Justice and the Members of the Vincentian Family

by | Nov 25, 2019 | Formation, Reflections, Society of St. Vincent de Paul

Divine justice is one of the Beatitudes that Jesus spoke about during his sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12). In that sermon, Jesus referred to different groups of people (people whom he called, blessed) who would be given priority in the Kingdom: the humble, those who weep, those who are gentle, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure of heart, peacemakers, those who are persecuted for the sake of justice. It is important to note that justice is spoken about on two occasions during that sermon: those who hunger and thirst for justice and those who are persecuted for the sake of justice. Jesus refers to those individuals who are unable to achieve success by their own efforts but who depend on grace in order to achieve their goals.

Frederic Ozanam, a cofounder of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, in addition to being aware of the concept of divine justice, knew how to adapt that concept to his era and thus referred to social justice as the path to eliminate inequality between rich and poor, between property owner and employees, between industrialists and workers. On one occasion, Frederic made reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan and said: Charity is not enough. Charity will heal wounds but will not prevent the blows that produce those wounds. Charity is what the Good Samaritan did when he poured oil over the wounds of the traveler who had been attacked. Justice prevents the attack from ever taking place [1].

Frederic’s option to walk with those who were despised, heightened his awareness of the urgency of social justice. As a professor of Commercial Law, he had studied and reflected on the various relationships in the world of labor and pointed out solutions that would later be incorporated into the encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum. Frederic wrote frequently about such themes and has been recognized as the precursor of the Church’s Social Doctrine. Ozanam was, indeed, the apostle of charity and of social justice.

Frederic reflected on the concept of a just salary and affirmed that workers were exploited when they paid a wage that did not allow them to meet their basic needs. Frederic’s ideal with not restricted simply to those persons who had been excluded from participation in society, but rather he engaged in a struggle that would heighten the awareness of all people (regardless of their social class) of the need to make social justice a reality in the world.

Frederic was committed to the cause of the poor and spoke about justice to the members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul as well as to his students and friends. When comparing charity with justice, he stated: politics is only mindful of that justice which wounds and cuts and divides. On the other hand, charity is mindful of weakness and heals, reconciles and unites … charity is not satisfied until situations of evil are resolved [2].

Therefore, we might ask ourselves: what is our understanding of justice? As members of the worldwide Vincentian Family justice consists of service on behalf of those people who are poor and of the promotion of much needed structural change in present day society. Social justice implies a willingness to engage in a struggle for the rights of those persons who have been excluded from participation in Society. This understanding of justice was, in fact, one of the primary virtues of Frederic Ozanam … and Frederic and the other cofounders of the Society lived this concept in an intense manner and courageous struggled on behalf of those who were poor, struggled on behalf of social justice and on behalf of the dignity of those persons who were most needy.

[1] Frederic Ozanam, L’Ère Nouvelle, May 31, 1848.
[2] Ibid.

Written by: Renato Lima de Oliveira
16th General President of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM
Eastern Province, USA