I believe in the progress of Christian times. I do not fear the falls and the gaps which may interrupt it: the chilly nights which follow the hot days do not prevent the summer from following its course and ripening its fruits. [.] When the barbarians levelled the temples of old Rome, they did but make ready the marble wherewith the Rome of the Popes has built its churches [..]. For this reason, then, I thank God for those stormy years, and that amidst the panic of a society awaiting dissolution, I have entered upon a course of study in which I have found security. I learn not to despair of my own century by returning to more threatening epochs, and beholding the perils which have been traversed by that Christian society of which we are the disciples, of which, if it want us, we know how to act as champions. I do not close my eyes to the storms of the present day; I know that I myself, and with me this work to which I can promise no lasting existence, may perish therein. I write nevertheless, for though God has not given me strength to guide the plough, yet still I must obey the law of labor and fulfill my daily task.
Frederic Ozanam, “History of the civilization in the Fifth Century,” preface.
- The first two volumes of Frederic Ozanam’s Complete Works (a 11-volume set published in Paris from 1855, only two years after his death) are dedicated to the conferences Frederic gave, between 1850 and 1851, at the Sorbonne University. The title of this work is “The civilization in the Vth century,” and was part of a vast project that Frederic, since his youth, proposed to undertake: to find, in the world’s cultures, through ancient history until present time, the seeds of Christianity, which he considered the root of the progress of Society, of everything good and noble in mankind. So, as early as seventeen, he wrote to his friends Hippolyte Fortoul and Claude Huchard (who were already studying in Paris): “This is the plan I have outlined […] and I advise you also adopt [… ] Like you, I feel that the past is collapsing, that the foundations of the old building are moving and a terrible jolt has changed the face of the earth. But what should come out from among those ruins? Should the society remain entombed under the rubble of the demolished thrones, or should it reappear brighter, younger and more beautiful? Will we see ‘new heavens and new earth’? […] The heritage, transmitted from Heavens to the first man and from first man to his descendants, is what I’m anxious to investigate” (Letter to Hippolyte Fortoul and Claude Huchard, February 21, 1831). Over time, Frederic had to admit he wanted too much, and particularized his investigations at certain times and certain cultures.
- Frederic is not a pessimistic nor taciturn person. He bravely faced the turbulent period in which he was living, and “the spectacle to which we are called is grand; that it is great to assist at so solemn an epoch; that the mission of a young man in society is to-day very grave and very important. Far from me the thoughts of discouragement! […] I rejoice at being born at an epoch when perhaps I shall have to do much good, and then I feel a new ardor for work.” (Letter to Hippolyte Fortoul and Claude Huchard, February 21, 1831).
- Frederic believes in progress through Christianity, and he is not frightened by the vagaries of History. He lived in an extremely difficult time, but he knows that “fruits will ripen.” The Christian view of history is, above all, an optimistic view: man is called by God to overcome all difficulties and sins, to be the protagonist of the story, continuing the work of God and building His Kingdom. Despite the difficult times, situations of sin, the horrors of war, inequality, hunger, corruption … Christians have a strong reason to believe that times will improve: it is God’s promise!
- But Frederic does not remain static in that optimism: he knows it is in his hands (and in those of all) to accomplish this task, and, in order to develop it, we have to get down to work; and he does so from his skills, talents, as professor at the Sorbonne, as a writer, as a servant of the poor in his work in the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, even from a failed political project. Work is law: you can not afford to remain idle, because that is to go against the will of the Father.
Questions for dialogue:
- “I believe in progress through Christianity.” What does this mean for us?
- Do we believe that Christianity is a force of progress for the peoples of the world? In what sense is it?
- What values of Christianity are present in the society in which I live? What situations should still be illuminated by Christianity?
- Frederic was a smart and cultivated person, and decided to put his qualities in the service of reconciliation and progress of the society in which he lived. Are we aware of our own qualities and abilities? What are we using them for?
- Is work a blessing or a curse? Do we work only for our own benefit, or the benefit of others as well?
- And service, volunteering … is it part of our work? … “Nobody does anything for nothing, and less free. And who does it, is regarded with suspicion.” You hear similar statements often. What do you think? Is this true?
- In the last sentence of his text, Frederic says he has to work according to his abilities, “for though God has not given me strength to guide the plough, yet still I must obey the law of labor.” Idleness is not, either for him or for any Christian, an option. We all have a role to play and a task to fulfill. Are we doing it? And, even more, are we settling to “do the minimum” or do we strive to go “beyond”?