Charles Gordon O’Neill – a remarkable life

28 November 2017
Charles Gordon O’Neill. Image:

Charles Gordon O’Neill – a remarkable life by Bishop Anthony Randazzo

Bishop Terry Brady recently gifted me with a copy of the biography of Captain Charles Gordon O’Neill written by Stephen Utick. I must confess, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  As the subtitle says, his was a “remarkable life”. Charles pioneered many charitable initiatives, but surely the crowning glory to his accomplishments was co-founding the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia and New Zealand.

Over a century later, it is easy to underestimate the magnitude of his charitable achievement.  Stephen Utick reminds us that O’Neill established the Society “before the colonies’ first great depression of the 1890’s, in a time before governments provided significant support or assistance for the poor.

Only a few weeks ago I visited the memorial walk in honour of Charles O’Neill at Rookwood Cemetery. Leading me simply from Charles’ grave along the walkway, it underlined for me a lifetime of remarkable work of Christian discipleship.  The noble dignity of his work and the beauty of his resting place can make one forget that Charles lived amid the poor in the slums of The Rocks and he died a pauper at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in 1900.

The life and death of Charles O’Neill remind us that the disciple of Christ does not exist in isolation from the human society of which he or she is part.  The disciples’ life and activity – that is, their actual nature as a Christian – are real only in actual men and women who change with the changing conditions of human society.

Saint Paul knew this when he wrote to the Christian community at Rome. He gave remarkable testimony to his vocation by preaching the Gospel, which he saw as a duty which was laid on him.  He did not need to be asked or told to preach the Good News about the love of Jesus Christ; it was a commission that he undertook with commitment, passion and above all, generosity.

The first question to ask today is “whether this remarkable testimony of Paul is something we should imitate?” The answer comes from Paul who was concerned not for himself, but for those who had not heard of Jesus. How could he win them for Christ?  Paul is quick to remind that, the disciple of Christ has just one obligation – to love your fellow man and woman.  To the community at Corinth he says, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ(cf. 1Cor 10:31–11:1).  What we are to imitate is a life of love.  He reminds us today that we must love our neighbour. “Love”, he says, “is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour; that is why it is the answer to every one of the commandments” (Romans 13:10).

Paul’s aim is clear. He does all for the sake of the Gospel, that he may become a fellow partaker of it. He is saying that his faith in Christ would be utterly inauthentic and false, if he abandoned the pattern of life set by Jesus and no longer loved other people.

In the letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul gives three reasons for loving as Christ loved: to win others; to save others; to partake in the benefits of the gospel himself.  And when all is said and done, he reminds us not to seek self-glorification, but rather to “boast about the Lord(cf. 1Cor 1:31).

If we are in need of encouragement in order to carry out our ministry among the poor, we can take heart by standing alongside Saint Paul, Saint Vincent de Paul, Charles O’Neill, and countless men and women who have been dedicated to the work of the Society founded over 135 years ago here in Sydney.

Without a doubt the words of today’s reading from the letter to the Romans and the Gospel from Luke must have been familiar to Charles O’Neill.  Dare I say that they could have been his manifesto for faith in action.

We need look no further than Charles’ imitation of Paul to see the blueprint for Christian life.  Firstly, he fulfilled the divine law by the way he loved others.  Secondly, out of love for the poor, he gave up all his possessions so that he could be Christ’s disciple.

We should celebrate and be inspired by the heroic virtue of Charles O’Neill and place ourselves before others to be for others. Like Charles we do so motivated by love of God and of neighbour.

The proclamation of the Good News is carried out in both word and deed.  And yet, it is not something that we simple say or do, but rather it is who we are.  The proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ involves us in it.

We become part of the Good News through our baptism and by our commitment as disciples of Jesus Christ.

My sisters and brothers, without a heart aroused by the Holy Spirit and filled with love for the poor, it is almost impossible to hope for the Christian life enriched by the gift of the Father’s love through Christ in the Holy Spirit.

Today, let us take Charles O’Neill as our inspiration so that side by side, as sisters and brothers of Christ, we will encourage, challenge and support each other as together we probe the mystery of Jesus the Lord in the poor.  Clothed with the Holy Spirit, we will learn to give everything for the poor, for the Church and for God.

The woman or man, who offer themselves for the work of Christ among the poor is not caught up in nostalgia for the past nor are they dizzy for glimpses of the future.  Inspired by Charles O’Neill they are people of hope, of faithfulness, and most importantly, they are people of love.

The above is based on the Homily given by Bishop Anthony Randazzo for the Anniversary Mass of Charles Gordon O’Neill.

With thanks to the Archdiocese of Sydney and Vinnies.

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