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Faith and Doubt

by | Oct 26, 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.


Frederic had been a professor at the Sorbonne for several years when he wrote the above referenced words about the importance of faith in his life, about the fact that they were fundamental for his family and for Abbé Norirot. Those words are part of the Introduction that he wrote to the twenty-one lessons about the fall of the Roman civilization, a course that he taught at the Sorbonne and that were published posthumously under the title, History of Civilization in the Fifth Century[1].

Frederic calls the nineteenth century “a century of skepticism;” no doubt it was so in France after the revolution, when religious beliefs and the Church fell into disgrace. Even so, Ozanam never felt ashamed of his faith, nor did he hide it, even in university circles, places little given to beliefs.

Nevertheless, in his adolescence, Frederic went through a crisis of faith.

As Vincentians, we are reminded about the crisis of faith that Vincent de Paul suffered at the age of thirty-two:

This was a painful and purifying path, a night full of doubts and darkness that, according to his first biographer, lasted three or four years and ended when he made a firm and definitive decision to place his whole life at the service of the poor. This dark night […] has to be considered as a decisive moment in his life. It was a night of doubt, of darkness, of inner emptiness, of distance from God, of despair. […] The fact is that, if we give credit to his first biographer, his spirit was illuminated and transformed at the moment he made a decision on the level of faith (today we would refer to that as a radical option). That option gave meaning to his life, created a personal identity and provided him with an evangelical project which involved the offer of his life in service of the poor. We know that his inner night was illuminated and that he experienced deep peace from the moment he resolved to consecrate his whole life to the service of the poor[2]. Vicente found himself and discovered a fundamental orientation for his life. That radical option, from a perspective of faith, gave meaning to his existence. In it, he experienced what he would say years later, as the need to put aside yourself and give yourself to other. All this made it possible for Vincent to gradually change his own life, his criteria for action, his way of contemplating things and people and ultimately, enabled him to see things and people as they are in God[3].

Despite adhering to the “sacred dogmas,” he found no peace. The testimony of a good priest — the personal contact — is what strengthened his faith again. For this reason, we can say that faith is not a compendium of knowledge, but a personal commitment to Jesus, which we receive through the example of people who did it before us. Therefore, it is important that our testimony of life is in accordance with our faith.

Both Frederic and Vincent were strengthened by this experience of the dark nights; both opted to give their lives to the Lord: Vincent discovering the true meaning of his priestly life (to proclaim the gospel to the poor country people)[4],  and Frederic dedicating his life to the service of the truth which gave him peace.

All believers, to varying degrees, have gone through similar experiences. Faith is a permanent search. Opting for God forces us to make decisions that, on many occasions, are not easy. Hopefully the example of our elder brothers and sisters will guide us in those moments of darkness and also hopefully in our anxiety we will discover Jesus saying to us the same words that he spoke to his disciples: Courage, it is I, do not be afraid[5].

Suggestions for personal reflection and group discussion:

  1. «Doubt is the motor of faith» (attributed to Saint Thomas Aquinas). Your thoughts about that phrase?
  2. What place do beliefs occupy in my life? How do others notice that I am a Christian?
  3. Evangelization is the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ through word and work and also through the witness of one’s life? How can we better the manner in which we evangelize?


[1] Basically, the book brings together the shorthand notes of his classes at the Sorbonne during the years 1848 and 1849. Frederic never saw them published, and only had the opportunity to review the first five lessons. This work begins the project that Frederic developed during the time of his youth: to describe, in several books, the progress of Western civilization and the beneficial influence that Christianity had on it. Already, as a young man of 18 years he began to devise that plan and he told his friends Fortoul and Huchard (his classmates at the Royal College of Lyon) about that plan:

For my part, my choice is made, my plan for the future is sketched out, and, as in friendship bound, I will tell you what it is. Like you, I feel that the past is falling to pieces, that the foundations of the old edifice are shaken, and that a terrible convulsion has changed the face of the earth. But what is to come out of these ruins? Is society to remain buried under the rubbish of its broken thrones, or is it to arise and reappear younger, more brilliant, more beautiful? Shall we behold a new heaven and a new earth? That is the important question […] Nevertheless, what I feel confident of is, that there exists a Providence, and that that Providence cannot for six thousand years have abandoned reasonable creatures, naturally desirous of the true, the good, and the beautiful, to the genius of evil and error ; that, consequently, all the creeds of humanity cannot have been mere extravagant delusions, and that there are truths scattered over the world. The thing is to discover these truths, and to disengage them from the falsehoods they are mixed up with; we must search the ruins of the old world for the cornerstone on which the new is to be rebuilt (letter written to Hippolyte Fortoul and Claude Huchard, January 15, 1831).

[2]   André Dodin, «Espiritualidad de san Vicente de Paúl» [The Spirituality of Saint Vincent de Paul], in Vicente de Paúl y la evangelización ru­ral [Vincent de Paul and Evangelization], CEME, Salamanca 1977, 107.

[3]   José Manuel Sánchez Mallo, «Espiritualidad vicenciana: Fe» [Vincentian Spirituality: faith] , on Diccionario de espiritualidad vicenciana [Dictionary of Vincentian Spirituality], Salamanca: CEME; 1995, available at

[4]   Cf. J. Mª Román, San Vicente de Paúl, Biografía, [St. Vincent de Paul: A Biography] Madrid: BAC, 1981, p. 118.

[5]   Cf. Mark 6:45-52.

Javier F. Chento
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