Continuity and Renewal of the Vincentian Spirit: Blessed Frederic Ozanam
Continuity and Renewal of the Vincentian Spirit: Blessed Frederic Ozanam
by: Jaime Corera, CM
(This article appeared in Spanish on the web site Somos and is reproduced here with the permission of the author)
Despite the passage of two centuries that separated their lives, there are some curious similarities between the lives of Vincent de Paul and Frederic Ozanam that justify the title of this presentation. Even though they were both born at quite some distance from the city of Paris (Ozanam in Italy), they spent the greater part of their adult lives in that city. They both studied at the Sorbonne and received their degrees from that institution. Nevertheless, on this superficial level, the differences are more significant than the similarities, especially those differences with regard to their background (Vincent’s family were peasants while Frederic’s family were members of the middle class) and their profession (Ozanam was an intellectual-writer-professor).
The differences in their social background could have become the cause, or at least the occasion, for a later divergence in their journey that would have made it impossible to see any parallels in their lives. While the desire to overcome the poverty of his youth led Vincent to follow the desolate path of ambition for about thirty-three years, Ozanam gave thanks to God for having brought me into the world in one of those situations on the border of hardship and ease … God knows, with the natural weakness of my character, what dangers the softness of the wealthy or the abjection of the indigent classes would pose for me.
There are other less superficial and more significant similarities between their lives than the ones that have been mentioned. Dedicating their lives to work on behalf of the redemption of the poor flowed from their ability to resolve a crisis of faith. The fact that this event occurred when Vincent was thirty-one and Frederick before he was twenty makes no difference … in both cases the result was the same.
There is also a curious similarity in the lives of both men with regard to an event that had dramatic consequences. Without realizing it, the young agnostic saint-simonian, Jean Broet, played a similar role in the life of Frederic as the heretic from Marchais did in the life of Vincent de Paul. Both of these individuals raised the question: how can the Catholic Church claim to be the true Church of Jesus Christ when it neglects the poor? Ozanam heard this question before he gave any consideration to working on behalf of the poor while Vincent had been preaching missions for three years in the rural areas when he was confronted with this question.
With great reason all the important biographers highlight the importance of this event for the future direction of his life. Abelly dedicated four pages to the description of this event. The dedication of his missionaries to the instruction and the sanctification of the poor made them witnesses to the guidance of the Church by the Holy Spirit (Louis Abelly, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God: Vincent de Paul, Volume I, p. 83). Charitable action toward the poor became the guiding principle in the life of Vincent and Frederic and also became the greatest proof of the veracity of their faith and the veracity of the Church.
From the time of its foundation the members of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society have recognized Saint Vincent as their patron. In fact, their tradition of dedicated service on behalf of the poor is rooted in and inspired by the work and the spirit of Saint Vincent de Paul. Therefore there is nothing strange about the fact that Frederic and his first companions learned about the Vincentian spirit and the methods of evangelizing the poor from the extraordinary daughter of Saint Vincent, Rosalie Rendu … nothing strange about the fact that Frederic and his followers found ideas in the Common Rules of the Congregation of the Missions that were copied almost literally into their own rules in order to inspire the members to a simple, humble, and charitable approach in their activities on behalf of the poor.
The thinking and writings of Frederic point out a more profound continuity, a continuity that goes to the very heart of that which is referred to as the Vincentian spirit. Several modern syntheses of this spirit have pointed out the central and radical role that the will of God played in Vincent’s spirituality. Abelly, the first biographer of Vincent, saw this clearly when he stated: conformity of his own will to the will of God was the moving force and the overriding virtue of this holy man, shedding its light on all his other virtues (Louis Abelly, Volume III, p. 40). This was also true with regard to Vincent’s characteristic virtue of love of the poor. This same reality became the foundation of Frederic’s spirituality: So far I have asked for God’s light in order to know his will … now I need God to give me the strength to fulfill his will.
This virtue or basic attitude implied for Vincent and Frederic a profound humility. Frederic wrote: There may be some plant in the Lord’s vineyard that has been surrounded with great care … yet I, an evil plant, have not bloomed as a result of God’s breath … I have not known how to love or to work … I feel that I have accumulated great responsibility for the graces which I ignore every day.
Remember Saint Vincent’s moving sudden outbursts with regard to his own unworthiness: I am worse than the devil (CCD:X:352), I am the worst, the most unworthy, and the greatest sinner of all of them (CCD:XI:8), words that can upset readers today who do not experience themselves as being as humble as these two individuals and are probably not as virtuous as they were.
Vincent understood that both of these virtues imply a boundless trust in Divine Providence. At a very early age Ozanam wrote: I believe that I can guarantee the existence of Providence because for six thousand years Providence has not abandoned rational human beings or delivered them over to the evil genius of wickedness and error. This trust in Providence enables people to remain encouraged and hopeful despite the apparent historical failure of our efforts to better the spiritual and material condition of people throughout the world who are poor.
But the true continuity of spirit between Vincent de Paul and Frederic Ozanam is seen in that which, from a theological perspective, defines the very essence of Vincentian spirituality: the identification of Christ with the poor. We insert here some impressive words of Ozanam that remind us of some other decisive words that were spoken by Vincent: turn the medal, and you will see by the light of faith that the Son of God, who willed to be poor, is represented to us by these poor people (CCD:XI:26). Ozanam wrote: we see the poor with our human eyes. The poor are here, in front of us and we can touch them and put our hands on their wounds and the scars from their crown of thorns are visible on their forehead … they are the sacred image of God whom we do not see. Not knowing how to love God in any other way, we do so in the person of the poor. … They are our masters and we are their servants! Those last words not only seem to be inspired by Vincent but are a repetition of his well-known and often spoken words.
A careful reading of the eighteenth and nineteenth century documents of the Congregation of the Mission (General Assemblies, circular letter of the Superior General … the Constitutions of 1954) give one the painful impression that the Congregation, founded by Vincent de Paul, attempted to remain faithful to the spirit of the Founder through a literal repetition of his words. This even occurred during times of profound social change, times when it was very obvious (time of revolution, industrialization and democratization) and when it was clearly seen that there was an opportunity to rebuild and renew what Father Etienne called the edifice of the Congregation of the Mission: In this new situation is there not something totally new upon which the Congregation can freely design and rebuild its edifice on terms favorable to the freedom of its movement and the development of its activity.
A wonderful opportunity presented itself, an opportunity that was clearly seen and understood. In order to take advantage of this opportunity it was believed that the key would be found in a literal fidelity to the words of Saint Vincent: the nature of the Congregation cannot be subjected to the changes and alterations that are confronted by institutions formed by the hands of men and women … not even the slightest change should be introduced into our rules and constitutions and thus these should now be faithfully observed as they were in the past.
But as often happens, the attempted literal repetition of words was not as literal as it appeared to be because our point of reference is words that were written or spoken two hundred years ago. With regard to numbers 15 and 16 of chapter eight of the Common Rules (paragraphs which with great sensitivity warn the missionaries about expending their time and energy in the vicissitudes of the politics of that time), Father Etienne wrote: for the good of our vocation we ought to maintain our distance from political movements and all the changes that are taking place in the social order.
While the first part of this commentary seems to coincide with the ideas expressed in the Common Rules, the second part (maintain our distance from all the changes that are taking place in the social order) seems to place an impossible demand on the individual and an even more impossible demand on the institution. Such an idea would never have occurred to Saint Vincent. Only many years after his death, at least a hundred years later, was it possible for someone to thing about and speak about the idea of social change.
Frederic Ozanam was extremely sensitive to the idea of social change. Not only was he sensitive to this idea but he also saw this idea as enabling Christians to revise their manner of understanding their faith so that their faith could continue to act as a leaven in the new society: The question that agitates the world around us is not a question of individuals or a question of political forms, but rather a social question. It is a struggle between those who have nothing and those who have too much. It is a violent clash between opulence and poverty … Our duty as Christians is to place ourselves between these two irreconcilable enemies to make equality as operative as is possible among people and to make charity accomplish what justice alone cannot do.
At the age of eighteen Frederic, in accord with his education, expressed his political views that favored the monarchy: I have heard the announcement that Charles X cannot continue to reign. Since when is the person of the king no longer sacred and inviolable? I tremble with indignation. What allows the people to dispose and appoint? I will always be the faithful subject of Charles X. The passing of the years and also his faith, taught him much. At the age of twenty-five he wrote: Every form of government seems good in that it represents the divine principle of authority … But I also believe that with power there must also be room for the sacred principle of liberty. I think we must courageously and calmly speak to people about power that exploits because as Christians we see power as a reality that leads individuals to make sacrifices.
Then at the age of thirty-five, immediately after the Revolution of 1848, Frederic stated: we have accepted the Republic not as some evil that has been inflicted on our history and that we must be resigned to as a reality but rather we have accepted the Republic as a sign of progress that must be defended.
By way of contrast note here the words that Father Etienne wrote a few months after experiencing the same event: the cause of all revolutions that overthrows the powerful and destroys empires is found in the words of Scripture, words spoken by an evil individual: “I will not serve”, “I will not subject myself to all of this.” The foundation upon which the social order rests is respect for authority.
This is perhaps the sharpest contrast in reaction to the same historical event. Both men were inspired by Saint Vincent and both wanted to express a position that was rooted in their Christian faith. Yet the position of Father Etienne was quite different from Frederic’s position. Even though Father Etienne appeared to be inspired by the Scriptures, the sacred writings provided a cover for his desire to see a return of the Ancient Regime, a reality that was dead and buried.
This nostalgia for the past not only leads one to a position in which the present is rejected but also leads one to seek refuge in the past, in a time and era that has long since passed. This was the position that was taken up by most of the members of the Church and the greater majority of the members of the Congregation, a position that continued for a hundred years and that was inspired by an individual who was viewed as the second founder of the Congregation, Father Etienne.
Yeast is not able to act as yeast as long as it remains locked in the cupboard. What happened to the Church as a result of the wide spread proselytization of the European masses? The Church became isolated and closed in upon itself as it was asked to confront the problems created by a new capitalist-industrial society. Saint Pius X, at the turn of the twentieth century, recognized this reality and admitted that the Church had lost the working class. The Church has still not been able to recover these people and has seen its numbers decrease not only in Europe, but throughout the world.
This would not have occurred if people had listened to Ozanam who wrote with great clarity in 1848: These masses of people are deeply beloved by the Church because they represent the poverty that God loves and the work that God blesses … Let us help these people not only with our alms (which often bind these men and women to us) but with our efforts to establish institutions that will enable them to be independent, that will enable them to be better. Let us go over to the Barbarians!
These words were scandalous to conservative Catholics (what would Father Etienne have thought about these words?) and the scandal was not resolved even though Frederic felt obligated to offer an explanation to his friend: When I say “let us pass over to the Barbarians” I am asking individuals to become concerned for the people instead of becoming caught up in their selfish bourgeoisie concerns. In poor people I find the remnants of faith and morality that can save society … two realities that seen to have been lost by people of the upper classes. Recall the words of Saint Vincent: it is among them, among these poor people that true religion and a living faith are preserved (CCD:XI:190).
Some months later Frederic wrote to his brother who was a priest: Instead of seeking an alliance with the bourgeoisie, let us support the true ally of the Church, the people. These people are poor like the Church and they have sacrificed themselves like the Church, therefore they are blessed with all of the Lord’s blessings.
Frederic could not be more explicit. Yet people did not listen to him (certainly not the Congregation of the Mission) and it would take another fifty years for the Church to give official recognition to these ideas. This happened when Leo XIII published the encyclical Rerum novarum. Full official recognition of these ideas did not occur until more than a hundred years later during the Second Vatican Council when the Church made a preferential option for the poor. We highlight here the word official because it is one thing to state an option in some official statement and it is quite different for said option to become a lived reality for the members of the Church. Even though it is painful to say this, the same observation is also valid for the Congregation of the Mission.
Continuity in renewal
In order for people to legitimately consider themselves Vincentian (not because they belong to some institution found by Saint Vincent de Paul or institution inspired by his spirit, e.g., the Saint Vincent De Paul Society) the traditional virtues that Saint Vincent lived and proposed to his followers have to become the cornerstones of life. Here we refer to the realities of doing the will of God, trusting in Providence, the practice of simplicity, humility … an exclusive (not preferential) option for the poor. Unless we embrace these realities, we will not be able to live the fullness of the Christian life as lived by Vincent de Paul during the seventeenth century … a life that was inspired by the Holy Spirit.
During the seventeenth century, be careful here. We have seen how continuity in spirit can lead to a literal repetition of words that results in a blindness to the obvious events of a later era, an era that is not the same as that of the Founder. True continuity of spirit means that people engage in new methods of evangelizing the poor in order to respond in an adequate manner to the new social situation.
To sum this up briefly: today, the Christian faith and the Vincentian spirit (which is a specific manner of living the Christian faith) cannot be blind to the social-political dimensions of the faith (this was certainly true with regard to Saint Vincent and his involvement in the social-political situation of his lifetime). These dimensions of our faith were finally dealt with during the Second Vatican Council and continue to be discussed in present-day theological forums.
There has been a certain backing away from the explicit recognition of these new phenomena in society and in our faith. We have experienced this backward movement in the Church and in Vincentian institutions, yet there is no reason for the Vincentian tradition to have to wait for these special moments, for the convocation of a Council, in order to attempt to reformulate its spiritual and apostolic vision for a post-feudal age. In reality, the Vincentian tradition was reformulated, boldly and clearly, by Frederic Ozanam.
Translator's Notes: 1] This article was posted in Spanish on Wedneday, July 6, on the web site: somos.vicencianos.org
2} With regard to the references in this article: a) the references to the works of Saint Vincent de Paul very easy to find and are cited in the article; b) the references to Father Etienne (which are references to his circular letters and the assembly of 1849) I was unable to find any official English translation of these documents and therefore I translated these from the Spanish text; c} the references to the writings of Frederic Ozanam were either found in the following two works, Frederic Ozanam: A Life in Letters, Joseph I. Dirvin, CM the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Council of the United States, St. Louis, Missouri, 1986 and Letters of Frederic Ozanam (1886), Ainslie Coates, Benziger Brothers, New York, Cincinnati and St. Louis, 1886, or else I translated them from the Spanish text.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM