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The Dangers that Haunt our Mission

by | Oct 12, 2020 | Formation, Reflections | 0 comments

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:

At the end of 1840, Frédéric Ozanam had to move from Lyon to Paris, to begin his work as substitute professor of Foreign Literature in the University of the Sorbonne. He left Lyon on December 14, 1840, arriving in Paris on Friday 18[1] in order to prepare the university course that would begin in early 1841. Only a few weeks earlier the compromise between Frédéric Ozanam and Amélie Soulacroix was formalized: we know —for one of the Ozanam Family Books[2] that the official visit to the Soulacroix house took place on November 13, signing the marriage commitment on the 24th of the same month, before the members of the two families. Monsieur Soulacroix,

like the ancient patriarchs, with a heart full of joy, took the hands of the future husband and wife, gathered them among their own, and thus consecrated that link which the Church would consecrate forever a year later[3].

The marriage is set for June 1841. In these months in which the couple would be separated[4], they maintain a continuous and frequent correspondence. In these “love letters”, in addition to planning their future life together, they also talk about their projects and expectations, and many other issues appear, among which God, religion and Society of St. Vincent de Paul have their preeminent place.

The piece that we are presenting today corresponds to a letter in which Frédéric tells Amélie about a general meeting, on Sunday, April 25, feast of the Good Shepherd[5], the second of the four annual meetings that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul had[6]. In the morning, “the delegates of the 25 conferences in Paris, young people among whom were mixed with a fraternal equality some illustrious elderly” attended Mass at the church where the remains of St. Vincent de Paul rest[7]. And in the evening, “a large crowd filled the amphitheater of our meetings.” At the same time, “thirty other conferences set in the furthest reaches of the country celebrated the same solemnity.”

Previously, Frédéric wondered in this letter: “Could not we […] believe that Divine Providence calls us to the moral rehabilitation of our country, when eight years have been enough to grow our number from eight to two thousand?”

And then he reflects on what dangers might cause the laity of the Society to fail to fulfill their mission. Although, when he writes these, Frédéric is thinking of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, it is not difficult to extrapolate them to any other branch of the Vincentian Family:

1. “To alter our original spirit.” We Vincentians are called to serve and evangelize the poor. Each branch of our family practices it with a distinctive hue; for example, in the Society, visiting the poor in their homes in something basic. But it is essential that our work always revolve around this charism of service. Outside of it, we are not Vincentians.

2. “The pharisaism that makes the trumpet sound before self” – “To forget the humble simplicity that presided the beginning of our meetings, which made us love the darkness without seeking the secret.” St. Vincent de Paul invited us to practice the virtues of humility and simplicity[8]. We can not mistake the means with the end: we are a means, an instrument to achieve an end: to help the needy to get out of their poverty.

3. “The exclusive esteem of itself that does not know virtue in other places than the preferred corporation.” St. Paul said that “there are many different gifts, but it is always the same Spirit.”[9] We are part of the Church and fulfill our mission in her, not believing ourselves better for it. On charisms, Pope John Paul II told us that

Whether they be exceptional and great or simple and ordinary, the charisms are graces of the Holy Spirit that have, directly or indirectly, a usefulness for the ecclesial community, ordered as they are to the building up of the Church, to the well-being of humanity and to the needs of the world.[10]

4. “An excess of practices and rigor.” We Vincentians live a simple and practical spirituality. We may fall into temptation — in fact, it has sometimes happen — of complicating this practice with empty pious exercises, or far from our spirituality of service. Charity calls us to exercise devotion[11], always thinking of how to best serve the poor and proclaim the Kingdom. If we “dedicate” ourselves to other issues, or if we carry devotions outside our charism, with excessive rigor, we are getting out of our fundamental mission.

5. “A verbose philanthropy more proccupied in speech than in action.” There is a Spanish saying, a “person’s force is gone by the mouth”, refering to when your words are not backed by your works, when you talk too much, but everything is left in nothing. Not so among us: if our testimony is only in words, we are not fulfilling our mission. St. Vincent told us:

Let us love God, brothers, let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows; for very often many acts of love o f God, of devotion, and o f other similar affections and interior practices o f a tender heart, although very good and desirable, are, nevertheless, very suspect if they don’t translate into the practice of effective love. ‘By this,’ says Our Lord, “is my Father glorified, that you may bear much fruit.[12] We have to be very careful about that; for there are many who, recollected exteriorly, and filled with lofty sentiments of God interiorly, stop at that, and when it comes to the point of doing something, and they have the opportunity to act, they come up short. They flatter themselves with their ardent imagination; they’re satisfied with the sweet conversations they have with God in meditation and even speak of them like angels; but when they leave there, if there’s a question of working for God, of suffering, of mortifying themselves, of instructing poor persons, of going in search of the lost sheep,[13] of being happy when they lack something, or of accepting sickness or some other misfortune, alas! they’re no longer around; their courage fails them. No, no, let’s not fool ourselves: Totum opus nostrum in operatione consistit.[14]

This is so true that the holy Apostle declares to us that only our works accompany us into the other life.[15] So, let’s reflect on that, especially since, in this century there are many who seem virtuous – and who actually are – but, nevertheless, are more inclined to a soft, easy way than to a painstaking, solid devotion. The Church is compared to a great harvest that requires workers, but hardworking ones. Nothing is more in conformity with the Gospel than to gather light and strength for our soul in meditation, reading, and solitude on the one hand, and then to go out and share this spiritual nourishment with others. This is to do as Our Lord did. and His Apostles after Him; it’s to unite the office of Martha to that of Mary[16] and to imitate the dove, which half digests the food it has eaten and then uses its beak to put the rest into that of its babies in order to feed them. That’s what we
should do, that’s how we should witness to God by our works that we love Him.[17].

6. “Bureaucratic practices that would impede our progress by multiplying our structures.” Structures are necessary and important, but they can not substitute the direct contact with the impoverished, the personal attention, the close and loving treat with those who suffer. In short: we are not a bureaucratic office, but a family of believers who see Jesus Christ in the poor.

This paragraph ends with a sentence that is worth highlighting and reflecting: “For God is especially pleased to bless what is small and imperceptible, the tree in its seed, the human bieng in his cradle, the good works in the timidity of its beginnings.”

Suggestions for personal reflection and group discussion:

  1. We can review our attitudes and actions, personal and community, in light of the six points shown by Frederic as dangers that can lead us not to fulfill our mission.
  2. If we had to summarize our mission and our priorities as followers of Vincent, Louise, Frederic, etc … in a few items, what would these be?

Footnotes:

[1] After a stay in Sens to visit his friends, François Lallier y Henriette Delporte, who had just become parents of the first son, Henri.

[2] There are four volumes of Ozanam manuscripts. Volume one is preserved in the Laporte Archives and the other three in the Ozanam Archives.

[3] Cf. Charles-Alphonse Ozanam, Vie de Frédéric Ozanam, Paris: Poussielgue, 1879, p. 357.

[4] His fiancée Amélie was living in Lyon with her family.

[5] The Church celebrates Good Shepherd Sunday on the Fourth Sunday  of the Easter Season. The gospel that is procalim during that celebration is taken from John 10: I am the Good Shepherd. The Good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

[6] Article 45 of the original Rule states that “each year the general councils will celebrate December 8th (the feast of the Immaculate Conception), the First Sunday of Lent; Good Shepherd Sunday (the anniversary of the translation of the relics of Saint Vincent de Paul) and July 19 (the feast of the patron saint). Today the Vincentian Family celebrates the translation of the relics of Saint Vincent on April 26 and the feast of Saint Vincent on September 27”.

[7] In the chapel of the Motherhouse of the Congregation of the Mission located at 95 rue de Sevres in Paris.

The chapel that houses the body of the saint was built under the Restoration – a period that began with the defeat of Napoleon (1814) and extended to the time of the 1830 revolution – to receive the relics of Saint Vincent de Paul, transferred in 1830 by the Bishop of Quelén. St. Vicente’s body was placed over the main altar, and it can be accessed by a side staircase.

[8] Which he called “my gospel”, see CCD IX, 476.

[9] 1 Cor 12:4.

[10] John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, § 24.

[11] From Latin devotiones, which means dedication, vow.

[12] Jn 15:8.

[13] Cf. Mt 18:10-14.

[14] “All our work consists in action.”

[15] Cf. Rev 14:13.

[16] Cf. Lc 10:25-37.

[17] Cf. CCD IX, letter 25.

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