Always take care of the servants as much as of the masters, and of the workers as of the rich: that will be, in the future, the only means of salvation for the Church of France. The curés must set aside their bourgeois parish congregations, little flocks of good sheep in the midst of an enormous population to whom the parish priest is a stranger, who should be attracted by a special preaching, charity associations and the affection shown to them that moves them more than is believed. He must henceforth occupy himself, not only with the indigent, but with that immense class of poor who do not ask for alms. Now, more than ever, we ought to meditate on a beautiful passage in the 2nd chapter of the Epistle of St. James, which seems as if it had been written expressly for these times.
Frederic Ozanam, letter to Alphonse Ozanam, March 6, 1848.
- In an earlier reflection I mentioned a part of this text. Let us now dedicate its own space to it, because it is a reflection so current and important that it even connects us with the same intuitions and exhortations of our Pope Francis.
- A brief historical context:
- Before the next elections to the French National Assembly, Frederic accepts his candidacy to be a deputy, impelled by a “great number of people from Lyon that asked to present me” (Cf. letter to Alphonse Ozanam, of March 6, 1848). He went through moments of doubt, but in the end consented: “After having thought of it before God and asked for advice to those who have a right to my conscience and my heart, after hearing the advice of my family and my friends, I have decided to assume a sacrifice that I could not refuse without failing honor, patriotism and Christian self-denial” (same letter).
- Thus begins a very interesting stage, and little known in my opinion, of Ozanam’s life: together with other companions he founded a new newspaper, l’Ere Nouvelle, whose first issue was published in April 1848, and for about a year and half will serve Frederic to show his social and political ideas. Unfortunately, many of the texts written in this paper are difficult to find, because they were not included in the Œuvres complètes of Frederic Ozanam or, if they did, they were biased.
- The first words of this text also remind us of the way in which Saint Vincent de Paul related to both the powerful and to the humble of his time. It is not an equidistant relationship, neither in Frederic nor in Vincent, who makes it clear, for example, in this text: “Aren’t we very blessed, my dear confreres, to live authentically the vocation of Jesus Christ? […] You see, brothers, that the essential aim of Our Lord was to work for poor persons. When He went to others, it was only in passing” (CCD XI, conference 100). The others, of course, are the “non-poor.” If that was the action of Jesus Christ, how it must be ours!
- Another of Frederic’s words that draws attention is that “the curés must set aside their bourgeois parish congregations.” Does not the call of Pope Francis to go to the peripheries resonate in us? Pope Francis said on the eve of Pentecost in 2013: “A Church closed in on herself is a sick Church. The Church must step outside herself. To go where? To the outskirts of existence, whatever they may be, but she must step out.”
- One more note about this statement of Ozanam: it is necessary “to occupy himself, not only with the indigent, but with that immense class of poor who do not ask for alms.” The working class, under Frederic, lived oppressed and barely managed to find resources to survive. They were part of that poor class of which Frederic speaks, and they were therefore also part of the needy to whom the Church was to help.
- Frederic mentions the following passage from the letter of James (2:1-9): “My brothers, do not let class distinction enter into your faith in Jesus Christ, our glorified Lord. Now suppose a man comes into your synagogue, well-dressed and with a gold ring on, and at the same time a poor man comes in, in shabby clothes, and you take notice of the well-dressed man, and say, ‘Come this way to the best seats’; then you tell the poor man, ‘Stand over there’ or ‘You can sit on the floor by my foot-rest.’ In making this distinction among yourselves have you not used a corrupt standard? Listen, my dear brothers: it was those who were poor according to the world that God chose, to be rich in faith and to be the heirs to the kingdom which he promised to those who love him. You, on the other hand, have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who lord it over you? Are not they the ones who drag you into court, who insult the honourable name which has been pronounced over you? Well, the right thing to do is to keep the supreme Law of scripture: you will love your neighbour as yourself; but as soon as you make class distinctions, you are committing sin and under condemnation for breaking the Law.” The Church was accused, under Frederic, of being more on the side of the powerful than the humble, and was discredited before the people who suffer oppression. With this text, Ozanam again asks us to put the centrality of our being and acting where it really should be. “How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor!,” exclaimed Pope Francis before a journalists’ audience in March 2013, shortly after his appointment as pope. It is the same thought that Frederic expressed more than one hundred and fifty years before; and it is still current and valid.
Questions for dialogue:
- How is our “political presence” as Christians and as Vincentians? What values are we defending?
- Are the poor our priority? In word and deed? Do we denounce injustice?
- Do the working class of today still live the same oppression that Frederic denounced? Does this happen only in the less industrialized countries, or do we see it also in the most developed countries?
- In the light of the texts of James and St. Vincent de Paul mentioned above, we might ask ourselves: What is the relationship of Vincentians with those rich and powerful? Is it as it should be? If not … how should it be?
- What must it mean for a Vincentian to “go out to the peripheries”?
- What must it mean for a Vincentian to “set aside their bourgeois parish congregations”?
Javier F. Chento