Solidarity as charity

(Last July 21, the Ateneo de Manila University gave me, together with journalist Marites Danguilan-Vitug, the Ozanam Award for 2011.  Not being an Atenean, I had no idea who Ozanam was or what he stood for. Apparently, not many Ateneans did either. I felt a strong need to know, and what I soon found out about this man greatly affected me, and prompted the response I read last Thursday on being conferred the Ozanam medal. Allow me to set aside modesty and share the following abridged version of that meditation.)

I am greatly humbled by this award, and overwhelmed by what it implies. If the award committee did not make a mistake in honoring me with this year’s Ozanam, then I have to say I can only receive it not so much as a recognition of what I have done, but as a kindly suggestion of what I need to do to deserve it. A prod to do more, much more: perhaps to match the power of analysis or the anger of advocacy with the tenderness of solidarity. To unconditionally commit oneself to the poor and the needy by simple acts of charity. To be a person for others particularly in the most simple and direct way. For, by this alone do we really get to know them – the poor who teach us the meaning of God in daily life.

I thank the Ateneo de Manila University for reminding me of this important truth – for singling me out this year, together with my distinguished colleague in media Marites Vitug, for an award named after an intellectual and scholar who, for all his brilliance and erudition, humbly sought, in his words, “to insure my faith by works of charity.”

I did not have the slightest clue about the Blessed Frederic Ozanam before this. Since the Ozanam is the oldest of Ateneo’s traditional awards, I had assumed that the Blessed Frederic was a Jesuit. Little did I know that he was not even a priest, but a French layman who lived in the time of the social revolutions that rocked Europe in the first half of the 19th century – indeed a professor of law and of literature at the Sorbonne, who wrote an outstanding thesis on the Italian poet Dante Alighieri.

Neither was I aware that Ozanam was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1997, or that, when he was barely 20, he became one of the founders of what came to be known later as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul – one of the largest and most active organizations dedicated to the relief of the poor.

Ozanam was a most unusual man in many other ways. He staunchly defended his faith in a Europe that was rapidly replacing religion with science as a guide to life. At a young age, he wrote a critique of the aristocratic intellectual, Henri Saint-Simon, one of the forerunners of modern sociology, who had called for the establishment of a social order run by an emerging class of technocrats as the ultimate solution to poverty. In the face of the massive changes sparked by the Enlightenment that rolled across Europe, he refused to surrender the power of faith to the rising star of scientific reason. In what seemed like a passionate rebuke of the modern social sciences – the discipline in which I and my generation of sociologists have been trained – Ozanam emphatically wrote: “Those who wish no religion introduced into a scientific work accuse me of a lack of independence. But I pride myself on such an accusation…. I do not aspire to an independence, the result of which is to love and to believe nothing.”

I have never encountered a more stunning rejection of the conventional (mis)understanding of the value-neutrality thesis in the sciences. To Ozanam, all worthwhile human activity proceeded only from one thing – love. “The order of society,” he wrote, “is based on two virtues: justice and charity.  However, justice presupposes a lot of love already, for one needs to love a man a great deal in order to respect his rights, which limit our rights, and his liberty, which hampers our liberty. Justice has its limits whereas charity knows none. Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveler who has been attacked. It is justice’s role to prevent the attack.”

Many times in our everyday lives, as we ponder the incredible misery and hopelessness to which at least a third of our countrymen have been consigned, we might find ourselves blaming the poor for their short-sightedness, their irresponsibility, and their sometimes desperate viciousness. We must check ourselves. Early in my education as a sociologist, my master C. Wright Mills taught me to focus on the structure of opportunities available in society as the key to understanding poverty. Mills showed me what justice means in our time, in a society sharply divided between the power elite and the oppressed, the rich and the marginalized.

But it is the Blessed Frederic Ozanam who has lately given me the clearest sense of what it means to love, and what our obligations are to the poor among us. “We are not blessed with two separate lives…” he once said, “one for seeking the truth and the other for putting it into practice.” His own life was singular, but, alas, also all too short.  He died when he was only 40 – of tuberculosis, as if in a final gesture of solidarity with the poor he so loved. At his funeral, his spiritual guide and mentor, the preacher Father Lacordaire, described Frederic Ozanam as “one of those privileged creatures who came direct from the hand of God in whom God joins tenderness to genius in order to enkindle the world.”

I’m afraid I cannot say more of this extraordinary man without feeling even more unworthy of the award that carries his name. But I thank the Ateneo for believing that I am. Thank you.

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