Tony Thornton, former National President of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia, died suddenly on Saturday 11 July 2015.
After the words of Bl. Frederick, ‘Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is the role of justice to prevent the attack’ Dr. John Falzon writes movingly in Eureka Street
He was a great lover of humanity, a great fighter for social justice. The persistence of poverty and homelessness in prosperous Australia affected him deeply. He was never willing to accept a status quo that included the wholesale rejection of people who were made to feel the sharp edge of inequality.
Some people look at charity as a means of assuaging their consciences in the face of social injustice. For Tony Thornton it was a sign that something was profoundly wrong when people were forced to rely on charity rather than being able to count on justice. Deeply respected not only in the St Vincent de Paul Society but throughout the not-for-profit sector and beyond, Tony was distinguished by his integrity. His analysis was disarmingly bold and simple. He passionately argued that we are failing people who are pushed to the margins. More than that, we actually make things worse for them with policies that punish them for being poor.
Tony saw everything as connected to everything else and was not afraid to roll up his sleeves and throw himself into the work that needed to be done to address the injustices that made his blood boil. He felt deeply the pain inflicted on the First Peoples, asylum seekers, single mums, young unemployed, older unemployed, people with a disability, people experiencing homelessness, the low-paid and insecurely employed and anyone else he came into contact with who was struggling. As a member of the St Vincent de Paul Society he regularly visited people in their homes to give them material assistance but he never walked away without being touched, and educated by, their stories of struggle and pain. He recently expressed his horror over violence against women and had decided to throw himself into this cause as well.
For those who did not know him, all of this might make him sound like an angry prophet, and in some ways he did follow the prophetic vocation of the likes of Isaiah who railed against the politics of cruelty: ‘Woe betide those who enact unjust laws and draft oppressive legislation, depriving the poor of justice, robbing the weakest of my people of their rights, plundering the widow and despoiling the fatherless!’ (10:1–3)
But he was anything but an angry man. He was the epitome of gentleness and kindness. His anger against injustice was part of something generous and expansive, as in the formulation by Augustine of Hippo: ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.’ Such was his anger. It was always coupled with courage and in the service of hope.
His vision exceeded the bounds of the context he worked in. Once, when asked in a public gathering whether he thought there should be more charities and more support for charities, he shocked his audience by saying that he actually thought there should be less! And that our long-term aim should not be to strengthen charities but rather to change society so that people wouldn’t need to rely on charities! Which is why, despite being someone who believed that his beloved Vinnies existed for the people rather than the prelates, he felt a strong affinity with the pronouncements of Pope Francis who, just before Tony died, and to his great delight, said:‘Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change.’
Dr John Falzon is the Chief Executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia.
Eureka Street is a publication of the Australian Jesuits. It existed as a monthly, and briefly bi-monthly, print magazine for 16 years, commencing in March 1991. Today it exists as a vibrant online journal of analysis, commentary and reflection on current issues in the worlds of politics, religion and culture. It aims to participate in public discussion and influence public opinion regarding the Things That Matter in Australia and the world.
Mission & Spirit of Eureka Street
As a publication of the Australian Jesuits, Eureka Street is informed by the values of Jesuit spirituality and in particular the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. It sits comfortably in the tradition of Catholic publishing for a public audience epitomised by Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker. Its audience includes not only Christian readers but readers of all religions or none, who share or may be enhanced by the values and respect for the flourishing of human dignity that underpin all Eureka Street articles. As such it sees itself as a peer of such publications as Crikey, The Age/Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC’s online publications, albeit offering a distinctively Christian values-based alternative to these secular publications.