Frédéric Ozanam, A Layman for Now. Chapter 1

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoFrédéric OzanamLeave a Comment

Author: Shaun McCarty, S.T. · Source: Vincentian Online Library.

Father Shaun McCarty, S.T. is a Missionary Servant of the most Holy Trinity (Young American congregation dedicated to a ministry with the laity for the poor), Teacher, retreat and workshop director, lecturer, consultant to religious and lay groups, spiritual director, and writer. His articles have appeared in Priest, Bible Today, Review for Religious, Sisters Today, and Catholic Digest. He has several major works in progress.

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The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly and intimately linked with mankind and its history.1

These opening lines of Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” established the intimate bond which should exist between the Church and humanity. The Church is church for the world, and, of its nature, must continually face the challenge of modernity: to speak the message of Christ to people today by word and deed in terms of a contemporary culture. The scope of the Church’s concern embraces everything that is human. And these human persons are called into a community which is led by a Provident God on a pilgrim journey through history to salvation.

As we face the challenge of modernity today, it is perhaps helpful to look for people in the past who have met the challenge successfully so as to find illumination and inspiration for our present task. Frederic Ozanam may be such a model.

In a brief but productive life (1813-1853), Ozanam responded to the call of his own era in France by joining ideas and action in a life’s task of reconciling past and future, faith and reason, Church and world, rich and poor. With this work I hope to capture something of his effort, and show its relevance for today.

The Church in general and Christians in particular face the perennial questions of modernity: How can we live the faith today? How discern, receive and hand on a living tradition that is at once faithful to the past and responsive to the present? How love this Church enough to challenge it? How unite a world of ideas with one of action? How square reason with faith? How utilize advances in human knowledge, yet keep the critique of faith? How integrate a career in society with a Christian vocation? How bring one’s gifts into concert with others in tasks of ministry? How strive to lessen the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”? How try to mediate between the factions of a divided world so that we may be one?

More specifically there are current issues that confront American Christians with a challenge to their ministry and spirituality for which we might search the past for illumination and inspiration. We obviously face many of the same challenges confronting the rest of the world, but these are some special concerns for us in terms of urgency and our unique opportunities of responding. Among these are the three related areas of 1) social justice; 2) sharing ministries; 3) spiritual discernment.

First we might focus and clarify the issues:

Social Justice -In a land so richly endowed with this world’s goods and the opportunities to pursue the ideals of human life in freedom; in a culture so rich in its diversity; in a land so numerically and nominally Christian; but also in a world of such unequal distribution of the earth’s material resources and technological capability; in a world so disparate in terms of the means of human development; in a world where so many are deprived of basic human rights by conscious and unconscious agencies of oppression, how can American Christians live the Gospel genuinely and credibly? How can Christian life be truly “Catholic” for Americans?

This particular issue of social justice happens to be paramount right now for the followers of Frederic Ozanam in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and was a major theme treated in their International Assembly in Paris in 1979. Their preliminary discussions revealed two things: 1) that theoretical research on how to define Justice and Charity was of little value; 2) that they must preserve the character of Charity proper to their Society and avoid going astray toward aims at variance with its vocation and possibilities. It was hoped that the Paris meeting would be an opportunity for “self-examination” to see if this action is “a proper answer to the demands of charity and justice in the world around us and in what ways we might improve on it.”2

Sharing of Ministries -At a time of growing complexity and specialization, when the needs of ministry are so vast and demanding rendering individual effort more futile and frustrating; with the increasing recognition of the variety of gifts for ministry within the Christian community; and as the scope of ministry widens, how can Christians from various walks of life collaborate better for mutual spiritual growth and apostolic effectiveness?

Spiritual Discernment -In an age of increasing personal responsibility as well as alternatives for choice; with a growing complexity of factors entering the decision-making process; with the decreasing adequacy of safe general norms susceptible to easy application, how can individuals and groups make truly Christian decisions for personal and corporate growth worthy of Christian commitment? In a word, how balance the polarities besieging modem American Christians?

In seeking illumination and inspiration for the pursuit of answers to these questions, I have made certain presuppositions that provided me with a point of view and also colored my process of selection from the thoughts of Ozanam: 1) That ministry and spirituality are closely related in the practice of an apostolic spirituality; that is, one suited for an active Christian in the world. 2) That genuine Christian spirituality is the lived Gospel in response to a contemporary cultural situation. 3) That the contemporary relevance of any Christian spirituality is illumined by its past heritage.

Specifically, there are model individuals who have embodied Gospel values to a marked degree whose vitality continues to incarnate the same Gospel values in a new and different time and culture. Like the Gospel itself, the lives of these individuals tend to reach beyond time and place. Thus, my point of view in approaching the topic: How did a young man of nineteenth century France capture the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul who preceded him by almost two centuries? How might his life and work, especially that pertaining to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, illumine and inspire Christians today, especially young adults in the United States?

My approach in this project did not involve doing history or biography as such. I used history to bring out Frederic Ozanam’s Christian character that it might speak to the present. I tried to capture something of the spirit or interiority of Ozanam to see how he perceived a tradition of Christianity, transformed and translated it in terms of his culture and how he handed it on as heritage for the future.

I will, therefore, I) attempt to situate Ozanam in his own times by indicating some of the problems and issues that challenged him to choose among alternatives; 2) present a biographical sketch of Ozanam to provide a context in which specific aspects of his life might better be understood; 3) focus upon how the spirit of the Gospel reflected through Vincent de Paul affected him and his companions; 4) examine how his own process of discernment was at work; 5) allow something of his vision of being a Christian in the modern world to emerge by selecting excerpts from his own writing, especially his correspondence; 6) attempt to see how any insights gained from this search might be used by American Christians today with specific reference to the three areas mentioned above.

Chapter 1 – Cultural Context

…the environment in which Frederic Ozanam sought to realize the Christian ideal was much like our contemporary culture. It was a world full of violence and turmoil -secular, unstable, crisis-ridden. It was a world of uncertainty and fear.3

Thus writes an American biographer of Ozanam in the mid-1960’s.

From the time of the fourth century when Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, French Catholics, like most Western Christians, assumed that their culture was Christian. It took the Enlightenment and the French Revolution of the eighteenth century to bring to a boil the secular trends that were simmering beneath the surface of the culture.

The French Revolution had left in its wake the uprooting of old beliefs and traditions as well as the destruction of old institutions. With the coming of Napoleon, the country was almost without religion. (To this day, ancient churches like the Cathedral at Chartres bear the scars of vicious destruction and profanation.) Reason was literally enthroned as goddess in the Pantheon, once a sacred shrine to St. Genevieve, one of France’s great patronesses of the poor whose relics were desecrated at the time of the Revolution. Atheism and freethinking had become vogue. Religious instruction was absent outside the home. Religious orders had been banished, the faithful clergy scattered. The philosophers declared the “death of Christianity.” In 1797 Napoleon himself named religion as “one of those prejudices which French people had yet to eradicate.”4

Yet a Concordat was signed in 1801 which pleased no one, but provided at least some room for a reconstruction of a new order on the ruins of the old.

Understandably, the Church had grown very defensive about the encroachments made upon its claims. In Ozanam’s time, Catholics were divided as to what stand to take. ‘there was a widespread rejection not just of the excesses of the Revolution, but also of its ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Conservative Catholics grimly favored retrenchment. Liberal Catholics sought reconciliation and, though rejecting the anti-Catholic dimensions of secular liberalism, saw the acceptance of those ideals of the Revolution and the meeting of legitimate demands of the oppressed as vital to the reconciliation of the Church and modern society.

The basic issue between conservative and liberal Catholics was not a political one, but rather one of defending what the attitude to be taken by the Church toward modernity. On the one hand, should there be a withdrawal from or reconciliation with it? An unyielding defense against it or a search for new applications of Christian principles? To regard change with pessimism and resist it or to look with optimism and hope at the possibilities of development?

We will see that Ozanam made a clear and consistent choice in the liberal direction of bringing the Church to a more positive view of the modern world. This put him out of step with the prevailing conservative mood of French Catholics. But it would anticipate the more universally Catholic view that would surface in the social encyclicals and more recent pronouncements like those of Vatican II.

There was also a strong anti-clerical ( or perhaps anti-Church is a more accurate term) spirit in many quarters. Certain features of it are worth noting.

First, not all enemies of the Church were enemies of religion. Anti-clericalism was due primarily to the political involvement of Church and State.

It was originally a protest against the political pretensions of the Church. In 1798 and again in 1848 the Church cooperated in revolutions which destroyed privilege, but on both occasions it quickly abandoned the popular cause and emerged on the winning, reactionary side. It was rewarded with a reinforcement of its position.5

Socialism and Christianity had grown close in France by 1848.

…but the Church was too deeply instilled with the medieval idea that. ..the government of lay and spiritual matters was inextricable and that the state should lend its authority to the Church to ensure that religious principles were obeyed.6

It is further noted…

For a whole century, Catholicism and democracy seemed incompatible. ..Politics thus made the people increasingly reject religion -or in occasional reactions, adopt it -for reasons which were not inherently religious.7

Second, anti-clericalism was strongest in areas where the monastic orders had large land holdings under the ancien regime where the presence of the Church had been felt most strongly and especially where the Jansenists had been most deeply entrenched.

This was somewhat of a paradox as one historian has noted:

Jansenism …was also a source of individualism and of a certain kind of egalitarianism -but its moral rigorism undoubtedly had the effect of turning people away from the Church. It set up traditions of anti- clericalism and it was by no means a mere memory in the nineteenth century.8

Finally, anti-clericalism to a certain extent was France’s alternative to Protestantism elsewhere, but which had been largely stamped out in France by the combined efforts of Church and monarchy. Thus. ..”It was no accident that Protestants took a leading part in the anti-clerical movement. ..and its revenge was therefore twofold.”9

A word must be said about the socio-economic scene. The France of Ozanam’s time was marked by increasing numbers of poor people and inadequate measures of assistance for them. The Napoleonic system left public charities to the discretion of each of the nation’s communes most of which had very limited re- sources. Cities like Paris had a disproportionate number of very poor people. In 1829, one in twelve were classified as “indigent.” By 1856, the figure had declined one in sixteen.10Thus there was enormous need and scope for charitable efforts at the time.

An economic survey of the time summed up the plight of the urban poor in this way:

When work is continual, the salary average, (and) the price of bread moderate, a family could live with a sort of ease and even make some savings if there are no children. If there is one, it is difficult; impossible if there are two or three. Then it can survive only with the assistance of the government or some private charity.11

In addition to the more obvious problems of the poor – wages, living conditions, lack of necessities of life -a new, industrial, mass society was being born. And its violent birth was met with fear and resistance by the upper-classes.

It was not merely a matter of low wages and long work hours. Living conditions, especially in the rapidly growing cities were dreadful. Violence, disease and immorality were rampant.

Furthermore, the plight of the poor was worsened by the greed and indifference of the upper-classes. The power of the State only strengthened the position of the wealthy. The whole spirit of society was hostile to the poor.

In the midst of this exploitation of the wealthy, indifference of the State and alliance between Church and State, it is little wonder that the workers responded with hatred and violence. And it became imperative for Christians like Ozanam to speak and to act so that the Church could be a Church incarnating Jesus in a modern world.

  1. Vatican II, “Pastoral constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” The Documents of Vatican II, W. M. Abbott, ed. New York: American Press, 1966, pp. 199-200.
  2. Pittsburgh Catholic, Friday, December 1, 1978, p. 6.
  3. Thomas E. Auge, Frederic Ozanam and His World, Milwaukee: Bruce, 1966, p. viii.
  4. Kathleen O’Meara, Frederic Ozanam: His Life and Works. New York: Christian Press Association, 1911, p. 27.
  5. Theodore Zeldin, France 1848-/945. The Oxford History of Modern Europe, Vols. I-II. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1973, pp. 1024-25.
  6. Ibid., p. 1025.
  7. Ibid., p. 1027.
  8. Ibid., p. 1029-30.
  9. Ibid., p. 1034.
  10. Ibid., p. 1015.
  11. Supra, p. 32.

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