When I say Let us go over to the barbarians,” I am asking that we do as Pope [Pius IX], that we […] deal with the people, who have too many needs and few rights, who rightly demand a greater part in public affairs, guarantees for work and against the misery, that has bad bosses because they do not find good, and to which there is no need to make them responsible nor of the Histoire des Girondins, that they do not read, nor of the banquets, in which they do not eat. It is in the People where I see enough remnants of faith and morality to save a society whose upper classes are lost. Maybe we will not turn Attila and Genserico, but God and we may be able to attract the Huns and the Vandals.

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Frederic Ozanam, Letter to Theophile Foisset, February 22, 1848.

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Reflection:

  1. A few days before the July monarchy collapsed, Ozanam published in Le Correspondant an article entitled “The dangers of Rome and its hopes,” in which he established a kind of parallelism between the attitude of the Church in the times of the Lower Roman Empire and the invasion of the barbarians, and the one that had the pontificate of Pius IX before the contemporary society, when the empires collapsed under the incipient democracies. The article ended with these words that made many tremble: “Let us go over to the barbarians and follow Pius IX.”
  2. In this context, a few days after the revolution of February, in March 15, 1848, Ozanam wrote to his brother, the abbé Alphonse: “If a greater number of Christians […] would had dealt with the workers ten years ago, we would now feel more confident about the future.”
  3. Ozanam received both enthusiastic and virulent criticism about his article in Le Correspondant. Foisset transferred his fears to his friend, especially that a confusion could be established in the minds of many readers. Ozanam replied with the previous text.
  4. It is surprising how much Frederic says in a few lines, and that deserves to be shredded and meditated:
    • “Let’s deal with the people, who have too many needs and few rights”: We Vincentians are called to take care of the people. Others in the Church will feel called to deal with leaders or upper classes, but that is not our case. We have been summoned to live among the poor, among the simple people who suffer, in convoluted situations. In our current society, which is experiencing a permanent crisis of identity and injustice, is it not? The current crisis that a large part of the world is living, to whom has it affected more virulently? The answer is simple: the poor and the working class. The rich have barely heard.
    • “Who demand a greater part in public affairs”: The poor, the needy, the workers, must be an agent of their own liberation. The systemic change “tries to transform a series of elements that interact, and not a single element. It requires without a remedy a change in the attitudes that have produced the problems that a group tries to solve. And so, using a phrase frequently attributed to Albert Einstein, a thinking centered on systemic change helps us ‘learn to see the world with a new vision'” (Fr. Maloney,”The notion of systemic change”). In this perspective, the poor, needy, the people are active agents of this transformation. And we, Vincentians, accompany the process so that it becomes a reality.
    • “[Who demands] guarantees for work and against the misery.” As Vincentians we can not avoid denouncing unjust situations. We must be there, not only to be the voice, but above all to give voice to those in need. If we want to give a faithful testimony of our faith, we can not leave aside this public and political aspect of faith.
    • “That has bad bosses.” We also complain today of a very mediocre political class and of bosses who oppress their workers, of rich people increasingly rich and separated from the people, absolutely indifferent to the pain and death of those who are below them.
    • “It is in the people that I see enough remnants of faith and morality to save society.” Saint Vincent de Paul said in 1655: “It’s among them, among those poor people that true religion and a living faith are preserved; they believe simply, without dissecting everything; they submit to orders and are patient amid the abject poverty they have to suffer as long as it pleases God, some from the wars, others from working all day long in the great heat of the sun; poor vine dressers, who give us their labor, who expect us to pray for them while they wear themselves out to feed us!”(CCD XI , p. 190). Let us look beyond the theology of his time and learn from Saint Vincent that it is the poor who reveal us the authentic faith in Jesus Christ. Is not this an experience that we Vincentians also have lived in our meetings with the needy? Is it not one of our most deeply held beliefs that it is they, those who are part of the people, the architects of history: those who can “save society”? The next sentence from Saint Vincent text quoted is also extremely interesting: “We look for the shade: we don’t want to go out in the sun; we’re so much in love with our comforts!” How much truth, even today! Are not we living a too easy life?
    • “A society whose upper classes are lost.” Corruption, abuse of power, greed, inequality unjust before the law, indifference … What current these words of Frederic nowadays!

Questions for dialogue:

  1. Let us reflect on ourselves, as individual Vincentians and as communities. Who are we dealing with? Only of the poor and needy? Are we present in other areas that do not affect so much this Vincentian call to serve “only the poor”? Should we be there? Should we go to other places with more needs?
  2. Is the opinion of the people who use of our services taken into account when planning our action? Do they, the poor, the needy, the workers, take part on the decision making?
  3. At present, there is much social sensitivity to protest against precarious situations at work and in life in general. Are we there also the Vincentians?
  4. What can we do to have “better bosses,” better leaders? Are we called, at least some of us Vincentians, to occupy these positions? Is it compatible to be a Vincentian with being a leader, working in politics, being an entrepreneur? How can this tasks be reconciled?
  5. In what sense can we say that the people can save society today?

Javier F. Chento
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