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Being a Christian at All Times and Places

by | Oct 5, 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.

Commentary:

Complex times were lived in the Sorbonne in the mid-1840s. Some professors had publicly expressed in their chairs their Catholic faith, including Ozanam and Lenormant[1], while others were openly hostile to faith. The same thing happened among the students: some in favor, many against. When the purpose of Frederic Ozanam’s teaching in the Sorbonne was put into question — which, some said, was more about theology than of foreign literature[2] — Frederic publicly expressed the above words, which were collected by a newspaper of his natal city. This newspaper, which reproduced “his profession of faith,” added: “Monsieur Ozanam was able to escape with great difficulty from that multitude which gave him a real ovation.”

Days after this text appeared in the newspaper, Frederic wrote his friend, Lallier[3]:

As for me, I have once again accepted the responsibility of teaching in the midst of concerns caused by the protests against Mr. Lenormant at the Sorbonne. I have seen them up close, and I can assure you that it is not a matter of school uprisings nor of an impious fanaticism on the part of a group of excited young people. It is much less and yet it is also much more. It is an action that has been undertaken without passion, but with an unworthy calculation, in the offices of some revolutionary newspapers, in order to maintain the unbelieving public in the same situation that they have been in during recent years and, at the same time, to provoke new difficulties for the government.

One the one hand, we see all these people with the obstinacy of a position already decided and, on the other hand,  we see the government with all the weakness that it usually shows when it comes to protecting beliefs. It is to be feared that violence will be renewed, and although, as occurred the last time, we are dealing with a group of about sixty troublemakers, if they return ten times, they could end up create a situation in which the course is cancelled.

But that will not happen, at least, without vigorous protests, because some Christian young men have been firmer than usual in this matter and that, at least, will be helpful in closing our ranks and stirring hearts. But you can imagine the pain of seeing such an honorable and beneficial teaching threatened by such intrigues and betrayed by the apathy of those who have the duty to defend, in this case as in others, public order.

Oh! My friend, how much harm is done in the world by the inconsistency and the timidity of good people! As for me, I will make every effort so that my cause does not separate me from that of Lenormant. As long as there are disturbances in his classes I will continue to attend them and I will exert all my influence on a certain number of young people to recruit more students to attend those classes.[4].

In this text, Frederic acknowledges that he is not a theologian[5]. But he explains that, in his chair of foreign literature, he can not help speaking of eminent Christians who contributed throughout the history to the growth of art, literature and, in general, civilization. It is a matter of conscience for him: he can not cease to be a Christian in his professional activities, nor deny the Church’s action in the history he taught, but “telling the truth” and “with severe impartiality.”

He is not a fanatic who does not admit the slightest criticism to the Church: indeed, he acknowledges that the Church is mostly made up of weak, sinful people; but, in spite of her darkest moments, he feels for her “pity and love.” Faith tells us that God guides the boat, and that it will not be shipwrecked, despite our sin.

Suggestions for personal reflection and group discussion:

  1. As members of the Vincentian Family, how do we plan our ministry of education so that it becomes a means to promote and serve those women and men who are poor, and also a means to promote systemic change?
  2. What does the expression “holy and sinful” mean, when used in reference to the Church?
  3. Do we know how to show, with simplicity and humility, our vision of life to those who have different ideas than ours? Are we able to engage in dialogue with them?

Footnote:

[1] The story of Charles Lenormant (1802–1859) is very interesting: cf. Kathleen O’Meara, Frederic Ozanam, Professor at the Sorbonne: His Life and Works , chapter XVI.

[2]   Kathleen O’Meara recounts the follow anecdote:  «It once happened, during the noisy days of the Lenormant riots, when the learned Sorbonne was transformed into a battlefield, that some person, meaning to be witty, scratched out the words ‘littérature étrangère’ after Ozanam’s name on the door, and wrote over them, ‘théologie’.” (O’MEARA, chapter XVI).

[3]   François Lallier (1814–1886) was born in Joigny (Francia). At the beginning of the 1831 academic year, he came to know Frederic as a member of the Faculty of Law. He was one of the founders of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and an intimate friend of Frederic. At the time of the baptism of the daughter of the Ozanam’s (1845), Lallier was asked to be the godfather.

In 1835, at the request of President Bailly, Lallier drafted the Rule of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (which, since then, has experienced some changes that were necessary for the development of the Society). On the whole, this Rule has remained basically intact in its wording, since 1835 until today. Lallier carried out his task with a diligence and a preciseness with regard to wording and expression … attributes of this magnificent jurist. In 1837 he was appointed Secretary General of the Society. He served in that position until 1839 when he resigned and moved to Sens. There, on April 22, 1939, he married Henriette-Colombe Delporte (1815-1890). The couple had four children, although only two reached adulthood: Henri Lallier (1840-1863) and Paul Lallier (1855-1886). On July 7, 1839, he was appointed substitute judge at Sens. He would never leave the court of Sens: in 1857 he was appointed president of the court, a position he held until his retirement in 1881

Lallier was a liberal Catholic, with no political affilation, and collaborated in writing for the newspapers, l’Université catholique y Revue européenne.

In 1879, a few years before the Society’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of its establishment, the President General, Adolphe Baudon (1819-1888) commissioned Lallier to write a brief history regarding the Society’s origins. He prepared a first draft that he submitted to the other three founding members who were still alive: Auguste Letaillandier (1811-1885), Paul Lamache (1810-1892), and Jules Devaux (1811-1880), asking them to edit and complete what he had written. This collaboration culminated in a brochure that was published in 1882 under the title: Origins of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, according to the memories of its first members.

We do not know anything about the death of Lallier which occurred in Sens (December 23,1886) … he is buried in the cemetery in that small city.

[4]   Letter addressed to Lallier, December 30, 1845.

[5]   Although he had much knowledge in matters of religion, and we know — from some writings of his wife Amélie — that whenever he wrote a topic related to faith or the Church he asked the archbishop of Paris for approval.

Javier F. Chento
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