This year we have had a special focus on Frederic Ozanam and the Gospel values he represents – compassion and connection.
One of my favourite musicals is Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. It is set in the French Revolution, the same time and the same place that Frédéric Ozanam lived. In Les Miserables the main character Jean Val Jean is a prisoner on parole for having stolen a loaf of bread in a harsh and unforgiving society. Unable to find a place to stay on his first night out of prison he is taken in by a bishop who lives in an old monastery. The bishop feeds him and gives him a bed for the night and during the night Jean Val Jean, now a desperate man, an outcast of society, gets up and steals the silver that he has seen on the Bishops table. He is picked up by the guards who recognise the silver as the Bishops. He tells them the Bishop gave it to him but in scornful disbelief they drag him back to the Bishops house.
His response, ‘you forget I gave these also’, is so surprising – and it is Jean Val Jean moment of redemption. It is probably the first time anyone has shown him compassion and he goes on to do good for others.
He paid the good forward.
Tonight’s Gospel was the story of the washing of the feet, a symbol of servant leadership. The Bishop models this, he is willing to ‘be with the poor and outcast’, which would have been quite unusual for a man of his standing at the time. Ozanam lived in this same time of poverty and upheaval and he too was a servant leader. His response to the poor, at a time when there was no safety net of social security was one of compassion and people have continued to “pay it forward”. Indeed Frederic Ozanam lived life to the full and from his short life he left a legacy of caring and compassionate communities
Like St Oscar Romero, Ozanam took the long view – both of these men planted seeds that they did not see fully grown. But these seeds did grow. The St Vincent de Paul serves people throughout the world. In St Peter’s Square on Sunday we saw the fruition of the seeds that Oscar Romero had planted in the joy of the people from a liberated El Salvador. Neither of these men were perfect, they didn’t solve all the problems of their communities, but they did what they could do,
My hope for the graduates is that you too can live life to the full and empower others to live life to the full through choices which embrace compassion and connection.