A few weeks ago, when I first received this book I mentioned it in a commentary (see HERE) and asked if this new book about the founder of the Vinnies in NSW might lead us closer to unlocking the paradox of our faith? I have now read the book. In conclusion, for me personally, it does. This is a book that is easy to read, even engrossing — it's well-written and seems to be well-researched though I have to confess that I have no independent means of judging that as this is effectively my introduction to learning about Charles Gordon O'Neill.
I was surprised that my original comment on the book resulted in a very negative email — we get few of them at Catholica, most of the negative comments we get are from a small number of individuals whom most of us know on a couple of other discussion boards. The writer, who happened to be a fairly high profile priest in Melbourne, described what I had written about O'Neill, or Stephen Utick's book, as "drivel". That comment has provided further incentive to finish the book, not that I needed much, in case my original comments were way off the mark. I suspect, but don't know for sure, that what the writer was getting upset about was possibly my headline: "The paradox involved in following Jesus Christ". That's what I continue to believe is the important insight this book gives and I will be closing this review exploring that aspect of Charles O'Neill's story. Before I get into that though, let me provide an overview of the story of Captain Charles, Engineer of Charity.
The story in outline…
Charles O'Neill was born in 1828 in Scotland to Irish-Catholic parents who were part of a significant migration of Irish people to Scotland in the first half of the 19th Century. It was a large family, eleven children altogether and Charles was the fourth in seniority. His father was an Innkeeper and Spirit Merchant so they were a little better off than the majority of Irish immigrants although the father's business fortunes seemed to fluctuate. They were good enough though to give Charles and his sibblings a better start in life than most of the Irish immigrants to Scotland during those times. Charles eventually became a civil engineer although the term needs to be understood a little differently to how we think of that term today. In those days one became a civil engineer through a form of apprenticeship rather than by university qualification and one suspects the training was far broader than it might be today. In part he was also architect and builder, as well as engineer. Later in life, during his time in New Zealand, he was also involved in surveying work. In some ways you could describe Charles O'Neill as needing to be a "jack of all trades". During his early professional life he was responsible for a range of public works in Scotland some of which still stand including an impressive steel bridge, a photograph of which is included in the book, as well as some school buildings and churches of which the researchers for this book have been able to find records even though the buildings themselves no longer exist.
The early part of Stephen Utick's book traces O'Neill's professional and business career as well as his significant contribution to the work of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Scotland. Scotland at this time was in the midst of rapid industrial expansion — hence the need for cheap labour from Ireland — but this industrial expansion brought with it great poverty for the workers as well. Housing supply, infrastructure and social services (almost non-existent from government) could not keep pace with with the industrial expansion. As one of the more educated and prosperous in his community, Charles became heavily involved in the work of the St Vincent de Paul Society. Eventually he became president of a significant Council overseeing the work of Conferences in Glasgow and the Western district of Scotland. Charles never married and this might help explain the enormous workload he was able to take on. Apart from his professional work, and his charity work, at this time he also enlisted in a local military unit and that is how he came by the rank of Captain.
Sadly his life story wasn't all beer and skittles. As a businessman he seems to have been dogged either by constant bad luck or he simply was not a man blessed with talents in business. He ended up being declared bankrupt in Scotland at the age of 35 and this seems to have been the trigger that led him to New Zealand in search of salaried employment.
New Zealand and Australia…
To me Charles O'Neill comes across as a C.Y. O'Connor character — the celebrated engineer in Western Australia who was responsible for so many public works of high merit including the water supply scheme that pumped water from the Darling Ranges just outside Perth 300 miles inland to Kalgoorlie. O'Connor's achievements were celebrated a few years ago in that high-rating BBC television series (recently re-screend on the Seven Network in Australia) looking at the great engineering achievements of the industrial world. Charles O'Neill, in many respects, achieved great things in New Zealand in public engineering, town planning, railways and tramways in the gold mining centres in that country. He also became a politician. As well as cataloguing and describing all these developments in his secular life, the real focus of Stephen Utick's biography is the contribution of Charles O'Neill to charitable endeavours. He was effectively responsible for introducing the work of the St Vincent de Paul Society to New Zealand and later to New South Wales. The Vinnies had been started earlier in Melbourne but the original conference lapsed and O'Neill was largely responsible for it getting its second wind in that State as well although his face-to-face work with the poor largely took place in New Zealand and Sydney.
The constant themes that seemed to signpost Charles O'Neill's life were threefold: (i) his "success" in public life as an engineer, planner, builder, surveyor and architect. (ii) His "success" as a lay leader in the Catholic Church and most particularly his enormous contribution to building a strong network of St Vincent de Paul Conferences wherever he went. (iii) Thirdly, as an ironic sort of counterpoint to all those achievements was his continual lack of success as a businessman and in his personal financial situation. Eventually he also had to leave New Zealand as he had previously left Scotland in search of fresh opportunities and that is what brought him to Melbourne and Sydney.
The cycle repeated itself in Sydney. A significant contribution to public engineering endeavours in Sydney, including some of the earliest plans for tunnelling under Sydney Harbour, and possibly his single greatest legacy was his work for the poor. Stephen Utick justly labels O'Neill as an "Engineer of Charity". This guy got his hands dirty not only physically himself distributing money and goods to the poor, as a community leader he built the social infrastructure and trained and encouraged others to take on leadership roles so that strong conferences could be established in parallel with the Catholic parish network.
Charles O'Neill is one man whom I would love to have had the opportunity to interview given the knowledge we have today. Cardinal Newman is another, Thomas More is a third. What fascinates me about these men is actually not their public achievements. It is an intrigue about their spiritual outlook. What was it that really drove them? What did they really believe? In all three cases they seem, from the evidence available, to have been individuals who were centuries ahead of their time.
The tragedy of Charles O'Neill's life is that in the early 1890s he became involved as a director of bank here in New South Wales. The bank went belly-up in the great depression of the 1890s. The manager of the bank and the chief accountant went to jail and Charles O'Neill was charged but exonerated. It seems he had some forewarning of the scandal and he resigned all his public leadership positions in the Vinnies and the Church before the trial. Even though he was found innocent he was left destitute and the remaining ten years of his own life were lived out in dire poverty in the Rocks area of Sydney. In those remaining years his charitable activities did not cease on the personal level. He was still as active as ever in visiting the poor — and poverty in those days was on a scale many times worst than what we call poverty today — but, it seems, he also largely disguised his own personal poverty.
So where's the paradox in all of this?
The "paradox" (another word for paradox is a contridiction — something being both black and white at one and the same time) of Christianity I think is this. We tend to see our religious faith as some tool for achieving "success" in life. We go to Church out of a hope that God will be good to us and bring good fortune into our lives. Some of the Protestant Churches actually preach a version of Christianity that is labelled "Abundance Theology". Hillsong is a good example but most of the American televangelists are preaching this message. Our "material success" is put forward as some kind of "proof" of our faithfulness to the Gospel and evidence of God's providence and abundance. To have "abundance" in our lives all you have to do is believe in Jesus, pray, rock up to Church each week, and pay your tithes. Although officially, institutional Catholicism doesn't actually believe in "abundance theology" nevertheless I think it can be argued that it runs as a powerful sub-theme in the lives and outlook of many Catholics, and even in many in clerical and episcopal positions. We might not believe it as an "official theory" but we sort of "believe it in practice".
Curiously there also seems to be a powerful counterpoint to that theology also. One comes across many people in life who seem to wallow in their "poverty", their "humility" or their "lack of success" believing somehow that that makes them more Christ-like. Neither of those "theologies" (i.e. the understanding of our relationship to God, our Creator) are the theology of Jesus Christ — the understanding he endeavoured to preach of what our relationship to God ought to be. His own life (death and resurrection) is the ultimate "proof" of that. So also, would I argue, is the life (death and now "resurrection") of Charles Gordon O'Neill. This is a very Christ-inspired life. Stephen Utick acknowledges in his own summing up of the spiritual outlook of Charles O'Neill that it is difficult to penetrate what little evidence remains as to what it was that O'Neill really believed — what motivated him to do the things he did, how did he resolve in his own mind the "embarrassment" of his great failings. I suspect, on the fullness of the evidence that Stephen Utick has been able to uncover, as incomplete as he also acknowledges it is, that right up until he breathed his last Charles Gordon O'Neill probably had better insight into the mind of Christ than most of us do. At the end of everything — at the end of each of our lives — Christian "theology" is NOT about our "success", NOR our "lack of success", in this life. We can't measure our spiritual success by either our temporal success, nor our temporal poverty, humility or "nobody status", in this life. The Kingdom of God is NOT of this world!
So, what is it about? Personally, and I know I drive many people up the wall by constantly repeating this, I think what it is ultimately about is a "process", not an "outcome". We're not trying to get somewhere — like this "big party in the sky" called "heaven". The "process" is the process of learning "the Way (of thinking and acting)" like Christ — like God. I think that is what the real story of Charles Gordon O'Neill is about. I suspect on the evidence Stephen Utick and his researchers have unearthed, that O'Neill probably got closer to this "paradoxical insight" of Jesus Christ: Jesus is about "success" and "achievement" but it is not "success" and "achievement" by any of the normal measures by which we measure those things. Neither is it about the "reverse" of the normal measures of "success" and "achievement" that we measure everything by in this life — i.e. poverty, humility and such like. It's probably this insight that ultimately drove O'Neill to do what he did despite all the torrs stacked against him. That's what drove Christ to do what He did despite all the torrs stacked against him, 1900 years earlier than O'Neill.
And just in case anybody else might think that what I have written is "drivel" I would just like to quote a small section of Robert Mickens' report on Pope Benedict's visit to the United States which appears in yesterday's edition of The Tablet…
He [Pope Benedict] called for a return to the classic method of "apologetics" as a way of proclaiming the Church's truth. And he urged the formulation of a "religious culture" that would include "cultivating a Catholic identity which is based not so much on externals as on a way of thinking and acting". [Robert Mickens quoting Pope Benedict XVI in The Tablet, 26 April 2008 See: www.thetablet.co.uk/articles/11351/]
Then again, maybe it's the last sentence of my previous commentary on Stephen Utick's book where I was telling the Pope where to go that upset the priest in Melbourne and caused him to label all that I had written as drivel. I'll leave you to refer back to my last comment yourselves but here is A LINK that will take you to the last paragraph. It's hard to know if it is serendipity or if someone has at long last picked up my little "theme song" about "the Way (of thinking and acting) like Christ". I do like what Benedict said in America though as quoted by Mr Mickens!
I do highly recommend Stephen Utick's book. How would you cope should vicissitude strike your life on this sort of scale? How do you measure the "success" of your life then? This book is useful for its history but also serves as a valuable reflection on the value of each of our lives within a truly Jesus Christ-inspired context.
We welcome your thoughts in response to this commentary in our forum.