Being Exemplary During a Fruitful Debate

by | Sep 21, 2020 | Formation, Reflections

Through his writings, we invite you to discover Frederic Ozanam, co-founder of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and one of the most beloved members of the Vincentian Family (and about whom, perhaps, we may still know very little).

Frederic wrote much in his 40 plus years of life. These texts — which come to us from the not too distant past — are a reflection of the family, social and ecclesial reality lived by their author and which, in many aspects, bears similarities with what is currently lived, especially as regards the inequality and injustice suffered by millions of impoverished men and women in our world.


Apologetics is a branch of Theology that deals with the defense of faith and its dogmas, from reason and dialogue. It is not an easy matter: after all, if something were obvious or clear from the point of view of reason, there would be no controversy. We recognize that, in order to arrive to believing, ultimately it is necessary to make a leap of faith (which undoubtedly has reasonable elements). John Paul II said in his encyclical Fides et ratio that

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”[1]

When Frederic was a professor at the Sorbonne in the early 1840s, a strong intellectual current flowed among Catholic youth, turning their minds to many vital issues, such as the union of faith and science, the alliance of religion and freedom, and separation between Church and State. On May 22, 1843, Frederic gave a speech at the literary conference of the Cercle Catholique, an institution that sought to conciliate the Church with secular society, Christian faith with the new spirit, religion with science. Before him were gathered many personalities of the time, including the archbishop of Paris, Monsignor Affre. One of the topics of the conference was how believers should defend their faith, also through writing, in the newspapers and magazines of the time, before the invectives of the unbelievers.

The text we are commenting is a fragment of this conference, which was very much contested in some Catholic circles. There was even a very hard criticism was published in one of the Catholic newspapers of the time, l’Univers[2]. In Ozanam’s correspondence around that date we find many reflections and warnings to his friends concerning this rejection: in

“a violent attack by l’Univers, [in] an article published on the day of the Ascension […] I was called a deserter of the Catholic struggle. […] Most of the clergy in Paris disapprove the exalted tone and violence by which pamphlets and newspapers compromise the cause of the Church. So the whole assembly supported my words, and those which the archbishop deigned to add to them comforted and reaffirmed spirits. […] I have tried [in my class] to defend in three consecutive lessons the papacy, the monks, and monastic obedience. I have done it before a very large audience, composed of the same audience that the night before made noise in another place. However, I have not had any turmoil, and in continuing the literary history of Italy, that is to say, one of the most Christian countries under the sun, I will find at every step — and I will never avoid the opportunity of exposing the teaching — the good works, the prodigies of the Church.”[3]

What does Frederic say in the text? Several things, and not insignificant:

  • “We must never begin by despairing of those who deny. It is not a question of mortifying but of convincing them”: We can not approach dialogue by attacking mercilessly, nor condemning with the pains of hell anyone who does not share our points of view; this is not only anti-evangelical but, instead of convincing and evangelizing, what we would be doing is to further alienate people.
  • “Let us show them the example of a generous controversy”: Forms are important. May love and respect always prevail in all our dialogues.
  • “We owe them a compassion which need not exclude esteem”: Our dialogue with people who do not believe must never be sour, threatening, nor condescending. We believe that God wants to make us happy, that the gospel message is a message of liberation that seeks people to reach their full potential, fully realized according to the plan of God, who wants all men and women to be saved; or what is the same: to heal their wounds and to find true happiness. Let us recall that the word Frederic uses here, “compassion,” means literally “to suffer together.”
  • “There are some who, after having waited a little while for these tardy ones, lose patience, and grow irritated with their slowness”: On many occasions, people live processes that last for years, even a lifetime. We are not equal: the good for one may not be good for another. “Express conversions” are rare; there are few who may live the experience of St. Paul at the fall of the horse. In our walk together, let us help to (and let us be helped by!) those who walk by our side. Conversion is a way, not a goal. The goal is to be “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
  • “Let us not lose patience. God is patient because he is eternal; so likewise are Christians”: God always awaits our return. He is the father of the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32). The father never knew what day his son would return, but he never stopped waiting for him, and when he arrived, he hugged him tenderly and prepared a party for him. May we be like this too. As the campaign of the Catholic Church in the United States said: Catholic, come home, we are one family united by our savior Jesus Christ. “We are here to help you begin again or continue your personal journey to faith, and hopefully you may find peace, happiness and the true purpose of your life. We want to share with you the beauty, history and how great our Catholic Church is.”[4]

In our dialogue with unbelievers, or with lukewarm believers, let us always keep in mind the goodness, the mercy, the person-to-person rapprochement that is the example that Jesus Christ gives us. We are not adversaries, in the sense that we fight in “different sides;” we are all people who seek the truth. By sharing fully and defending our beliefs — that must necessarily be concretized in life —, following Jesus’ example let us show by works that the message of God for men is “that all may be saved and come to know the truth” as St. Paul writes In his first letter to Timothy[5].

Questions for personal reflection and group dialogue:

  1. When speaking about matter concerning the faith with acquaintances, do we attempt to understand the position of others even though they might not share our belief? What might be some possible points that believers and non-believers could find agreement?
  2. From the perspective of the Vincentian charism and the liberating message of Jesus Christ, what aspects are most important for my faith?
  3. How are we using the social media platforms in order to explain the faith (and to do so in a humble, non-aggressive manner)?
  4. Today, with regard to this theme, what is Frederic Ozanam asking of us?


[1] John Paul II, Fides et ratio, introduction.

[2] In the article “De la Modération et du zèle” (On moderation and zeal), published on May, 25

[3] Letter from Frederic Ozanam to Alexandre Dufieux, June 5, 1843

[4] Cf. “Catholics come home”:

[5] Cf. 1 Tim 2:4.

Javier F. Chento
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