A tribute by Michael Campbell to the late Australian YCW chaplain Fr Hugh O’Sullivan delivered following his funeral in 1997.
I left school when I was 15. I had little education and very few prospects for advancement. When I was 17 I was working in a shop in the northern suburbs. At that time Hugh approached me to work for the YCW.
Why you may ask would he approach a young worker with little education to take on the responsibility of working full-time for the YCW?
The answer is simple. Hugh had an unwavering belief in the worth, capacity and potential of young workers. This belief in the value of working youth was given to him through his life long commitment to the Young Christian Worker Movement.
When I sat down to write these few words I wanted to avoid it being simply another talk about the YCW. Yet the more I pondered my experience with Hugh the more I realised that Hugh and the YCW are inseparable. He loved the YCW and the YCW loved him. He always said that the YCW taught him how to be a priest.
When Hugh looked at the world he did so from the perspective of working people. He told stories, and as you are aware there were many, his stories were about the ordinary, the everydayness of life. The key to Hugh’s story telling was that they were always about the lives of people with whom we could identify.
Stories of people who were struggling to make ends meet. About young workers who were without work or trying to cope with the pressures and demands of casual employment. Stories of those who struggle with homelessness and those who in desperation seek suicide. Stories of young people trying to start families and battling with a mortgage.
But Hugh went beyond story telling he wanted to find solutions. As he said himself,
It is not enough just to name the problem faced by young workers, we must be reflecting on what this means for the life of people. When we talk about low wages, this means that people do not have enough to eat.
In trying to find solutions Hugh always understood that the solution was always to be centred on the person. He believed that “every person demanded the utmost dignity and respect by the nature of their personhood”. Yet this respect and dignity as we know is being violated everyday. The solution Hugh sought in the YCW was centred on mission and vocation; it is a conviction that each one of us has a purpose and mission. A calling by God to seek the transformation of human hearts and human structures. Hugh learnt the meaning of vocation in the YCW. On more than one occasion he told me that he once believed that only priest and religious had vocations but the movement showed him that all people are called to change the situation they are in. He said, we are called “to know a feeling of achievement in the ordinary events of daily life.”
Another key to the solutions that Hugh worked for was his belief in the importance of work. Like most of us Hugh saw work as a basic human right. However, Hugh went beyond this he saw work as something sacred. Work to him was a prayer. I remember him deciding that rather than go on a traditional retreat he was going to spend the month building a toilet block at the YCW house. He knew that he would find God through the work of his hands and the sweat of his brow.
He taught people the meaning of the Mass through the prayers of the offertory. Hugh loved the Mass and passed this love for the Mass onto many young workers, often at a time when they were struggling with their faith and indeed rejecting the Church. Certainly this was the case in my own experience.
He always wanted others to know the value of the YCW. He especially wanted other priests and the wider Church to know and be committed to the YCW and young workers. Let Hugh’s own words speak to you on the need for the YCW.
Young workers are desperately seeking meaning in life. Our challenge is to find symbols meaningful to young workers today. There is a saying ‘those who give light, must endure burning’. It was a great source of inspiration to workers. We need new, creative forms to express faith, in prayer and celebrations.
You cannot tell young people about faith. The deeper meaning of life must be experienced. How can we best support young workers in their journey? We need more reflection on the sacred and divine character of human work and how we help young workers to know this.
With young workers facing trials and difficulties we have a message of inspiration and hope. We must not just state what the Christian character of the movement is but more of what this means for us in our living and working.
[As chaplains we must be living the message of Jesus Christ.]
We must be taking an option for the young workers. This means our lifestyles must be open to the workers. It means a commitment of my whole person.
In relating with young workers: to be a friend, to listen deeply, and with sympathy, to reflect with them, to celebrate with them. To support and challenge them to faith and action.
We must help young workers understand and deepen their faith. Their faith and action in turn will be a source of real inspiration in our lives [also].
As I said earlier I did not want this to be a talk on the YCW. So let me finish by saying:
I valued Hugh’s friendship more than anything else in the world. I always knew he was there for me. He guided me in my youth and has supported me as an adult.
Hugh helped me develop a way of living and to seek God in the everydayness of life. These days I work in a school and I do not think there is a lesson I teach without drawing on the things and methods he taught me.
I loved Hugh O’Sullivan and I thank God for his life.