Ozanam on systemic change – little known insights

by | Jul 13, 2016 | Formation, Systemic change | 1 comment

There is a side to Ozanam that few in the English-speaking world seem to know. His insights on what we would call today “systemic change” reveal a profoundly deep thinker and critic of a piecemeal approach to serving the  poor. Writing in an age of great social unrest not unlike our own, he has much to say that is relevant to today’s shallow discussions of approaches to poverty. I have been amazed at the timeliness of the work of Monsignor Baunard in bringing this to light over 100 years ago, and translated for us by a member of the Irish Society of St. Vincent de Paul at the beginning of the 20th century.


This painting by the recently deceased Austrian artist Sieger Köder captures the richness of Ozanam’s actions on behalf of the marginalized.

Many know the first part of the following quotation from Frederic. But precious few know the second part, here placed in bold relief,

 “The knowledge of social well-being and of reform is to be learned, not from books, nor from the public platform, but in climbing the stairs to the poor man’s garret, sitting by his bed­side, feeling the same cold that pierces him, sharing the secret of his lonely heart and troubled mind. When the conditions of the poor have been examined, in school, at work, in hospital, in the city, in the country, everywhere that God has placed them, it is then and then only, that we know the elements of that formidable problem, that we begin to grasp it and may hope to solve it.” (Baunard p. 227)

Few seem to know he was an editor of a newspaper that even by today’s standards would be called progressive. Again, the noted scholar Baunard observes of this newspaper that “while the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was going to the poor to comfort them in their misery, The New Era devoted itself to enlisting the sympathies of the charitable public. One of Ozanam’s letters, dated the 3rd July, a week after the insurrection [of June 1848], runs as follows:

” The New Era claims the greatest part of whatever time is left me from my examinations. I have contributed five articles in ten days. Those articles were snapped up as soon as they appeared in print. We have the satisfaction of doing some good, for as many as eight thousand copies a day have been sold in the streets of Paris.”

“These articles were received with quite unexpected popularity in the faubourgs [districts]. They were directed to the disarmed insurgents,

“speaking to them without patronising them, without irritating them, but teaching them to estimate at their proper value those who had duped them. Well-to-do people praised the firmness of our words and did us the honour of attributing to us a sympathetic heart, and a sincere passion for the interests of the people.”

“It was to those good people themselves, and to all good citizens that Ozanam appealed some months later ‘to be no longer silent about truths which have ceased to be a source of danger.’ He addresses them in more stirring terms than usual ‘without fearing that my appeal will be misused by wicked men or that it will furnish ammuni­tion for guns at the barricades.'”

Baunard points out that Ozanam would speak to Baunard’s contemporaries about [again emphasis added]

“an enemy which has not been defeated or crushed, but which stands forth more terrible and more menacing than ever: Destitution. The destitution of 267,000 unemployed workpeople in Paris, and in particular in the 12th Ward, which had been a storm-centre of the insurrection. Ozanam describes its horror and suffering; but he also throws into relief its concealed virtues, its simple Christianity. He makes us weep and wonder.

After that harrowing picture of misery, the article proceeds to inquire into the causes,which are to be found in moral conditions, and the remedy for which will be found in “reform of morals through education rather than through legislation; through Catholic education by those Friars and Sisters, who can teach the children of the people something better, than to spell out the words of a newspaper, or to chalk on the dead walls of the city the order of the day at the barri­cades.”

There is a place also in those schemes of reform, for adult night schools, for schools for apprentices, for Academies of Arts and Trades, Public Libraries, Military Associations, Co-operative Societies.”

Indeed, he planted the seeds of systemic change!

The excerpts used here and the entire work by Monsignor Baunard can be found on our partner site “We are Vincentians.”

See also VinFormation’s presentation on the roots of Ozanam’s passion for justice.

1 Comment

  1. Sister Honora Remes

    GREAT insight into the seeds of our “modern” understanding of going up river to see what’s causing the helpless people floating by us.

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