And we, dear friend, do we bear no resemblance to those saints we love, do we content ourselves with deploring the sterility of the present time, although each of us carries within his heart a seed of sanctity that the simple wishing will suffice to disclose. If we do not know how to love God as they loved Him, that should be without doubt a reproach to us, but yet our weakness is able to find some shadow of excuse, for it seems to be necessary to see in order to love and we see God only with the eyes of Faith and our Faith is so weak! Both men and the poor we see with the eyes of the flesh; they are there and we can put finger and hand in their wounds and the scars of the crown of thorns are visible on their foreheads; and at this point incredulity no longer has place and we should fall at their feet and say with the Apostle, ‘Tu est Dominus et Deus meus.’ You, the poor, are my Lord and my God! You are our masters, and we will be your servants. You are for us the sacred images of that God whom we do not see, and not knowing how to love Him otherwise shall we not love Him in your person. […]
The problem that divides men in our day is no longer a problem of political structure; it is a social problem; it has to do with what is preferred, the spirit of self-interest or the spirit of sacrifice, whether society will be only a great exploitation to the profit of the strongest or a consecration of each individual for the good of all and especially for the protection of the weak. There are a great many men who have too much and who wish to have more; there are a great many others who do not have enough, who have nothing, and who are willing to take if someone gives to them. Between these two classes of men, a confrontation is coming, and this menacing confrontation will be terrible: on the one side, the power of gold, on the other the power of despair. We must cast ourselves between these two enemy armies, if not to prevent, at least to deaden the shock. And our youth and our mediocrity does not make our role of mediators easier than our title of Christian makes us responsible. There is the possible usefulness of our Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Frederic Ozanam, letter to Louis Janmot, November 13, 1836
- We are facing a fundamental text of Frederic Ozanam. Just over three years after the founding of the first Confraternity of Charity, the germ of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, this was spreading and starting to attract many young French people, who were concerned about the abandonment of the poor and the depressed classes. French society was undergoing turbulent times.
- It is important to note that Frederic wrote this at 23 years of age. He had just got a doctorate in Law and returned to Lyon to be near his mother, who was seriously ill. He was trying to carve out a future career as a professor in the chair of Laws of Lyon, yet to be created. Although he did not fascinate this profession, was forced to do so to be close and care for his mother. He remains, therefore, a person without a defined personal or professional future. His words came at a personal time of uncertainty and vocational search; however, they can not be more emphatic and clear: he is a believer who has very clear what God was asking him, to the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and also to the Church of his time.
- On several occasions I have seen mistranslated the first part of this text. When Frederic says “Tu est Dominus et Deus meus,” he is not raising his voice to recognize the sovereignty and majesty of God, but directing it to the poor (“You are our lords and masters”), to recognize in them the suffering face of Jesus Christ, as St. Vincent de Paul told the Daughters of Charity: “Poor people are our masters; they’re our kings; they must be obeyed, and it’s no exaggeration to call them our kings because Our Lord is present in persons who are poor.” (CED, X, p. 489). It is clear that Frederic drank from the source of St. Vincent to define his life journey as a Christian, endorsing the same expressions of our founder. The sentence “Tu est Dominus et Deus meus” can be found in John 20:19-31, in the mouth of the apostle St. Thomas; the passage is well known: Jesus risen, asking the doubting Thomas to put his fingers in the wounds, and to be believer and not unbeliever.
Questions for dialogue:
- I invite you to bring this whole text to your reflection and prayer. It is worth pondering.
- “The problem that divides men in our day […] is a social problem; […] whether society will be only a great exploitation to the profit of the strongest or a consecration of each individual for the good of all and especially for the protection of the weak.” Is this happening today? In what sense? What role we Christians play? What about Vincentians? Where are our priorities?
- How do we have the eyes of faith, like Frederic, to see the Risen Jesus whose scars and nailprints the poor and suffering bear on their bodies?
- Those who follow Jesus Christ from the charism inherited from St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louise de Marillac, Blessed Frederic Ozanam and many others who came before us, we have learned to see beyond the apparent, to uncover the truth, so often hidden in appearance:
- In the poor, we see Jesus Christ.
- In injustice, an opportunity to build the Kingdom of God.
- In complex situations that billions of poor people in the world are facing, we act so that, through systemic change, we build together a more just and united world.
- In the church —as Pope Francis said— “a field hospital after a battle.”
What do you “see” when you “look” around you? What realities hide a different face, that needs to see the light? What do we, Vincentians, do for this change to occur?