On Almsgiving (Part 2)

by | Dec 21, 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 upholds that there are services that can not be paid with money or, in any case, not paid as they deserve, and he gives two examples: the priests, who give their lives to comfort the afflicted, and the soldiers, who defend the country against the aggressions it suffers. How can we pay those who give their lives for the service of others?

The church is at the service of the people. It is not a company that offers professional services, and even less a collection office. The priests, then and now, receive modest economic compensations for their tasks, far below what would be normal salaries in other professions: doctors, lawyers … The great majority of religious orders were also born in the spirit of living poorly. In this, the church follows in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, who lived in all simplicity.

The poor person who asks for alms is not humiliated if he is treated “as the priest who blesses and the soldier who dies for me.” But it is necessary that, to the economic aid, we unite the personal and close contact, the advice that animates, the caress that comforts. It is a matter of recognizing in the poor a person with the same dignity as the rest, that suffer needs and that it is in our hands the ability to relieve it.

The poor have a pre-eminent place in the Kingdom of God. The predilection of Jesus Christ towards the helpless is crystal clear. If the poor have such an important place in the Kingdom, how could we consent to being said they are a useless being? They offer their sufferings, participate in the sufferings of Christ himself, and pray for us.

It does not mean that we wish there were poor people. On the contrary, we must end poverty. If our works are mere assistance, we are doing something wrong, because our mission is to end poverty and pain that so many human beings suffer in our world.

The “eminent dignity of the poor” puts us at their service, “as our masters,” St. Vincent would say[10]. To assist them is not, therefore, an act of piety, but an act of justice, because we are obliged, from the faith, to help the poor.

Suggestions for personal reflection and group discussion:

  1. In what ways do we support our Church, so that there will continue to be people of faith who are willing to assist those in need?
  2. Is simplicity of life part of our personal and community goals? How is that simplicity of life revealed?
  3. How do our Vincentian institutions combine direct care for the poor (attending to immediate emergencies) with initiatives aimed at overcoming their situation of need?
  4. In particular, what does the expression “the eminent dignity of the poor” mean? What consequences does it have for our life?


[1]   The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was approved on July 12, 1890. This meant that ecclesiastics became functionaries of the French State and thus, received a salary from the government. Bishops and priests had to swear allegiance to the country.

[2]   Old French coin (French crown). The value of the crown varied considerably over time. The crown disappeared during the French Revolution, but the coins of 5 francs of silver, minted during the XIX century, were the continuation of the old crowns, reason why the French called them écu (crown, in French). El salario de un sacerdote en Francia a mitad del siglo XIX es, por tanto, 500 francos al año, un salario medio-bajo.

[3]   Old French coin, equivalent to five cents of franc.

[4]   The French began to colonize Northern Africa in 1830. When Frederic wrote this article, the French military was engaged in battle with the troops of Emir Abd al-Qádir.

[5]   The French text says “fourth floor,” which is where the attic used to be in the times of Ozanam.

[6]   Cf. Mark 14:7.

[7]   Cf. Matthew 25.

[8] This expression also used by Pope Pius XII, in his discourse (March 30, 1941) to the extraordinary envoy and plenipotentiary minister of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, S.E. Count Stanislao Pecci.

[9]   This text is part of the sermon that was preached (February 9, 1659) by Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704), in the chapel of Providence House in Paris. Frederic, in his writings, refers to Bossuet several times.

[10]  Cf. SVP ES XI, 393.

Javier F. Chento
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