In considering the legacy of Blessed Frederic, it is important to open a window into the world of Paris, 1833. It was a time of revolution, a time reflected in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, a time when the Church was powerful, corrupt, abusive and exclusive, and a time when the poor were faceless.
Frederic Ozanam was born on 23 April, 1813, a few years after the French Revolution, and died on 8 September, 1853 at the age of 40. As a student, Frederic wrote for the French Roman Catholic daily newspaper that strongly supported Church authority. Frederic and companions revived a discussion group that quickly became a forum for lively discussions based on the gospels. At one meeting, during a heated debate in which Ozanam and his friends were trying to prove, from historical evidence alone, the truth of the Catholic Church as the one founded by Christ, their adversaries declared that, though at one time the Church was a source of good, it was so no longer. One voice issued the challenge, "What is your Church doing now? What is she doing for the poor of Paris? Show us your works and we will believe you!" This challenge was Frederic’s calling.
In some ways the beginnings of the Society of St Vincent de Paul were motivated through an expression of the challenge presented to Frederic and his companions. Initially known as a Conference of History, it became a Conference of Charity. Under the spiritual advice and influence of Sr Rosalie Rendu, the group was moved to minister to the poor and needy.
Frederic’s first act of charity came about when he and a companion, under the guidance of Sr Rosalie, were to visit a family and provide a bundle of firewood. They knocked at the door and simply left the firewood at the doorstep as they were uncomfortable about a personal encounter with the residents. In this there are two lessons. Firstly, true acts of charity are challenging and at times uncomfortable. Secondly, a true act of charity is relational and engaging. Indeed, it was through relationships that Frederic grew in love for the needy and the most vulnerable.
Frederic’s life can be summed up as, ‘grounded in faith, growing in love, living in hope’. These ideals express much of the life, work and legacy of Blessed Frederic Ozanam. His vision was for a Church inspired by gospel imperatives and a model of unconditional compassion and love for the poor.
This vision today is echoed in the words and actions of Pope Francis as he leads the Church in living the joy of the Gospel. For Francis, as for Frederic, to serve the poor we must be led by the voice of the poor. The Society must always see that the poor are at the heart of the decision-making and the heart of the agenda and that it is the voices of the poor.
Blessed Frederic was a champion of social justice, especially towards the end of his life. His relationships with the poor, the blindness of Government and Church and the continued oppression of the weak and vulnerable moved him deeply to speak out. These notions of justice and love permeate all aspects of the writings of Frederic. He wrote, “The order of society is based on two virtues, justice and charity. However, justice presupposes a lot of love already, for one needs to love a person a great deal in order to respect the rights which limit our rights, and their liberty which hampers our liberty. Justice has its limits whereas charity knows none.”
These words and passion are as relevant today as they were for Frederic and the early beginnings of the St Vincent de Paul Society. Pope Francis is, in many ways, today’s champion of the poor. His words and actions have captured not only a Church in difficult times but also the wider secular society. He, like Frederic, says, “Among our tasks as witnesses to the love of Christ is that of giving a voice to the cry of the poor.” (Pope Francis’ “Address to the Archbishop of Canterbury” 14/6/13).
Would you like to continue the work of Frederic Ozanam? Your local conference of the St Vincent de Paul Society would welcome your enquiry. To learn more, P 4967 6277 or visit the diocesan website.