in a Catholic family, his devotion to his faith was only strengthened when his twin sister Monica died at age 19. It was a loss from which he never really recovered.
I don’t know at what age Ossie joined the Society of St Vincent de Paul, but by the time I came along, he had been an active member of the Society for decades. By the time I was finishing primary school, Ossie was an older man, well in to his 70s. Each week I would help my mother as we made several loaves of sandwiches for Ossie. And over the course of the next several days, Ossie would catch a tram in to the city and meet with people living on the streets and in the boarding rooms of Melbourne. He would share the sandwiches with those he met, spending time with them, listening to their life stories, and being a companion and friend. Ossie did all of this from his own modest resources. While long retired, he only claimed an age pension much later in life, believing that the money should go to others more deserving than himself. I’m not sure the government ever recognised his generosity.
Ossie was not one to spend much on himself. His clothes were worn, faded and many times repaired. In fact, people would often stop him as he caught the tram in to town, to ask if he himself needed assistance.
Ossie continued his solo journeys in to the city for years, well beyond what we as family considered wise. As he aged, the years of physical labour he had undertaken as a younger man took their toll. His gait became unsteady, his sight deteriorated, yet his faith and his commitment never diminished. Each Friday, he would set off again, walking to catch the tram in to the city to visit those in need of a companion, offering the simple gifts of sandwiches and friendship.
His example left a deep impression on me. He had well earned the right to slow down and enjoy a contented retirement. Yet Ossie saw it as an opportunity to do the work he most wanted to do. It is not hard to see how he found his own identity in devoted service to those who, like him, had been broken by life. And through mutual companionship, and in the presence of a loving and prayerful Society, he was nurtured and sustained through the many years ahead.
In contemplating the life of my great uncle, it is not hard to find evidence for the living presence of the love of God. Through his participation in the Society and his encounters with those made poor, we see the movement of which John Paul speaks: the [leaning] down and [reaching] out to those made vulnerable, in order to bring every person into an encounter of God’s loving mercy.
And this is the invitation extended to each of us: to bring to reality, each day, in each encounter, the loving presence of the living God whose greatest desire is to make us whole, to help us to realise fullness of life, to experience ourselves as loved, and as loving of one another.
So how do we make manifest this love of God, in our lives and bring this extraordinary gift of hope and healing into the lives of others?
St Ignatius would tell us that the first step is to recognise our own humility and need for mercy—to recognise our need for God’s love conscious of our own brokenness and vulnerability.
Becoming conscious of our vulnerability can arise in many ways, but I would suggest that as followers of Christ, in the spirit of Frederic Ozanam and St Vincent de Paul, we are called to ensure we always make a time and place to encounter and enter into the life of those made poor. Such encounters are not only an opportunity to convey God’s love and mercy, but serve as a reminder of our own fragility and need for healing.
This is an extract from the lecture. To listen to the full speech, go to www.vinnies.org.au/page/Publications/VICTORIA/Ozanam_Lecture
Marcelle Mogg was appointed to the role of Group Director Mission Integration, St John of God Health Care, in November 2016. She was formerly CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.