On Almsgiving (Part 3)

by | Jan 11, 2021 | 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.


In this text, the first sentence of Frederic should move us to reflection: “Those who know the road to the poor man’s house…” In order to serve those persons who are in need, the first thing that we must do is to be with them, to be present to them. Such is the Vincentian fundamental manner of serving. Obviously, organization and structure are necessary, but one cannot serve from afar, from the confines of one’s office.

Our service must be face to face, moving out physically to the peripheries, to an encounter with persons who are in need. Furthermore, Vincent service is intended to remove people from the situation of poverty in which they find themselves. Alms soothe the wounds with the little oil that we have, but our mission is to heal the wound, that is, to assist the poor in a manner so that they no longer are poor.

Frederic learned these attitudes from the family home. In a document entitled Events in Lyon, written by Fredeeric’s father and preserved in the Archives Laporte, we find a reflection on the situation of the workers in France. Jean-Antoine writes: it is better for a man to have work that elevates him and honors him […] than to give him alms that degrade him […] and that condemns him to an incurable idleness. In order to attain such a situation, Frederic does not advocate for unbridled liberalism, but for the humanization of labor relations and justice for laborers[1]:

The social question will not be resolved by economic liberalism […] such ignominious doctrines reduce the whole economy of human life to financial calculations that strangle poor families in such a way that they are unable to feed their children[2]. The great damage of this system is seen in the fact that it reduced the objective of life to production and thus ignores the other law of labor, namely, personal interest, which is the most insatiable dimension[3].[4]

Frederic tells us that when the poor welcome us, they honor us. It may happen that we are providing them with some material things that they need, but they are giving us much more … and on many occasions, they are providing us with something that goes beyond the spiritual realm. When they share with us the little that they have, that sharing becomes a sacrament of the Kingdom: like the women in the gospel who gave two small coins.[5]  The poor are offering us much because they are giving from the situation of need and not from a situation of abundance: they are giving us something that can never be repaid … Indeed, Frederic tells us: they are giving us their friendship, their closeness … and so many times, they are giving us much more.

In 1991, during a Vincentian popular mission in a certain Latin American country, the peasants from a mountain village sent a message to the mission team and asked to speak with us. They sought our help in mediating a matter with local authorities: they wanted electricity for their village. This seemed like a rather simple matter since the high-tension wires passed through the middle of the village.

We spent two days with this people and were accompanied by a young man (from another village) who served as out guide. At the same time, this young man reminded us various realities that we might have overlooked. One of the families from the village, a very humble family, received us in their home made of clay, provided us with bedding, served us food (a very rich vegetable soup followed by a chicken stew). A true banquet! After meeting with community and listening to them as they explained their need, we assured them that we would speak with the civil authorities in the city in order to resolve this problem.

During our return home, our good friend and guide told that that the family, with whom we had resided, had sacrificed their only chicken (that provided them with eggs and protein) in order to give us something to eat. They no longer had any chickens because they had given us all that they possessed. When we arrived in the city, in addition to resolving the electrical situation, we bought three chickens to give and gave them to the family as an expression of our gratitude for their hospitality and for all that they had done for us.

In our dealings with those who are in need, we give and receive much … and therefore, our alms are not an act of charity that is misunderstood but are a just sharing of who we are and what we have … our sharing as brother and sisters.

Suggestions for personal reflection and group discussion:

  1. How should we treat the poor when we visit them in their homes or in their communities?
  2. The poor evangelize us: share some personal experience when you were evangelized by the poor.
  3. What place do we give to the process of systemic change (changing of structures) in our activities on behalf of the poor? Why do some programs fail to transform the life of the poor? What is the origin of the success or failure of some projects? What are the strategies that we have utilized in successful projects?


[1] We should remember that during the time of Frederic, many of those persons who were in need were factory workers and their families (men and women and children who were poorly p0aid and living in dreadful conditions:

In 1840, commissioned by the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, the economist Louis-René Villermé (1782–1863) did a study, in which he stated: Assuming a family whose father, mother and son (who was 10 to 12 years old) receive an ordinary salary, this family can earn in one year [provided no illness of any of its members or the lack of work does not diminish their earnings]: the father, at the rate of 30  sous  per work day: 450 francs; the mother, at the rate of 20  sous  per work day: 300 francs; the son, at the rate of 11  sous  per work day: 165 francs. In total there are 915 francs. Let us now see what the [annual] expenses are. If they rent a room, a kind of attic, a cellar, a small room, their rent […] usually costs them 40 to 80 francs in the city. Let’s take the average: 60 francs. Food: 14  sous  daily for men 255 francs; 12  sous  daily for women, 219 francs; 9  sous  daily for the child, 164 … In total: 638 francs. But, as it is very common that there are several young children, let’s say 738 francs. Therefore, food and housing: 798 francs. There are left with 117 francs  for furniture, bedding, clothing, laundry, fire, light, utensils of the profession, etc. (Louis-René Villermé,  Tableau de l’état physique et moral des ouvriers employés dans les manufactures de coton, de laine et de soie  [Table of the physical and moral state of the workers employed in the cotton, wool and silk factories], Paris: Jules Renouard, 1840, volume I, pp. 98-100).

In light of this text we can conclude the following with regard to labor conditions in factories:

  • In addition to the evident gender inequality in wages (a 33% difference), the normality of child labor is discussed, and these children were even worse paid (approximately one third of an adult male).
  • The annual salary allows us to count the number of working hours per year: 300 days, that is, six days a week (Sunday rest), without other vacations in the year except for certain regulated holidays (secular and religious).
  • Other texts indicate that some workers had to go to the factory even on Sunday mornings, to clean the workshops and maintain the machines.
  • Ordinarily, the daily working hours exceeded 12 hours, sometimes 15. The lunch break was short (half an hour in general); Food was often eaten in front of one’s machine or outside, in the factory yard.

Children with subject to the same work hours as adults. Then in 1841, the King enacted a law that contained some of the following points:

  • children under the age of eight were prohibited from work;
  • children under the age of thirteen were prohibited from work during the night (from 9 at night until 5 in the morning) … there were, however, exceptions;
  • children between the ages of 8 and 12 could work no more than eight hours and children between the age of 12 and 16 could work no more than twelve hours;
  • children under the age of 16 were prohibited from work on Sunday’s and legal holidays.

It should be noted that this law was applied to workshops and factories that employed 20 or more individuals.

[2] «Protestantism in relation to Freedom», published in l’Univers, December 4 and 12, 1848.

[3] «The cuases of misery», published in l’Ère nouvelle, October 15, 1848.

[4] Cf. Gérard Cholvy, Frédéric Ozanam : L’engagement d’un intellectuel catholique au XIXe siècle [Frederic Ozanam: the commitment of a Catholic intellectual in the nineteenth century]. París: Fayard, 2003, chapter 11.

[5] When [Jesus] looked up he saw some wealthy people putting their offerings into the treasury and he noticed a poor widow putting in two small coins. He said, I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest; for those others have all made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood (Luke 21:1-4).

Javier F. Chento
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