Seeing Potential and Fostering It In Young People

by | Sep 11, 2020 | Formation, Reflections | 3 comments

Lessons from history

Perhaps because we just celebrated Ozanam and Rosalie I got to thinking about student organizations and movements.

In my later years of classroom teaching, I learned much about Frederic Ozanam. I grew in awe as I realized the key role he played in the founding of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. How many student-run organizations today will still be around 187 years from now, hundreds of thousands of living alumni serving in over 150 countries.

I was also learning about the role of a Daughter of Charity who was a significant mentor for Frederic and his companions. I was just beginning to realize that Sr. Rosalie was the “Mother Teresa” of her day.

As I looked at the students in front of me, I wondered might there be another Frederic among them. How could I help them ignite the sparks in their lives?

At the intersections of their lives

Frederic and his companions were deeply committed Catholics. But they were stopped cold by the challenge of another student. In effect, he said, “Christianity was a thing of the past.” Ozanam and his friends realized that religious ideas can have no value if they do not have a practical and positive value.

They respected one of their professors, Bailly. They sought guidance. Over the years he came to know Sr. Rosalie and her work in the worst slums in Paris. He wrote to her “I am sending you two young men, M. Ozanam and M. Taillandier ….” What a fate-filled assignment! (Pope Francis almost two centuries later would send his seminarians to “get mud on their shoes” and learn “the smell of the sheep”.)

The assignment opened young Frederic’s eyes to the suffering of the poor. Realizing his limitations of age and experience, he wrote to a friend…

“Now, we others, we are too young to intervene in the social strife. Shall we then remain inert in the suffering and sighing world? No; there is a preparatory way open to us; before doing public good, we can endeavor to do good to some individuals; before regenerating France, we can solace some individuals amongst her poor”. (Talk about a “mustard seed!”)

In 1838, Ozanam wrote: “we read the life of Saint Vincent de Paul…. His is a life that we must continue, a heart where we must warm our hearts, an intelligence where we must seek light.”

The rest is history as they say. Lacordaire, one of the most influential people of the time, summed up the efforts of these students. “While innovators wore themselves out with theories for changing the world, these young men set about climbing up to the floors where the misery of the quarter hid.”

So many lessons…

  • Young people have an idealism that is ripe to be challenged… and guided.
  • They respond to those they respect for guidance.
  • Those they respect sometimes do well to connect them with people who can further guide them.
  • Mentors often have no idea of how their guidance has impact beyond those who turn to them.
  • Youth can see things with eyes that perhaps their elders had not seen and bear fruit a hundred-fold
  • The story of people like Vincent De Paul can light their path and set their hearts on fire.

At the intersections of our lives

•      Is there a young Frederic you know?

•      Can you be a Rosalie who will inspire and guide him or her?

•      Do we know where to send someone for further mentoring?

PS Pope Francis just this week wrote… “They have asked us in a thousand ways to walk alongside them— not behind them or ahead of them, but at their side. Not over them or under them, but on their level,” he wrote in the introduction to a new Italian book of essays about youth ministry.


  1. Thomas McKenna


    “Don’t look to the young to take our place. Rather let them do what we couldn’t do!”

    A quote from Timothy Radcliffe, O.P in a recent talk.

  2. Ross

    “Youth can see things with eyes that perhaps their elders had not seen and bear fruit a hundred-fold.”

    There is no reason, then, to simply dismiss or despise anyone’s youth a (see 1 Tim 4, 12).

    And blessed are those who see people’s potentials. For we often pray that more people be called to serve. But not rarely, we fail to see those before us that God sends. Sometimes because they are different or they do not meet our customary or established ideas and structures of service.

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