[The following excerpt is taken from the text of P.J. Cordes, Ci ha amati per primo, (Milano: Edizioni San Paolo, 1999), pp. 122-137.]Frederic Ozanam
In the Middle Ages, Saint Elizabeth, through her life and works, represented a true form of charity that is valid for all times: seeking the face of Christ in one’s neighbor, especially in the suffering.æ In fact, she carried out her work, sparing no effort until she reached a state of complete sacrifice and a deep mystical union with Christ.æ This mysticism, however, was not sentimental or self-righteous, but had as its motivating force the total offering of self for one’s neighbor, all the while being a gift of God’s grace and the fruit of her service.
Very different were the position and motivational thrust of a modern model of charity, that of Frederic Ozanam of France, who was declared “Blessed” by Pope John Paul II on August 22, 1997, during an international youth conference held in Paris.æ Ozanam recognized the call to “love of neighbor” in the midst of the dangers to which the life of faith was exposed in his time.æ He heard this call from within the world of science and study, during a time of State crises and general unrest.æ He found answers for himself through continual reflection.
In spite of the brevity of his life and his fragile health, Blessed Frederic Ozanam showed himself to be full of vitality, imagination, and energy.æ He launched himself into society and did not stiffen behind his desk or in academic vanity.æ He fought passionately in political struggles and was a great organizer.æ It is no surprise that his mark still remains today on both the Church and on the world.
Thesis 18: Blessed Frederic Ozanam followed the call to love of neighbor at the height of social tensions that divided France, and also characterized, in the midst of the confusion, the situation within the Church, which was most painful to him.æ Nevertheless, he remained faithful to his political responsibility and to the Successor of Peter.æ During his short life of tireless commitment, brought to a close after only forty years, he sought “to be as close as possible to God” (S. Kierkegaard).æ His apostolate still bears rich fruit today in the Conferences of Saint Vincent.
Frederic was born in Milan on April 23, 1813.æ In 1815, his parents moved to Lyon.æ His father was a prominent doctor and the family lived in an upper middle-class setting.æ Frederic’s main interest since his school days was the Christian Faith, but he was, in fact, tormented by his doubts about the existence of God.æ He would later write, “I believed, therefore, with a sure faith andƒpromised God that I would dedicate my life to the service of truth, which is the only path that can bring us peace.”
In 1831, he began his university studies in Paris.æ It was the first year of the reign of the bourgeois king, Louis Philippe, and social tensions between rich and poor were worsening.æ The electoral law, and even more so, the legislative activity of the French Parliament, unilaterally favored the ruling upper middle-class, which primarily sought after the prospect of becoming wealthier.æ
Faced with this situation, the laboring class felt stripped of their rights and of the benefits of their fight for liberty.æ At the same time, liberal ideals were spreading to all levels of society.æ The cultural scene was filled with the ideas of Philip Saint-Simon (Ê1835), who thought of himself as the founder of a new religion, and proclaimed social responsibility as the new faith.æ Among the better educated, it was clearly seen as anticlerical.æ
Frederic encountered young intellectuals, who would later form the Society’s history and share his “path of faith”.æ”Among these, he met the young Count C.F. Montalembert (Ê1870), Father F. De Lamennais (Ê1854), and Dominican Father J.B. Lacordiare (Ê1861).”He received the greatestæ encouragement from the celebrated physicist, A.M. Amp?re (Ê1836), whose deep devotion impressed the young student.
Ozanam’s first philosophical studies awakened his curiosity and focused his attention on contemporary thought.æ At the Sorbonne in 1832, he struck up friendships with other students.æ The enlightenment and rationalistic climate pushed this small group into works of opposition and protest, as there was no lack of individuals with an open contempt for Christianity.æ When one day the celebrated professor, Th. Jouffroy launched an attack on the Christian Faith, the small group defended it.æ Ozanam recalled:
The numerous audience, comprised of more than two hundred people, listened respectfully to our profession of faith.æ The philosopher waved in vain to respond to us; in the end, he profoundly apologized, assuring us that he had not wanted to specifically attack Christianity, which he held in high esteem, and that in the future he would be careful not to further offend our beliefs.
This victory increased the cohesiveness and initiative of the group.æ Most of them came from Lyon, the same city as Frederic.æ They met regularly at Montalembert’s house, openly exchanging ideas.æ There were no secrets between them.æ As Ozanam noted, they opened their souls to each other and spoke together of their joys, hopes, and pains.æ They also began to regularly visit the poor neighborhoods of Paris, becoming particularly involved in the epidemic that spread during March of 1832, in which 3,075 people were infected and 1,200 died.æ This service of neighbor further solidified the bond between these friends, making the small group well known and increasing their numbers.æ On July 21, 1834, Frederic wrote to his cousin, E. Falconnet:
The strongest bond, the basis of every true friendship, is charity, and when this is rooted in the hearts of many, it is inevitable that it will spread outward.æ The sustenance of this charity is good deeds.
he group also took part in academic conferences on historic or literary themes, which were occasionally organized by the students at the Sorbonne.æ Frederic became the spokesman for the Catholic members, even though, as he once wrote to his cousin (January 7, 1834), at only twenty-one years of age he felt inexperienced and intimidated.
One day, during a history conference, a heated debate took place.æ One young supporter of the theories of Saint-Simon directly attacked the militant Catholics: “Your faith is in books and not in deeds.æ What do you do to help the poor and unfortunate?”æ Ozanam responded by affirming: “The Church has always been the friend of the poor.æ Christ came to save all men.æ From the beginnings of Christianity to today, the Church has always used all of its means to bring an end to slavery.”æ The other student replied, “You speak of the pastƒwhat I am asking you is what you do, what do your companions do?”æ Ozanam continued, recalling the numerous religious who labored in favor of the poor in the heart of Paris.æ He spoke of their heroic efforts during the plague of 1832, and of the encouragement and support of the Archbishop of Paris, De Qu?len.æ In response to the awkward questions of his opponent, who had asked him to talk about the present, Ozanam gave his own testimony, recalling that he and his group dedicated part of their time and money to the poor.æ His opponent started to laugh: “What do you ever hope to do?æ You are no more than a handful of young men, and this is how you would hope to remedy the misery of a city such as Paris?æ We, instead, work on ideas and systems that will change the face of the world and rid it of poverty forever.æ In one instance, we will do for humanity what would take you centuries to achieve.”
The discussion left a deep impression on the small group of students. “In fact, they decided to pursue concrete initiatives. “In April of 1833, the friends met and resolved to improve the organization of their meetings: Christianity had to show its true superiority over the new form of atheism by means of good deeds.” They founded the “Conferences de Charit””, which later would give rise to the “Society of Saint Vincent de Paul”.æ:The origins of the Conferences of Saint Vincent were therefore not about reacting to the present injustice and suffering, but about logical reflection: if Christianity wanted to find an echo in an environment of weak faith, it would have to demonstrate the works of love.æ In other words, one could say that the motivation of these young people was apologetic.” Along with this, what stood out was their strong identification with the Faith and with the Church.” Moreover, their desire to show the world the Faith in a just light contributed to its spread. “They were convinced that the practice of good deeds was intimately tied to the mission of the Church.
Present within the students’ initiatives, however, was a criticism of the hardness of heart and lack of faith on the part of many Christians.æ Unfortunately, the proponents of Saint-Simon were not the only ones who brought to light the terrible misery that existed in Catholic France.” Writers such as Victor Hugo also showed disconcerting evidence of this in Notre Dame de Paris and Les Miserables.æ”Subsequently, Ozanam wrote to L. Jaumot (November 13, 1836):
That which divides people today is no longer different political viewpoints, but rather a social question.æ It seeks to know whether the spirit of selfishness or the spirit of sacrifice will prevailƒThere are many men who have too much, and yet still desire to have more, but there are many more who do not have anything and who are determined to take that which others do not wish to give them.æ Between these two classes, a battle is being prepared that threatens to be terrible: on the one side, the power of gold, and on the other, the strength of desperation.
The French Revolution of 1848, and that in Russia in October of 1917, proved the point.æ Nevertheless, Frederic continued to dedicate himself to his studies with great success.æ In 1834, he was awarded his degree in literature, and, in 1836, defended his doctorate in law.æ He published a variety of studies, and in 1839, was entrusted with a chair in commercial law and obtained in Paris his university teaching certification in literature.æ From 1841 on, he taught classes at the Sorbonne, and in 1844 became a full professor.
In any case, his life did not follow the conventional route that his university chair seemed to forecast.æ This turbulent historical moment would have deep repercussions on him.æ His attentive and sensitive nature was always exposed to new worries, and at least some of the opposing forces that put him to the test should be mentioned.
1. Of greatest importance was the political context.” Ozanam attacked the selfishness of the well-to-do, who only defended their privileges without caring for the suffering of the marginalized.” He published a significant article at the beginning of February, 1848, in Le Correspondent, which prompted a wave of criticism.” To this he burst out in an incriminating cry: “Let us go to the side of the barbarians.” Let us run from the camp of the king, from that of the statesmen of 1815, toward the people!”” Ozanam explained this statement in a letter of February 22nd to Th. Fosset: “We must concern ourselves with the people, who lack so much and are deprived of too many rights; who have sufficient reason to take part in the life of societyƒ”” It was in this way that he lived and defended the interests of the simple people.” In his review, he wrote to priests:
Do not trust those who slander the people “The time has come for you to concern yourselves with these poor who do not ask for alms, but live simply from their work” Do not be afraid when the ill-willed rich treat you as communists: Saint Bernard was also treated as a fanatic and as unstable.
It was true that those for whose liberty he fought also made him suffer.æ In June of 1848, he tried to put an end to the indiscriminate massacres of popular uprisings.” In Bastille Square, workers had taken up arms to render homage to those who died in the Revolution of 1789, and to protest.” Professor Ozanam joined in the National Guard, yet he did not want a civil war.” The spilling of blood would not change the social situation.æ Together with a friend, he met with the Archbishop of Paris, Monsignor Affre, to push for an attempt at mediation with the revolutionaries.” Frederic offered to accompany the Archbishop to protect him from the rebels, walking some distance with him until the Archbishop said that it would be better to approach without the presence of men in National Guard uniforms.” The Archbishop arrived alone in Bastille Square, went up the barricade, and was fatally wounded by a bullet. Ozanam was devastated.
He had to recognize that political responsibility was a difficult and tricky road to follow.æ Sometimes, in spite of the best intentions, the forces involved could not find the correct balance between maintaining a minimum of middle class security and the necessary changes: someone or another would make the mistake of moving too quickly and everything would fall apart. ” For this reason, those who were prudent hesitated, did not dare to act, and risked nothing.” Nevertheless, it was an illusion to think that failing to act and avoiding commitment would not have consequences.
In spite of his painful experience, the university professor stood ready to fight for human rights through social responsibility and the political process.æ Elections were held for the Deputies of the Constituent Assembly through April 23, 1848.æ Ozanam was nominated first in his home city of Lyon, then in Paris.æ He declared his willingness to accept the candidacy, but, because it was late in the elections, failed to obtain the necessary majority.
Frederic did not adhere to any political agenda or party.” His numerous newspaper articles and scientific studies reveal an open spirit, “neither liberal nor socialist”, as he said of himself.” His only purpose was to raise awareness of the misery, which he knew first-hand, among politicians and the wealthy, and the revolutionary thrust that was empowering the working class.æ In this sense, he was one who inspired the Church’s social teaching.
æææææææææ 2. As with social injustice, Ozanam was no less sensitive to the conflict that was taking place within the Church.æ From the beginning of his studies in Paris, he had published articles in L’Avenir.æ This newspaper, which would later cause a stir throughout Europe, had been founded by Father F. de Lamennais in 1830.æ He was the spokesman for democratic humanism.æ Lamennais attacked the characteristically French tendency toward the constitution of a national Church, and he aligned himself in favor of the separation of State and Church.æ In this way, though, he lost the support of the French Bishops.æ At the same time, his aggressive articles were felt to be a threat to the State, so much so that the newspaper was reproached “for preaching revolution in the name of religion”.æ In the end, even the Roman Curia became concerned that Father Lamennais’ worrisome themes could be harmful to the public order, heightened further by the alarm expressed by the Belgian Bishops.æ Thus, the program of L’Avenir was banned by Pope Gregory XVI in August of 1832.
æææææææææ The editors of the newspaper submitted.æ Frederic, however, emerged deeply confused, and the pain was made all the more profound when, in 1836, Lamennais definitively broke with the Church.æ A letter from this period (November 5, 1836) reveals his disappointment, but testifies also to his resolve not to give up, and to continue to support the mission of the Church:
Sometimes we need to see before us the greatest and best men, who trace out the path for us, whose example encourages and raises up our weakness.æ We young Christians cannot think of being able to replace these men, but do you not think that we can carry ourselves equally and fill the gap they have left in our ranks with numbers and hard work?
æææææææææ He needed to face similar blows in the face of a context hostile to the faith, always ready to trigger new attacks.æ Laws enacted by the government concerning religious worship were becoming decidedly restrictive.æ Gatherings for worship and processions were only permitted outside the City of Paris.æ Frederic thus wrote to his students, inviting them to participate in the Corpus Christi processions in Nanterre or Batignolle.
æææææææææ The human limitations within the Church, the painful decisions of its leadership, and the continual cutting remarks on a daily basis at the university or in society did not in any way distance Ozanam from his fidelity to the Catholic Church.æ He traveled twice to Italy, which was for him two-fold strain, given the means of travel at the time and the state of his health.æ Both times, he succeeded in meeting the Pope.æ Even though the Easter Liturgy with Gregory XVI (1841), in its splendor and form of celebration had impressedhim, his moving recollection focused most of all on the moment in which “this venerable apostle, alone and without pomp, extended his hands over two young and unknown tourists” (Ozanam had since married.)æ In January of 1847, the couple went to visit Pope Pius IX, who received Frederic and Amelia with friendly familiarity.æ Ozanam was struck not only by how physically handsome the new Pope was, who was only fifty-four at the time, but also by his bearing and benevolent smile.æ He spoke about the growth of the “Society of Saint Vincent”.æ The Pope’s discourse showed that he fully understood the spirit of the Conferences.æ The founder could thus consider this meeting as an authoritative confirmation of his work.
æææææææææ In the years that followed, one can also see that his ties with the Church caused him painful frictions.æ After the Revolution, when a majority of Catholics rallied under the conservative banner due to fear or opportunism, they ran up against the democratic Ozanam.æ This time, the attack came from his own city of Lyon, where the rumor had spread that Frederic had lost his faith and was suffering from melancholy.æ As the object of these attacks, Ozanam reacted with humility, tact, and patience.æ He declared that he felt constrained by the sad need to defend himself, but that, like many others, even Saint Paul had to do the same; that he had been consecrated to the service of the Faith all of his life; and that, in his teaching, he had never failed to highlight the extraordinary role Christianity had played from the time of the barbarians to the end of the Middle Ages.æ “It is false to say that I have stopped believing, that I have renounced, misguided, or diminished any of the articles of faith (June 5, 1850).”
æææææææææ Neither in the institutional dimension, nor in its members, did the Church make Blessed Frederic Ozanam’s life easy.æ Only his wife, Amelia Soulacroix, whom he had married relatively late (1841) and who had given him a daughter named Maria, brought peace and consolation to his soul.æ He was attached to them with great fidelity and tenderness, and their closeness gave him a deep sense of support and courage.
æææææææææ To the end, Ozanam did not give up, because his trusting abandonment to God was his indestructible support.æ He had already seen this in the promise he had made when he was sixteen, consecrating his life to the service of the truth.æ He had proposed to demonstrate the truth of the Catholic religion through the antiquity of its historical, religious, and moral content.æ His studies and travel accounts, his historical and literary analyses, all followed along the same lines: implicit or explicit reference to God.æ He addressed this in his classes at the Sorbonne on medieval literature, on the Nibelungs, and on epic poetry, as well as in his publications such as I Germani e il cristianesimo (The Germans and Christianity), Le origini del socialismo (The Origins of Socialism), or La civiltö cristiana presso i Franchi (Christian Civilization and the Franks).æ He never confined himself to a dry, secular presentation, a purely worldly description, but always opened up the view to the transcendent, entering into the light of revelation.
æææææææææ For him, even service to the poor had this God-given dimension. In a conference held in Florence in January of 1853, he stated:
Our fundamental purpose is not to go out and help the poor.æ For us, this has only been a means.æ Our purpose is to maintain the Catholic Faith within us and to allow its diffusion to others through the instrument of caritas (charity).æ We must also anticipate those who, with the Psalmist, would ask us: ‘Ibi est Deus eorum?’ – ‘Where is their God?'
That Ozanam refuted a purely humanitarian conception of the call to love of neighbor can be deduced from another citation taken from the same conference in Florence, which deserves mention:
Philanthropic societies in no way have the consistency or the capacity to survive, in that they rest upon simple human interests.æ One can see the money flow, but one does not feel the heart beat.æ This love, that can console the unhappy only through the mingling of its own tears with those of the unhappy; that cherishes the naked and abandoned child; that gives advice to young friends; that sits with all kindness at the bedside of the sick; that listens, without indication of intolerance, to the long and sad stories of unhappiness: this love, my friends, can be inspired only by God.
æææææææææ Frederic Ozanam died in Marseille on September 8, 1853, at the age of forty, having received the Sacrament of the Sick.æ To the priest, who wanted to reassure him by telling him to have no fear of the Lord, Frederic responded: “Why would I be afraid of him?æ I love him so much!”
æææææææææ Blessed Frederic Ozanam testified to the truth of the Lord’s words: “ƒevery good tree bears good fruitƒ” (Matthew 7:17) and grew in him “a hundredfold” (Matthew 13:8).æ The Spirit of God made his ears attentive to the cry of human need.æ One is not dealing with an cold intellectual, but a man gifted with great sensitivity and a heart capable of compassion, such that the face of a suffering brother or sister touched him profoundly.æ It was in this way that he knew how to constantly learn to read God’s work in the events of life and in the sign of one’s neighbor.æ
æææææææææ Communion with God also gave him the certainty to be able to make accessible to others the experience of love, given by God: the certainty of this love, given to others, solidified his being Christian.æ He followed it in this way, for the purpose of deepening his faith; it also served to win others to Christ and the Gospel.
æææææææææ The students had taken their first steps in the Parisian neighborhood of Mouffetard, with Sister Rosalie Rendu of the Order of the Daughters of Charity.æ On April 23, 1833, they held their first meeting, and Frederic was only twenty years old.æ Since the Parish of St-Etienne (St. Stephen) did not share their interests, they began to meet in the offices of a newspaper, La Tribune Catholique.æ They opened with the Veni Creator Spiritus, and then set up a program for visiting the poor and homeless.æ They wanted to meet every Tuesday, to turn in prayer to the Mother of God and to share their experiences of service toward society’s outcasts.æ They made their visits in pairs, taking along something to eat, enduring the stuffy and foul-smelling dwellings in which laundry was hanging on lines.
æææææææææ By November of that same year, they already numbered fifteen, and had found refuge in another newspaper’s editorial office.æ Their incomes were modest, and mostly came from the publication of articles in the newspaper.æ They bought bread, sweets, books, and clothing, and also made lists of those families they would visit.æ On February 4, 1834, the small group chose its official name: “The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul”.æ St. Vincent de Paul had founded the first fraternity of charity in Chatillon-les-Dombes in 1617.
æææææææææ The spirit of charity, on the one hand, spread slowly, not least due to the return of students to their places of origin.æ As such, their period of study did not merely involve professional formation, but also became a school for the apostolate of love of neighbor.æ The first Conf?rence was held in NÓmes, in the South of France in the summer of 1834 (cf. Ozanam’s Letter of November 2nd).æ On the other hand, the dynamic nature of the group lent itself to including new students beginning their studies in Paris, and personal zeal was the best publicity.æ Additionally, Lacordiare, who had since become a preacher at Notre-Dame Cathedral, brought new students to the “Society”.æ For the Second Sunday of Easter in 1840, a meeting of all the members in the capital city was organized at L’Univers Theatre, at which six hundred young people participated.æ There, it was proudly announced that the “Society” numbered nearly two thousand collaborators.
æææææææææ Those in charge were realistic enough to know that this rapid growth would have its own problems.æ During a meeting in 1841, Frederic underlined that their humble and simple beginnings could not be forgotten.æ Love, he then said, loves hiding, without trying to be secretive: “In fact, God takes pleasure in blessing that which is small and imperceptible.”æ On January 10, 1845, the “Society” obtained canonical approval from Pope Gregory XVI.æ In 1847, the number of “Conferences” had reached 369, and the seed had by then been sown beyond France.æ The first Conference in Germany was founded in Munich in 1845.æ A year later, others were set up in Quebec, Canada, and in Mexico.æ In 1854, different Conferences already existed in Luxembourg, and by 1860, the Society numbered 50,000 active members, divided into 2,500 groups.æ When the Society celebrated the 150th Anniversary of its foundation in 1983 in Paris, the 38,000 Äquipes were comprised of nearly 750,000 members from 105 countries.
æææææææææ Caritas (charity) signifies the effective fight against misery and need. Basil, Elizabeth, and Frederic, the three friends of God taught it, and they are chosen and briefly presented from a long list of the heroes of love of neighbor.æ These three figures used all of their human resources to do good to their neighbor;æ they attest that these capacities must be invested in that high purpose, and this is true as much in the times of early Christianity as in the Middle ages or the modern period.æ They also showed that gender and the state of ecclesial life are not decisive; one deals with men or women, with bishops, religious, or lay people.
æææææææææ For each apostle of charity, the comparison with these figures represents an enrichment measured only with difficulty, and the work that they have done in the world justly renders them worthy of praise.æ None of them, in any case, can be reduced to their “charitable technique”, as if the imitation of their method will by itself guarantee that its purpose will be reached.æ Whoever follows carefully the work that they have done will run into enigmas that cannot be resolved at first glance: From where have they taken their surprising energy? From what magical reserve have they drawn?æ Whoever seriously compares himself to them cannot avoid asking these questions, and it is really these questions – not so much their work – that upset the world of today.æ The pragmatist cannot find a response, and neither can the scientist.æ The answer can only be found through the “eyes of faith”.æ This, in fact, has to do with sanctity, and only by recognizing sanctity is there the need of the effortæ “to take part in some way in their form of life, in their inexpressible impetus.” (Georges Bernanos)
æææææææææ On his deathbed, SÀren Kierkegaard said, “The point is to arrive as close as possible to God.”æ Closeness with God is the source that gives birth to and constitutes sanctity.æ Great closeness with Him was the “winning ticket” for our three examples.æ This factor gave full meaning to their lives and rendered them coherent.æ In this way, they were able to also help others in finding the sense of their lives.æ They sought this closeness by putting into practice the two-fold Commandment to love God with all of one’s heart and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.æ A love like this is what makes one a saint, because thanks to this love, he receives from God an inexpressible gift.
From Him [God] springs that love of neighbor to the point of self-sacrifice, which is never lacking in the life of a saint.æ Only if he sees himself living out this double commandment can he recognize his deepest intentions.æ Through the love of God, the saint does not just want to arrive at closeness to God, but simply finds himself already in itƒAlmost everyone who has come near Him perceives a charismatic atmosphere, formed by divine energy.æ Even the reading of the biographies of saints allows us to sense the nearness of God, and this finishes by overwhelming the conscience of the reader, to the point that it awakens in him the living desire to encounter the saint while he is still alive.
 Cf. as follows: R. Aubert, La reazione romana, in H. Jedin, Storia della Chiesa, vol. VIII/2, “Liberalismo e integralismo. Fra stati nazionali e diffusione missionaria (1830-1870)”, (Milano, 1975), pp. 30-40 [hereafter, HK]; J. Gobry, Frederic Ozanam ou la foi op?rante, (Paris, 1983), [hereafter, IG]; M. Des Rivi?res, Federico Ozanam. Il fondatore della San Vincenzo, (Milano, 1997), [hereafter, MR]; A. Collini, Federico Ozanam. Il cristiano, l’apologista, il vincenziano, (Roma, 1997), [hereafter, AC].
 MR, 32
 Cf. IG, 42.
 MR, 36.
 Cf. MR, 38f.
 MR, 49.
 AC, 32.
 MR, 157f.
 HK, 31.
 MR, 81.
 MR, 106.
 MR, 164.
 Cf. IG, 155.
 IG, 121.
 IG, 122.
 MR, 186.
æ MR, 103.
 Pontificium Consilium pro Laicis, Associazioni laicali, (Cittö del Vaticano, 1983), p. 114.
 Die TagebÙcher, vol. II, (ed. Haeker, 1922), p. 407.
 W. Nigg, Gro¤e Heilige, (ZÙrich, 1958), pp. 20ff.
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