A Christian Prophet
Frederic Ozanam’s Charisma
According to the Bible, a prophet is one inspired by God who speaks out with powerful, disturbing words in times of difficulty, distress or upheaval. These words are capable of giving hope, while, at the same time, making people think.
A clear consciousness of his vocation
In this sense, one can readily consider that Frederic was a Christian prophet. As he asserted in a letter to Ernest Falconnet, in 1834: “Religious ideas can have no value whatever if they are not practical and positive. Religion is meant for acting more than thinking”. As a young man, Frederic always felt that he had a specific mission which impelled him to be more of an extrovert and get involved with the world and those who lived in it. He felt an obligation to make available to them the light and strength that God had bestowed upon him despite his unworthiness. He was 18 years old when he admitted to his friend Fortoul: “When my eyes look upon society, the incredible variety of events arouse all sorts of feelings within me… and these reflections fill me with a sort of excitement. I tell myself that the spectacle that we are watching is great, and that it is wonderful to witness such a momentous era. How serious and important is the mission of a young man in society today. I rejoice in the fact that I was born in an epoch in which I will perhaps find many ways to do good, and I feel a new enthusiasm for the task.”
To be committed to this regeneration project of society, illegitimate offspring of the “Lumières”, it is necessary for young Christians to have an enthusiastic heart and a well-tempered armour. Without presenting himself as a model, Frederic is aware of being driven, by grace, to the point where he could never doubt the force of his vocation. (Marcel Vincent).
A robust and radiant faith
Having rediscovered his own faith, Frederic dreamed of a true renewal in Catholicism: “which would be filled with youth and strength, rising up suddenly over the world, to give this century a new lease of life and lead it towards civilization and happiness”. After the 1830 revolution and the accession of the Bourgeois King, this dream seemed unfounded, even utopian. Yet in Frederic this vision originated in a clarity of mind whose secret and strength lay in a renewed Christian faith.
In this heart nothing could block out the light. In a letter to Charles Hommais, in 1852, he declared: “I am far more deeply convinced by the ‘interior evidence’ of Christianity. By this I mean the daily experience which in my middle age has allowed me to find the means of sanctifying the joy of family life, and also all the consolation I need in sorrow.”
It is in this same letter that a famous phrase is to be found: “We have two lives – one for seeking the truth and the other for putting it into practice”. In a period of disbelief in which the institution of the Church was scorned, Frederic’s solidly anchored faith blossomed quite naturally at the heart of the Church – “my Church” as he liked to call it. For him this Church could be none other than the Holy Roman Catholic Church, in which he had been baptized, brought up and educated. In his eyes, this Church had the supreme advantage of having a Pontiff at its head whose authority is a reflection of God.
If he was a liberal Catholic – a Catholic who was convinced of the natural union between the Gospel, the Church and Liberty – Frederic Ozanam was also an ultramontane Roman Catholic. Like many others, he saw in Rome the beating heart and the living centre of an authentic Christianity. In 1846, a young liberal Pope, Pius IX, became Supreme Pontiff; he was determined that the papacy be the ultimate remedy for a humanity which was on the road to ruin.
Frederic’s devotion to Pius IX, who received him several times in Rome, was the measure of the hope he placed in the Catholic Church.
When he spoke of the Church, it was with great fervour and enthusiasm. In 1847, he wrote to his friend Jean-Jacques Ampère, “The Pope as I see him, is just like the greatest of his predecessors, he is invested with a profound faith in his title as Vicar of Jesus Christ and with a profound sense of his unworthiness. He lets his position as a worldly prince fade into the background, for perhaps it had been exaggerated since Julian II and Leo X and helped to arouse so much prejudice amongst us and elsewhere. And yet one sees in him, more clearly than ever, the Bishop of Rome, that paternal and selfless authority that nobody could have the heart to abhor and to which it is very difficult not to surrender.”
A courageous Commitment
Frederic’s clear-sightedness, nourished by faith, was equalled only by his courage. His contemporaries did not expect to find such courage in a man whose health was fragile and who was professionally secure. It was courageous, on his part, in a Church which was then very clerical, to consider that he had a specific mission as a lay person. This courage led him to denounce the sloth of a clergy that the 1801 Concordat had tended to render less sensitive to the misfortunes of others in this world. He did not hesitate to challenge the clergy through the person of his elder brother, Father Alphonse: “You are not carrying out your true mission. If a larger number of Christians and especially clergymen had looked after the workers in the last ten years we would be more certain of the future”; and again: “The priests must give up their little bourgeois parishes: their flocks are an elite in the midst of a vast population that they do not know…”
These courageous stands, intensified by Frederic’s political option for Christian Social Democracy, made many enemies for him both among the conservative Catholics and among those who adhered to a Socialism considered remote from the church. This did not prevent him from being seen as a guide, a pioneer and even as a prophet by many people of his generation. In his youth, he already acknowledged this, with his customary humility, in a letter to Ernest Falconnet (1834): “In some respects I am surrounded by seductive temptations of all sorts. I am in demand, people argue over me, I am pushed to the forefront… because God and my education have endowed me with some tact, a degree of broad-mindedness and tolerance in my outlook. They want to make me into a sort of leader of Catholic youth in this country. A fair number of worthy young people hold me in an esteem of which I feel unworthy. However, can this combination of outer circumstances possibly be a sign of the will of God?