Labor Day, the beginning of the academic year, and the liturgical calendar (September 8) merge in drawing Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam to my mind at the beginning of September.
As a student at the Sorbonne in 19th Century Paris, Frédéric and some of his classmates heard the call for direct service of the poor. Guided by a Daughter of Charity, Rosalie Rendu, they became instruments of compassion and interpersonal contact with the needy. They recognized a paradigm for their efforts in the Vincentian charism. Thus, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul came into being. Most of us are familiar with this brief history of an important figure in our Vincentian pantheon.
Frédéric was a husband and father. These intimate elements defined him as a person. The recent publication of the book “Amelie Ozanam: A Heart with Much Love to Give” (Matthieu Brejon de Lavergnée, 2022) reveals the depth of affection and encouragement that characterized both spouses. Frédéric’s role as a Catholic layman supported him and demonstrated the way in which he would live his faith and do his work.
A brilliant scholar, Ozanam became a professor at the Sorbonne as he continued his service of the poor. Researchers recognize in his writings and actions an important contribution to Catholic Social teaching with an emphasis on the common good. In his homily at the beatification of Frédéric, John Paul II said “So it is that we can see in [Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam] a precursor of the social doctrine of the Church which Pope Leo XIII would develop in the Encyclical Rerum Novarum” (1891). The words bear witness to Frédéric’s efforts on behalf of workers’ rights, fair wages, and unions.
Several quotations of Frédéric attract me. One, in particular, highlights his complete dedication to his teaching and to his students. Frédéric died young—not much more than 40—but he took the mission of professor seriously. Rising from a sick bed, he delivers his last lecture at the Sorbonne in 1852. When he had finished his lecture, he told his students:
“Gentlemen, our century is criticized as being a century of selfishness. And it is said that professors have fallen victim to the general epidemic. However, it is here [in the lecture hall] that we destroy our health; it is here [in the lecture hall] that we wear out our strength. I do not complain. Our life belongs to you. We owe it to you to our last breath. And you will have it. As for me, gentlemen, if I die, I will do so in your service.”
An educator must be moved by such a powerful statement. When I have the opportunity to speak to professors at St. John’s University, I often quote this line.
One of the blessings of the Vincentian charism rests in the wide variety of ways in which our world is enriched through our connection to lay ministry in such organizations as the Ladies of Charity and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul—just to name a few of these partners. As we reflect on Frédéric, we ask the Lord to bless these lay collaborators with more members who open their hearts and hands to the care of others with the conviction of Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam.