Faith and Charity
The poor: The face of Christ
In Frederic Ozanam’s eyes, faith without charity had no meaning. That is why his advice turned quickly into an entreaty when he spoke to his young friends: “The earth has become a chilly place. It is up to us Catholics to rekindle the flame of human warmth going out. It is up to us to recommence the great work of regeneration even if it means another era of martyrs….”
Can we remain passive in the midst of a world suffering and groaning? And as for us, my dear friend, are we going to make no attempt to be like those saints whom we love?
If we don’t know how to love God, it seems that we need to see Him in order to love and we can only see God with the eyes of faith, and our faith is so weak! But men, the poor, we see them with the eyes of flesh. They are there before us and we can place our finger and hand in their wounds and the marks of the Crown of Thorns are visible on their foreheads. Thus there is no possible room for disbelief and we should fall at their feet and say to them with the apostle: “My Lord and my God, You are our Master and we will be your servants. You are for us the sacred image of the God that we cannot see. Since we know not how to love him otherwise, we will love him in your people.”
These admirable words are the echo of those of Saint Vincent de Paul, the saint whose birthplace was in Pouy in the Landes area. This was the object of Frederic’s last pilgrimage in 1852. This saint became the model and protector of the Conference of Charity of which Frederic Ozanam was the principal founder in 1833. It was to blossom in the context of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
Charity: The Daughter of Faith
Frederic was always ready to defend and glorify the Catholic Faith. This is why, with a group of students who shared his faith with him, in 1833 he went to see the Archbishop of Paris, Mgr. de Quélen, to suggest that the archbishop organize, for the general public and the young in particular, a series of powerful and convincing lectures in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. After two years of negotiation, Father Henry Lacordaire immediately made the “Conferences de Notre Dame” famous with his matchless eloquence.
For his part, Emmanuel Bailly gathered together in the Place Estrapade a literary circle or “Conference of History” open to young people of all convictions. Ozanam took part in it; he drew recognition because of his qualities and because he did not hesitate to stand up against opposing beliefs. He bore, with difficulty, the criticism that the Conference of History was merely a talking shop exchanging empty words that led nowhere. This inspired him to start the “Conference of Charity” which would show unbelievers that the Christian faith is naturally active, and also a means of sanctification for its members.
The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul
On April 23rd 1833, Frederic’s birthday, the first meeting took place at 18 rue du Petit-Bourbon Saint-Sulpice, in the office of the “La Tribune Catholique” newspaper of which Emmanuel Bailly was the chief editor. He had gathered around him six students aged between 19 and 23: François Lallier, Frederic Ozanam, Jules Devaux, Felix Clave, Auguste le Taillandier, Paul Lamanche.
This small group of young men placed itself less than a year later under the patronage of Saint Vincent de Paul whose spirit and example inspired them. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul had come into being.
Its first president was Emmanuel Bailly, but its most symbolic figure was Frederic Ozanam, owing to his influence and activity. He always refused, however, to be considered as “the” founder of a society which, according to him “it should neither be a political party, nor a school, nor a brotherhood… but profoundly Catholic at the same time as being secular.”
It was then that the providential meeting took place between the pioneers of the Conference of Charity and the famous Daughter of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, Sister Rosalie Rendu, “mother of an entire people” of the destitute neighbourhood of the rue Mouffetard, Saint Marceau suburb, next to the Church Saint-Etienne du Mont, where the first Conference was founded.
Sister Rosalie grasped the vocation of these enthusiastic and generous young people. She led them to the poor and taught them how to serve them with love and respect in the most authentic tradition of Saint Vincent de Paul.
Always concerned not to make his presence felt, Frederic became a member of the General Council of the Society and in 1844, with Cornudet, Vice-President General. However, he was never to become General President, except temporarily after the uprisings of June 1848, during which the President Adolphe Baudon was wounded.
He took advantage of this temporary term to evoke the requirements of charity: discretion, tact, respect for a person’s dignity, the avoidance of all misplaced proselytising. “Let us only introduce religion into our conversation when it comes up naturally…”
“It is to be feared that an overzealous desire to convert people merely produces hypocrites”. In Frederic Ozanam’s eyes, visiting the poor in their homes, an indispensable task of the members, should be carried out in a spirit of humility.
From 1836 to the end of 1837, Frederic led the only Conference in Lyon, which decided to divide into two Conferences that same year. A special council was thereby formed and placed under his presidency, until 1839, when Joseph Arthaud replaced him.
Tirelessly devoted to his cause, Frederic, in addition to visiting the poor, also included in his activities assisting people of different nationalities who passed through the town, giving religious instruction to children and evangelising the military. This did not prevent him from following very closely the general running of the Society, sending progress reports destined for the General Assemblies, suggesting that an Annual Report be drafted in Paris by the General Secretary, and giving judicious advice such as the following: “Don’t make yourself visible, but let others see you”, for he loathed ostentation, he detested secrecy.
Back in Paris, after his wedding in 1841, Frederic continued to give generously of his time to the Society, sharing with his wife Amélie his ardent love for the destitute. When he went abroad or travelled to the provinces for health or professional reasons, he made a point of going to the meetings of the local Conferences.
Almost every year, with the affection characteristic of him, he evoked the “humble beginnings” of the Conference of Charity grouped around Bailly. He marvelled at how a mere shrub had become a tall tree.
Ozanam wrote in 1841: “The first Conference was formed in Paris eight years ago. There were seven of us, today there are more than 2,000 young people…”. And in 1845: “This Society, founded 12 years ago by eight humble young people now consists of 10,000 members in 133 towns; it has started in England, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium, Italy…”
In Frederic’s short but intense life, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul occupied a place of honour. He always spoke of it with love. When in 1847,as Vice-President, he announced the resignation of the President Jules Gossin, and suggested that the presidents of the various Conferences elect Adolphe Baudon, his description of the Society was laden with emotion: “It is a Catholic but secular Society, humble but plentiful, poor but charged with consolation of the poor, above all in an era when charitable organizations have such a great mission to fulfil in the awakening of faith, the support of the Church and the appeasement of the hatreds which divide mankind.”