Labor Day, the US Bishops and Frederic Ozanam

by | Sep 3, 2016 | Formation, Reflections | 2 comments

ozanamcelbrationIs teaching people to fish enough? After reading the US Bishop’s Labor Day statement I am once again reminded that teaching people to fish is not enough to solve the problems of today.

Members of the Vincentian family are quite familiar with the saying. Give a person a sandwich and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

However, what is often not made explicit is the presumption that there is a pond to fish in.

So for some years I have wanted to add something to these words of wisdom.

Provided the person has access to a pond then if you teach a person how to fish you teach him for lifetime.

Without access to the waters of work, knowing how to fish is not much help.

I thought of this as I read the Labor Day statement of the United States Bishops. They struck a nice balance between charity and justice and the critical importance of jobs.

On the one hand, they write….

The first response, then, is local, to look to our neighbors in need, our brothers and sisters who may be without sufficient work for their families, and offer them help.  That help may take the form of food, money, counsel, friendship, spiritual support or other forms of love and kindness.  We ought to expect this kind of engagement from Christians in the midst of our difficulties, and we should pray to find ways to provide it as members of the Church.

In the spirit of Blessed Frederic Ozanam who wrote “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” they continue

As we engage with our neighbors and our communities, we quickly find ways to deepen solidarity in a broader way, and to act on the structures and policies that impact meaningful work and family stability… Simply put, we must advocate for jobs and wages that truly provide a dignified life for individuals and their families, and for working conditions that are safe and allow for a full flourishing of life outside of the workplace.  Unions and worker associations, while imperfect, remain an essential part of the effort, and people of faith and goodwill can be powerful leaven to ensure that these groups, so important in society, continue to keep human dignity at the heart of their efforts.

In 1983 Speaking to representatives of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul gathered in Rome in 1983 for the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Society, Pope John Paul II wrote of Blessed Frederic:

“Justice and charity…cannot be opposed. Ozanam himself praised daring measures for the betterment, in justice, of the living conditions of the rising working class. He was one of the great precursors of the social movement which culminated in the Encyclical Rerum Novarum. But he knew also that charity does not wait: it comes to the aid of the individual man who is suffering today.

Ozanam was advanced in his social and political views. Against many Catholics of his day who continued to support the monarchy, Ozanam viewed democracy as providential, allowing for wider participation of the masses. Long before Pope Leo XIII in 1891 issued his great social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, Ozanam wrote passionately about what ‘Christian democracy’ entailed: justice in wage contracts; a more just distribution of wealth; humane working hours; legislation to protect children and women in the workplace; progressive taxation; extension of co-operative marketing and ownership; the right to form trade unions; income support for the sick and aged; adequate regulation of finance and the economy etc.

He strove to draw French Catholics of his time beyond partisan political disputes to fresh visions of a renewed nation, more firmly incorporating the principles of human rights, equity, solidarity and social justice.

Do we strive to go beyond partisan political disputes to fresh vision?


  1. Stephanie Ragland

    Thank you very much for this article, Fr. John.

  2. The Rev. Dr. Edward Ambrose- "Ed"

    Yes,Father John,we need to “pour oil on the wounds” and to practice the principles of “Rerum Novarum”as applied to the needs of our brothers and sisters living in the 21st century. As a former public high school teacher, I know that we must equip people by way of education,but we can become dismissive if all we do is “teach a person to fish”. Too often,this cliche can become a dismissive way of dealing with people who hurt badly in our very self-centered age.

    Your article reminds this somewhat infirm octogenarian that Christ and St. Vincent want us to help somebody dig a pond,wash that person’s feet,teach them skills as appropriate but never claim to teach somebody to fish while all I’m doing is to throw programs at crying hearts and longing souls. Instead,may our love always serve as icons which allow people to hope and to see Christ as did Jesus when He dared talk with the woman at the well. May I accept,always,God’s grace to put these words into action….Your article is on target. Thanks,Fr. John…

    Ed Ambrose
    (St. Joe’s,AA,1957)

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