Perhaps it is bad the alliance of Catholics with the defeated bourgeoisie; it would be better to lean on the people, who are the true ally of the Church, the people, who are poor as she is, sacrificed like her, blessed like her with all the blessings of the Savior. In these large industrial cities of the department of Nord it is said that the workers have preserved Christian beliefs and customs. We must address those brave people. I learn that there is, in Valenciennes, an excellent candidacy, that of my friend Wallon, the current substitute for Mr. Guizot in the faculty. He is a sincere Republican and a solid Catholic, a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and very jealous for the good of the poor.

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Frederic Ozanam, letter to Alphonse Ozanam, March 23, 1848.

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Reflection:

  1. About a month before writing this letter, on February 10, 1848, Frederic published an article in the newspaper Le Correspondant that provoked certain controversy among some Christians. In brief, this article shows that the passage of the barbarians to Christianity — between the sixth and ninth centuries — had analogies with that in 1848 led Rome to identify with the popular masses, “so dear to the church because they represent the number, the infinite number of souls to be conquered and to save, because they are the poor that God loves and the work that makes the force.” And he concludes with that known cry: “Let us go over to the barbarians and follow Pius IX.”
  2. Some Christians of his time were annoyed by these words of Frederic, since, according to them, the working classes were the dangerous classes. Frederic had to explain to some friends, and so he does, for example, by letter to his friend Théophile Foisset, whose text we discussed a few months ago. This text we are reflecting today, addressed to his brother priest, Alphonse, continues in the same line.
  3. Frederic wrote this letter when the first issue of L’Ere Nouvelle — the new newspaper of Catholic ideology that Frederic founded along with fellow colleagues — was about to be published. It is a moment, moreover, politically interesting: the elections to the French Assembly brought Frederic — and other Catholics, as we see in the text — to present themselves as candidates, in order to, from the institutions, be able to defend the rights of the workers. Over the next few months Ozanam will write a good number of articles that defend the social and labor rights of the worker. We are, therefore, in a vital moment where Christians defend the rights of the poor, and in general, what we now define as the Social Doctrine of the Church, which starts with the publication of the Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, in 1891. Does this mean that there was no Social Doctrine of the Church before? Absolutely not. The history of the Church is full of works and words in favor of social rights; 1891 is the beginning of a certain systematization of everything that, from the beginning of Christianity, had been lived and proclaimed.
  4. The “poor people” are “the true ally of the Church, … poor as she is, sacrificed like her, blessed like her with all the blessings of the Savior.” The true place of the Church is with the people, with the poor. A “poor Church and for the Poor” has also been the wish of Pope Francis, since his election to the Chair of Peter. Thus, speaking to representatives of the media, on March 16, 2013, he proposed again the old and current theme in the Church close to the most marginalized social sectors, to the refugees, the destitute and those who suffer injustice and violence.
  5. The encyclical Rerum Novarum — on the condition of the workers —, which initiates the corpus which we now know as the Social Doctrine of the Church, by Pope Leo XIII, published on March 15, 1891, echoes the social thought of Frederic Ozanam on injustice, inequalities, dignity of work, fair wages, fair taxes, the right to property, and the reduction of the suffering of the less fortunate. These ideas will be taken up later in Pope Pio XI’s encyclical Quadragésimo anno (1931) and in Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus annus (1991).

Questions for dialogue:

  1. How do we, Vincentians, seek today the good of the poor?
  2. Do we lean on the poor people, as Frederic says literally?
  3. Are we poor, that is, do we live poverty personally and as community? Put another way: Can Vincentians be rich, while there are poor people in our world?

Javier F. Chento
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