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Always on the Side of the Poor

by | Nov 30, 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.


During much of his adult life, Frederic taught at the Sorbonne University in Paris. He was viewed as someone whom we would consider today as an intellectual (because of the depth and breadth of his knowledge in multiple fields of study). He esteemed knowledge and education as fundamental tools for the development of the individual and for the promotion of those persons who were poor.

During the time of the French Revolution (the end of the eighteenth century), the illiteracy rate in France was around 50%. With time, that situation improved and was lowered to 20% by the middle of the nineteenth century. Even so, the low levels of education among the working class, in Federico’s time, were a great concern. For this reason, as a way of promoting the poor and the workers, Frederic spoke in one of the General Assemblies of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul about the idea of “beginning night or Sunday schools”. This was an initiative that Frederic, a few month earlier, had spoken about with his brother, Alphonse who was a priest.

I am going to have a meeting in my house with some professors to discuss the creation of public classes and a type of night school for these courageous men. The Carmelites [1] will help us and the bishop[2] will provide us with a place[3].

In 1846, in Saint-Sulpice, Frederic began to teach night classes to the workers:

After the exhaustion of his morning’s lecture at the Sorbonne, he was constantly to be heard in the evening lecturing to an assembly of working-men […] Those who heard him speak to the uneducated classes declare that it was wonderful how he contrived to bring the riches of his learning, and his lofty mind, within their reach, and how intensely they responded to the effort.[4].

Frederic envisioned greater things: he dreamt that the children of the workers would gain access to “the treasurers of higher education”5]. The first French universities date back to the Middle Ages. The first to open was the University of Paris (founded in 1150), followed by that of Toulouse (1229) and Montpellier (1289). Until well into the 19th century, only men had access to university studies[6]. Furthermore, the tremendous financial burden that was involved in such an education (trips and lodging), meant that on a practical level only families in a comfortable position, (the upper class and the upper-middle class), could offer higher education to their children[7].

Education is an essential aspect in promoting the poor. Formation enables individuals and societies to opt for better levels of personal and social well-being, inspires development, balances economic and social inequalities, and provides people with access to better working conditions. The Social Doctrine of the Church reflects that thinking and the Second Vatican Council dedicated a document to this matter and stated:

All men of every race, condition and age, since they enjoy the dignity of a human being, have an inalienable right to an education that is in keeping with their ultimate goal,(6) their ability, their sex, and the culture and tradition of their country, and also in harmony with their fraternal association with other peoples in the fostering of true unity and peace on earth. For a true education aims at the formation of the human person in the pursuit of his ultimate end and of the good of the societies of which, as man, he is a member, and in whose obligations, as an adult, he will share.[8].

Education is a fundamental took in our effort to promote systemic change[9]and to identify and develop the unique abilities of each person.

Furthermore, education is a right that is affirmed in Article #26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[10], and more fully developed in Article #13 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights[11].

Vincent de Paul, “reading the signs of the time”, discovered that ignorance and the lack of education and culture were the root of poverty and marginalization. Thus, Vincent included education in his vast plan of evangelization on behalf of the poor. On the ecclesiastical level, Vincent organized, encouraged, and oversaw a series of educational and formation initiatives that led to a true reform of the clergy and the episcopacy and to a development of a process of evangelization on behalf of the poor, especially the poor country people. In the area of education, Vincent created school for the poor and those most abandoned[12]. Therefore. Frederic dedicated the greater part of his adult life to an effort that is most Vincentian.

The final words of Frederic are especially significant, let us be selfless in the service of God and for the benefit of our neighbor. In Light of all the suffering, pain and poverty, the loving gaze of God — and therefore, our own loving gaze — should always be directed toward those persons who find themselves in the midst of such unjust realities. In this manner (forgetting themselves and working selflessly on behalf of the neighbor) the  members of the worldwide Vincentian Family will discover their vocation and the path to holiness .

Suggestions for personal reflection and group discussion:

  1. If providing educational opportunities to the poor is part of our Vincentian vocation, what work of formation are we doing in our present situation? In this area of education, where should we be focused?
  2. Are our Vincentian educational institutions oriented fundamentally toward those persons who are poor?


[1]   The church of Saint-Joseph-des-Carmes in París.

[2]   Denis Auguste Affre (1793–1848), Archbishop of París.

[3]   Letter to Alphonse Ozanam dated March 15, 1848.

[4]   Cf. O’MEARA, chapter XVIII, p. 188.

[5] The university reality during the 19th century in France is complex: “French universities disappeared in 1793 and were not formally reconstituted until 1896. France dreamed of a single university, which a decree of 1806 had defined as an ‘organism exclusively in charge of public education and teaching throughout the Empire’. This university of 1806 was divided into academies (a dozen) and into five faculties (according to the old classification: Theology, Law, Medicine, Science and Letters), and granted three university degrees: bachelor’s, masters and doctorate”  (Jean-Claude Casanova, «L’université française du XIXe au XXIe siècle» [La universidad francesa, del siglo XIX al siglo XXI], disponible en – último acceso: 20 de abril de 2020).

[6]  Sex discrimination with regard to access to the French educational system was common until well into the 19th century. In Federico Ozanam’s time, girls did not attend school. Elementary education for both sexes was approved in 1850, but girls are only allowed to take classes when given by Church tutors. Regarding secondary education, young women who sought such education had to have recourse to private lessons that taught by male teachers from the neighboring high schools. Finally, in 1879, women’s unrestricted access to schools and secondary education was allowed. Then, in 1880, the government approved that women have access to higher education on the university level (there were some very few exceptions in previous years: some women  not French,  they were able study at the University of Paris).

[7]  There is no reliable statistical data on the number of students attending the Universities in France in the 19th century. The earliest statistics indicate that “in 1900, in France, only 0.7% of 20-year-olds attended university” (Jean-Claude Casanova  o.c.) The percentage, when Ozanam wrote this text, was undoubtedly lower.

[8]   Second Vatican Council«Gravissimum educationis», on Christian Education, #1.

[9]   An explanation of systemic change from a Vincentian perspective can be found in the work of Robert P. Maloney, C.M., “Systemic change: an introduction” at:,_an_Introduction (accessed, November 19, 2020)).

[10] (accessed on November 19, 2020).

[11] (accessed on November 19, 2020).

[12]  Celestino Fernández CM, San Vicente y la educación, [Saint Vincent and education] a conference given at the International Assembly of the International Association of Charity [AIC]  (El Escorial, Spain, March 30, 2011).

Javier F. Chento
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