Government Ought to be at the Service of the People

by | Nov 16, 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.


Frederic wrote these words fifteen months after the foundation of the first Conference of Charity (April 23, 1833). During that brief period of time many important events had taken place (and many others were about to occur) that would affect the life of the newly established Society of Saint Vincent de Paul:

  • Even though in the beginning there was a hesitancy to admit new members to the Conference, nevertheless in 1833 the following individuals joined the founding group: Léonard Gorse (1808-1901)[8], Colas Gustave de la Noue (1812–1838), Charles Hommais (1813–1894), Émile de Condé (1810–1886), Amand Chaurand (1813–1896), Pierre-Irénée Gignoux (1811–1890) y Henri Pessonneaux (1812–1869, the cousin of Frederic). By the time of the summer holidays of 1833, there were more than fifteen members in the group. At the beginning of the new academic year more than twenty-five members applied for admission (many from Lyon). The number grew steadily and by the end of 1834 there were more than one hundred members.[9].
  • On February 4, 1834, at the request of the member Le Prevost[10], the Society took Saint Vincent de Paul as their patron. Soon thereafter the Confraternity of Charity became the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
  • With the growth of the Society, the President of the group, Bailly, considered it important to have the support of the clergy. He asked that a report be prepared, which was read at the meeting of June 27, 1834 [11],  which was attended by Father Pierre-Augustin Faudet (1798-1873), pastor of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, who was very impressed by the work done by the laity:

In order to be useful to our brothers and to ourselves, a twofold purpose was proposed. […] We have become the assistants of the Daughters of Charity. We have asked them for advice and help us and from them we have learned the miseries of the poor […] We have had to reach out to the poor already inscribed on the charity lists. We have had to start knocking on the door of the destitute in order to help them with material aid. […] Entering the poor man’s home we have been allowed to heal their physical wounds […] Charity, gentlemen: that is the word that must mobilize people […] with that word, we will unite people and one day, through charity, humankind will only have brothers and sisters.

  • In December 1834, due to the large number of members, the division of the first conference began to be considered. The debate was long: Ozanam supported the division while others – including Paul Brac de La Perrière (1814-1894), secretary of the conference – were against it. Finally, on February 17, 1835, the division was voted upon and was approved, giving rise to the conferences of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, the original, and the new one of Saint-Suplice.

In July 1834, Frederic was a young man who held legitimist ideas [12]. He was studying law and letters at the Sorbonne University in Paris. He was no stranger to the political movements that were taking place in France, and spoke about them with his friends, although he believed that they are still too young to intervene in the social struggle.

Years later, Frederic opted for democracy. This decision was based on Christian values and he envisioned that in a democratic republic, Catholic politicians would dedicate themselves to alleviating the needs of the people and, in particular, the needs of the poorer classes. In France, there were people of faith who demanded that the Church, as an institution, have power and influence over the governing bodies … that, however, was not Ozanam’s position.

In 1830, Félicité Robert de Lamennais (before falling from grace)[13] wrote a letter that pointed in the same direction: the separation of Church-State:

The Church is oppressed by all governments and would perish if this situation continued. Therefore, the Church must be liberated, which today that can only be done by totally separating it from the State. Salvation and the Church’s very life, depends on it and I do not doubt for a single moment that, in the midst of these great catastrophes which we now witness, and will continue to experience, the final objective of Providence is to work on behalf of this necessary liberation.

As far as France is concerned, I have no doubt that we have to go through very unfortunate and very difficult times. I have not said anything about this …  But each a situation has its own obligations, and all the obligations of our present situation are summarized, in my opinion, in one: that of uniting to stop, if possible, the anarchy that threatens us and, consequently, support the current power as long as it defends us, by defending itself, against the fury of Jacobinism [14]. What will Jacobinism do if it succeeds? It will persecute religion, abolish all Christian education, violently attack people, property and all rights? Then, what will have to seek? Religious freedom, freedom of education, that of people and property, that is, the enjoyment of rights without which society cannot even understand itself.  That is what I have been saying for fifteen years. How can we continue to demand all of this without freedom of the press? Eliminate that and it will be necessary to bow our head to every form of tyranny. Therefore, for the future, as well as for the present, there is no possible salvation except with freedom and through freedom[15].

Frederic did not reflect on a specific political system (monarchy or republic), but rather his reflection was focused on the principles that should guide any political system. He used the same words when evaluating the various systems that he revered: “individual sacrifice for the benefit of all people”.

In light of a political system that throughout history has frequently been less concerned about the common good and more concerned about the good of some individuals, Pope Francis stated: a politician should never sow hatred and fear, but only hope. We must help them to be honest, not to campaign with dishonest promises: slander, defamation, scandal [16].

Frederic concluded his reflection by recognizing that he and his friends were still too young to intervene in these matters. Nevertheless, he called upon young people to do whatever was in their power in order to alleviate social needs and to try to do good to some people. For this reason, he was very excited about the work of the conferences, and concluded by affirming that he would like all young people to unite in mind and heart in some charitable work, and thus form a vast network of charity in France on behalf of those men and women who are poor.

As we saw at the beginning of this commentary, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul was taking important steps to achieve that goal.

Suggestions for personal reflection and group discussion:

  1. What are the ways in which we can present our Christian values to the society in which we life?
  2. How can we promote – or ought to promote – some charitable work among the youngest members of society (as Frederic indicates in this test)?


[1]   Nero (37–68), was a Roman emperor whose reign was characterized by tyranny and despotism, systemic execution and persecution of Christians.

[2]   Saint Louis IX of France (1214–1270), is said to have embodied the ideal of a Christian monarch: a spirit of prayer and penance, devotion, wisdom and prudence when governing.

[3]   Athenian democracy is the first documented democracy in history (the fourth century BCE). The right to vote was limited to adult males who were citizens and Athenians and who had completed the military training.

[4]   The French Terror “was a period between 1793 and 1794 characterized by changes caused by the violence of the French Revolution. This period was highlighted by various means that were were imposed on people” Cf. Miriam Martí, El Gobierno del Terror en la Revolución Francesa [The government of terror during the French Revolution], in (accessed, 20 de April, 2020).

[5]   “All power comes from God.” Cf. Romans 13:1ff.

[6]   The work, My prisons (original title: Le mie prigioni), by the Italian writer, Silvio Pellico (1789–1854), was written during his imprisonment (1820 – 1830) having been accused of disseminating liberal political ideas that were opposed to the Austrian imperial regime. His writings, free from any form of hatred and rancor, became a valuable historical witness with regard to the ideas and customs that motivated Europeans during that period. The book had great success throughout Europe.

[7]   Words of a Believer, by Félicité Robert de Lamennais, was published on April 30, 1834. Beginning from the perspective of the universal brotherhood/sisterhood of humankind, Lamennais engaged in a powerful criticism of the social and ecclesial reality of that era.  It represented the distancing and the break of the author (a Catholic priest) with the Catholic Church.

[8]   Some indirect sources affirm that Gorse was one of the founding members, but the proof is very weak and there is nothing that indicates that fact, even though he was an early member of the Society.

[9]   Cf. Charles Mercier, La Société de Saint-Vincent-de-Paul: une mémoire des origines en mouvement, 1833–1914 [The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul: a memoire of the origins of a movement, 1833-1914], París: L’Harmattan, 2006, introduction.

[10]  Jean-Léon Le Prevost (1803–1874) was not a member of the founding group of the Society, even though soon thereafter he was invited to join. In 1835 he was elected treasurer of the General Council of the Society. That same year, on March 3rd, the first meeting of the Conference of Saint Suplice and on December 11, 1836 he was elected president of this Conference. For ten years Le Prevost offered his best to the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.

After a tumultous marriage (he wedded Aure de Laffond [17 years older than him] on June 18, 1834 and they spearated in 1845), slowly he began to experience a call to a more permanent commitment. He wrote: There is so much to do on behalf of the poot […] the harvest is great […] it is not enough to devote a little time after one has completed his work for the day. A fuller commitment of time is necessary. Then together with Maurice Maignen (1822-1890) and Clement Myionnet (1812-1886), both members of the Society and in the presence of Bishop Guillaume Angebault (1790-1869 – the Bishop of Angers) and the relics of Saint Vincent de Paul in the chapel at the rue de Sevres, they officially committed themselves to serve the poor the remainder of their lives. This took place on March 3, 1845 and thus the Congregation of the Religious of Saint Vincent de Paul was established. Le Prevost was ordained a priest on December 22, 1860. In 1869 he moved to Rome and there presented the Constitutions of the Order and requested the blessing of the Holy Father. His health declined and he retirned in 1871 to a house of formation. He died in Chaville on October 30, 1874.

[11]  “A Report on the activities of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul from the time of its origins.” This report, a true summary of the beginning of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, has been mistakenly known as “The Report of Noue” because said member read the report during the meeeting. The report was developed by a commission that had been appointed ten days before the meeting and was composed of Gustave de La Noue, Jules Devaux (1811–1880) and Frederic Ozanam. The original text is preserved in the Library of the General Council of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in Paris (the document contains 18 hand written pages … the writer is unknown. The document contains various notations and corrections that were made by Frederic).

[12]  A monarchist during the time of his adolescence, Frederic gradually transformed his political thinking and came to embrace the republic.

[13]  Felicité de Lamennais (1782–1854) was a defender of the separation between Church and State. His older brother, Jean-Marie de Lamennais (1780–1860), was the founder of the Brother of Christian Instruction of Ploërmel (menesians). He certainly influence Felicité who entered the seminary but perhaps without any discernment with regard to a vocation. Felicité founded the newspaper l’Avenir which was published for a little more than a year (from October 1830 to November 1831). Its editorials attempted to reconcile the liberal and democratic aspirations of the French people with the ideas of the Church. As a result of the implicit condemnation of Pope Gregory XVI in his encyclical Mirari vos, the newspaper closed and Lamennais began to distance himself from the Church. After being reproached by the Rome for his liberal Catholic ideas, he broke with the Church in 1834 when he published Paroles d’un Croyant [The words of a believer} which Frederic mentioned in the text.  In this book Lamennais referred to Pope Gregory XVI, as a renegade because of his political thinking (for example, the Pope in the referenced encyclical condemns religious freedom, and the separation between Church and State). Frederic, as well as Lacordaire, was not in full agreement with Lamennais. Some of the questions that he raised were valid but there was disagreement with regard to the manner to resolve these various issues.

[14]  A radical group that arose during the Revolution and were responsible for much of the repression that took place during the Reign of Terror.

[15]  Letter of Félicité Robert de Lamennais to Countess Luisa de Senft, September 5, 1830; Cf. E. K. Bramsted y K. J. Melhuish, Las grandes corrientes del liberalismo [The great currents of liberalism] Madrid: Unión Editorial, 1982, pág. 148.

[16]  Pope Francis, Press Conference on his return flight from Romania, June 2, 2019.

Javier F. Chento
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