Systemic Change Lessons We Can Learn From Ozanam

by | Jul 12, 2017 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change

Ray Sickinger’s new study of the life and works of Frederic Ozanam offers insight into Systemic change lessons we can learn from Ozanam.

It is a story many of us know – It is the story of a righteous Frédéric being challenged by an atheist who asked, “What is your church doing now? What is she doing for the poor of Paris? Show us your works and we will believe you!” But it is more.

The initial response to a challenge

At one meeting during a heated debate in which Ozanam and his friends were trying to prove from historical evidence alone the truth of the Catholic Church as the one founded by Christ, their adversaries declared that, though at one time the Church was a source of good, it no longer was. One voice issued the challenge, “What is your church doing now? What is she doing for the poor of Paris? Show us your works and we will believe you!”[6]

As a consequence, in May 1833 Frédéric and a group of other young men went to Sister (now Blessed) Rosalie Rendu. She was someone who was prominent in serving the poor in the slums of Paris, indeed the Mother Thersa of her day.

She opened their eyes to the facts of life for those who lived on the peripheries. She gently led them from their ivory towers into the lives of those who were poor.

There is much more to the story.

A leader in the Society of St. Vincent De Paul picks up the story in his newly released book, “Antoine Frédéric Ozanam,” that contains two further challenges. Frederick’s initial response led him to getting the facts. His further response, once he experienced the facts, led to his going beyond the facts.

I was recently sent a review copy of Ray Sickenger’s book Antoine Frédéric Ozanam. (I was very grateful since I had been wrestling with purchasing it from Notre Dame Press at the cost $60.) I immediately went to his chapter on Frédéric and Systemic Change.

His opening paragraphs in the chapter presented me with the seeds of a reflection on how quickly and thoroughly Frédéric grasped the concept of systemic change well before it was popularized by Peter Senge in the late 20th century.

Sickinger’s first paragraph picks up the story of how the young Frédéric visited a beleaguered Parisian woman with five children on one of the first home visits he made in the spring of 1833.

She was in desperate need. When her husband drank to excess — which was often — he became terribly abusive to both her and the children. Nearly all of the wages she herself worked so hard to earn were immediately wasted by him on drink, leaving her children to suffer especially, but not only, from hunger. She was at her wit’s end when Ozanam visited her. He immediately sought to address the issue at hand. After his initial response in seeking out the facts of what was and was not being done he saw beyond the immediate need to the bigger picture.

After providing her with the necessary material assistance, Frédéric probed more deeply into the details of her situation.

“As a young law student, he hoped to understand exactly what her legal options might be in order to advise her about advantageous courses of action. Fortuitously he discovered through his legal research that she was never officially married, allowing her the freedom to leave this oppressive household. To assure her, he obtained an official decision from the Procureur du Roi stating this fact.

When he first informed the woman, Ozanam intimated that she should leave the premises to live elsewhere in Paris with her children. But soon after he realized how great the wrath of the foiled husband was, particularly once he learned of the potential loss of drinking income. The man threatened violence.”

But wait… there is more…

“Concerned for the family’s safety, Ozanam suggested a legal procedure to force the man to quit Paris. He took the time, however, to listen carefully to the woman’s counsel and, based on her recommendation, he instead sought a legal order that would prevent the husband from leaving Paris. Now the woman would be free to live with her mother in Brittany.”

Further practical aid:

A collection was taken up for her travel expenses. When she departed with her youngest children, the two eldest boys, eleven and twelve years of age, were apprenticed with Monsieur Bailly’s printing establishment and cared for at the Bailly house.” Frédéric had succeeded in working for and with this woman to make the journey out of poverty.

In his lifetime Frédéric Ozanam neither heard nor uttered the phrases “systemic change” or “systemic thinking.” Yet the story above illustrates a compelling argument that he was committed to helping people move from poverty to a sustainable life, a key element in changing systems that entrap people in poverty.

We see he was able to do that by:

  • listening deeply,
  • addressing the immediate crisis,
  • understanding the remaining complexity of the issues and
  • creatively advocating on her behalf.

A quick examination of conscience…

  • Do I provide the necessary first aid?
  • Beyond that do I continue to seek to understand underlying causes?
  • Do I look for ways I can use the system to address the underlying causes?
  • Am I willing to go the extra mile to change the system where necessary.

Thank you, Ray, for reminding me of this story and providing me the stimulus to explore how quickly Frédéric grasped systemic change and the implications of his example in my own thinking about concrete situations of ministry. There many other such reflections to be gleaned from your well documented work.

PS. For those who would not be in a position to afford the well-written book it is possible to get some insights contained in the chapter by visiting the author’s 2014 article in Vincentian Heritage. “Frédéric Ozanam: Systemic Thinking, and Systemic Change.”

The book will be of special interest to those who seek to go beyond the older biographies to “examine the lessons he learned in his life that can be shared by those who study his thought and work for insights.”