Wow! What an inspirational experience this has been. I am in awe of the determination, great intellect and amazing faith of Blessed Frederic Ozanam. He has shown us how an ‘ordinary’ person can accomplish extraordinary things when the talents given by God are put to use in service of others.
Frederic Ozanam was born in French-occupied Milan on April 23, 1813, to Marie and Jean-Antoine Ozanam. When Frederic was still a toddler the family moved back to Lyon, France where Marie and Jean-Antoine had started their family several years earlier. Frederic considered his roots to be in Lyon and throughout his life returned there to live on several occasions. Jean-Antoine and Marie established a sound, faith-filled home for their children amid personal tragedy and the societal turmoil of the time. Frederic was the fifth of fourteen children but only one of three to reach adulthood. His older brother Alphonse became a priest and youngest brother, Charles, became a physician. Most of Frederic’s ten sisters and a brother died very young or were stillborn. Frederic also struggled with poor health and almost died at the age of six from typhoid fever. Interestingly, his survival is attributed to an intervention of St. Jean-Francois Regis, who was a great servant of the poor in France 200 years earlier. The eldest sister, Elisabeth, was like a second mother to Frederic and when she died at the age of nineteen it was devastating to young Frederic who was about seven at the time.
After Elisabeth’s death, Frederic was deeply troubled and became angry, stubborn and disobedient. In an effort to correct such behavior problems he began study at the Royal College of Lyon in 1822 where he was found to be a gifted student and excelled in his studies. In 1827, at the age of fifteen, his studies in rhetoric caused a test to his faith. This question of faith was amplified by a growing community of disbelief fueled by natural disaster and revolt in Lyon. During this time Frederic prayed to God to see the truth. He promised that if he was enlightened with the truth that he would spend the rest of his life defending it. Over the next year his conversations, study and mentorship under Father Noirot helped Frederic to regain his faith. Shortly thereafter, he began writing in defense of Christianity in well-established venues and important writers and philosophers of the time noticed his work and recognized his talent.
He earned his first bachelors degree in humanities in Lyon but his father wanted him to study law, so he was off to the Sorbonne in Paris. In the early 1830s Paris was in turmoil and Frederic was struggling with loneliness amid the skepticism and poverty of the big city. Fortunately, Frederic reconnected with an acquaintance he had met in Lyon, Andre Ampere, a scientist and devout Catholic. Ampere was impressed with Frederic and invited him to stay with him while Frederic continued his studies. Frederic and Ampere had many philosophical discussions that helped Frederic strengthen his Christian faith in a climate where it was fashionable to reject and mock such beliefs.
With renewed and infectious enthusiasm Frederic gathered a circle of like-minded students to form a Catholic discussion group where they could challenge the opponents of the faith. With the leadership of Catholic layperson, Emmanuel Bailly, this was the first ‘Conference of History.’ The group was open to all and many lively discussions occurred where the relevance of the Church in France at the time was argued. Because poverty was rampant in Paris the group was challenged with the question, “What does the Church do to help the poor?” Spurred forward by this question, Frederic and his friends resolved to form the first ‘Conference of Charity.’
Under the guidance of Mr. Bailly, the first meeting of the ‘Conference of Charity’ was held on April 23, 1833, Frederic’s 20th birthday. The original group, including Frederic Ozanam and five other students ranging in age from 19-23, dedicated themselves to the poor following the example of St. Vincent de Paul. The students contacted Sister Rosalie Rendu for the addresses of families in need and began by bringing food, fuel for their fires and above all, friendship. Sr. Rendu was a great influence for the students and following the example of St. Vincent de Paul, she taught them how to serve the poor with compassion and respect for human dignity. The group was mocked. Their adversaries taunted them with questions that would instill doubt for their cause. The problem of poverty was so overwhelming, how could these six young men expect to make a difference? The membership in the group slowly began to grow and by the end of 1834 there were 100 members. As members graduated and moved to other cities other conferences were formed across France and beyond. Today, almost 180 years later, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul operates in 130 countries and has over 950,000 members. In the United States alone the members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society help over 12 million people each year.
All of this was started when Blessed Frederic Ozanam was only twenty! As he continued his life he went on to earn several advanced degrees, cared for his aging parents, married and had a daughter. As I read more about his life I was continually amazed by his determination and faith. He had such a passion that he was driven to learn and share his knowledge through teaching and writing prolifically until his death. He suffered with severe bouts of poor health throughout his life and died in 1853 at the age of 40. Frederic was a deeply caring man who loved his parents and family. He was a very caring and devoted son. After his parents died and he was married, he loved his wife, daughter and in-laws to the same degree. He was married to Amelie Soulacroix on June 23, 1841. In one account of his life it was stated that on the 23rd of every month for the next 12 years (until his death) Amelie would receive a bouquet of flowers from Frederic. How romantic is that! It is just one small example of how devoted and passionate he was.
His immense and constant feeling of thankfulness for all experiences, good and bad, also astonished me. What an inspiration for us to be reminded to thank God for everything as each experience makes us who we are and allows us to praise God and do good for others. Although Frederic’s father was a physician, there were many financial struggles before he became a doctor and he did not make a lot of money because he treated most of his patients for free. There was one quote Frederic wrote to a friend in 1836 that was particularly enlightening for me…
“I feel like giving thanks to God for having been born in a social position which was on the borderline between financial difficulty and being comfortably off. Such a position accustoms one to hardship without leaving one totally ignorant of enjoyment. In that position one cannot go to sleep at night satisfied in one’s desires but one is not preoccupied either by the constant call of need.” (Letter to Francois Lallier, November 5th 1836. SSVP Global, 2009)
I was also very moved by a passage Blessed Frederic Ozanam wrote on his fortieth birthday, as he was ill and in pain,only months from death.
“As at the beginning of the Canticle of Ezechias: I don’t know if God will permit me to carry it through to the end. I know that today I have reached my fortieth year, more than a half of a life. I know that I have a young and beloved wife and enchanting child, excellent brother, a second mother, many friends, an honourable career; my research has in fact reached the point that it could serve as the basis of a book of which I have dreamed for a long time. Yet here I am struck down by a serious and persistent illness that is all the more dangerous for the fact that it is probably underlain by total exhaustion.
Must I then leave all these goods that you yourself have given me, my God? Lord will you not be content with only a part of the sacrifice? Which of my disordered affections must I sacrifice to you? Would you not accept the holocaust of my literary pride, of my academic ambitions, or even of my research plans in which perhaps was contained more pride than zeal for the truth? If I sold part of my books in order to give the proceeds to the poor, and limited myself to carrying out the duties of my state of life, or if I devoted the rest of my life to visiting the poor, and educating trainees and soldiers, would you be satisfied Lord? Would you allow me the pleasure of living through to old age with my wife and completing the education of my child? Perhaps, my God, that is not your will at all. You don’t accept these self-interested offerings; you reject my holocausts and sacrifices!
It is written at the beginning of the book that I must do your will and I have said: here I am, Lord. I am answering your call and I have no reason to complain. You have given me forty years of life. If I put before you the years I have lived with bitterness, I see it is because of the sins with which I ruined them. Yet when I consider the graces with which you have enriched them, I again go over these years in your presence with gratitude, Lord.
When you chain me to my bed for what is left of my life there will not be enough time to thank you for all the time I have lived. Ah! If these pages are the last that I am writing, may they be a hymn to your goodness.” (Pisa, April 23, 1853, his 40th birthday. SSVP Global, 2009)
Blessed Frederic Ozanam died a few months later on September 8, 1853, with his family at his side. He calmly and serenely requested his last sacrament a few days before his death. Fr. Alphonse urged his brother to offer his soul to God ‘confidently, trustingly and without fear.’ To which Frederic said, “Why should I fear Him? I love Him so much!”
Although some have described him as removed from the common people, it seems to me that Blessed Frederic Ozanam was an ‘ordinary’ son, brother, father, husband and teacher, but what made him extraordinary was his amazing faith that allowed him to use the great talents given by God to do good for others. Let us move forward, inspired by Blessed Frederic Ozanam, to always give thanks to God for every experience and let us work tirelessly, like him, to help others in God’s name.