Chapter 3 – The Spirit of Gospel and St. Vincent de Paul
Frederic Ozanam is appropriately buried in the crypt of the Church of St. Joseph des Carmes which adjoins and serves the students attending the Institut Catholique in Paris. Above his tomb is a mural depicting the parable of the Good Samaritan. If there is a single significant passage of the Gospel that his life and that of the group he helped to found incarnated, it was this one. He developed the idea in a letter to a friend who was thinking of founding a Conference of Charity in Nimes.
Although his first apostolate was an intellectual one as student, professor and writer, alongside this was an accompanying compassion for the masses and a practical program to work for them in the realm of action as well as ideas. This he pictured in terms of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In interpreting it for his own times, he saw help to the poor coming under the guidance and care of the Church rather than according to current schemes of social reform, yet being accomplished by laymen because people feared the clergy:
Society today seems to me to be not unlike the wayfarer described in the parable of the Good Samaritan. For, while journeying along the road mapped out for it by Christ, it has been set upon by thieves of evil human thought. Bad men have despoiled the wayfarer of all his goods, of the treasures of faith and love, and left him stripped and broken by the wayside. The priests and the Levites have passed him by. But this time, being real priests and true Levites, they have approached the suffering, wretched creature and attempted to cure him. But in his delirium he has not recognized them and has driven them away. Then we weak Samaritans, outsiders as we are, have dared to approach this great sick patient. Perhaps he will be less affrighted by us? Let us try to measure the extent of his wounds in order to pour oil into them. Let us make words of peace and consolation ring in his heart. Then, when his eyes are opened, we will hand him over to the tender care of those whom God has chosen to be guardians and doctors of the soul.1
Ozanam believed that the exercise of charity would do more to reclaim the lapsed than controversy or apologetics. In this he claimed St. Vincent de Paul as an example of someone whom even the revolutionaries admired for they “. ..considering the benefits he had bestowed upon the people, forgave him the crime of having loved God.”2
Even when the Socialists taunted Ozanam with confining his efforts to the alleviation of individual suffering without getting at the causes, he countered that society can only be reformed by first reforming the character of the individuals making up society. He went on to attack the Socialists for breeding hatred and war in contrast to the Church’s approach of building a new world by fostering justice and charity:
Certainly we must endeavor to go to the root of the evil and by wise and social reforms try to reduce the wide- spread distress. But we are convinced that a knowledge of the reforms. ..is to be learned not so much by pondering over books or by discussions among politicians, as by going to visit the garrets in which the poor live; by sitting at the bedside of the dying, by feeling the cold which they feel, and by learning from their own lips the causes of their woes. When we have done this, not simply for a few months, but for many years, when we have studied the poor in their homes, in the schools and in the hospitals, not only in one, but in many cities, then we really begin to understand a little of this formidable problem of poverty. Then we have the right to suggest reforms which, instead of putting the fear of God into their hearts, would bring peace and hope to all.3
It is interesting to note that the parable of the Good Samaritan is often associated with the life of St. Vincent de Paul whose patronage Ozanam and his followers chose after beginning their Conference of Charity, later to be named the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.4 Vincent had captured that aspect of the Gospel call for his own generation; thus it is not surprising that Ozanam and his companions would consider themselves heirs to his spirit two centuries later in the France of their day. Ozanam wrote:
Vincent de Paul was not the man to build on sand or for the moment. The great souls who draw nigh unto God have something of the gift of prophecy. Let us then not hesitate to believe that St. Vincent had a vision of the evils and the needs of our time. He is still making provision,. like all great founders he never ceases to have his spiritual posterity alive and active amid the ruins of the past.
He said in the same letter:
To choose a patron saint does not mean simply adopting a figurehead which will help us to cut a good figure in the religious world. A patron saint is a model whom we must try to imitate, as he strives himself to imitate the Divine Model, Jesus Christ. It means trying to carry on the work he has started endeavoring to acquire something of his warmth of heart, attempting to catch up the threads of the thoughts which were in his brain. A patron saint provides a model for us to copy on this earth and a protector who will watch over us in heaven.5
It was for the good of the members as well as for the benefit of the poor that the idea of a Conference of Charity emerged. As one author observes:
It was the novel and original idea of Ozanam to give to young men. ..a chance of doing work similar to that done by the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul. ..A widening and softening process will take place in the young man’s heart as he strives to imitate the charity of his patron, St. Vincent de Paul, who on his part endeavored when on this earth to imitate the charity of Christ.6
In approaching the poor, Ozanam made the sentiment of St. Vincent equally applicable to the work of the Society in saying, “We must indeed admit with St. Vincent de Paul that. ..they are our superiors. ‘The poor of Jesus Christ are our lords and our masters…and we are unworthy to render them our poor services!'”7
When the Rule for the fledgling Society was drawn up, based not on theory, but on the actual practice of the already existing Conferences, we find the Introduction inspired by the sermons and writings of St. Vincent de Paul. Baunard comments:
It is instinct with the spirit of humility, unity and charity that ought to reign among brothers as well as with a sense of duty to ecclesiastical authority. The lawgiver of the Society …is St. Vincent de Paul himself.8
It was almost a passion with Ozanam to encourage fidelity to the primitive spirit of the Society which he saw to be the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul with humility as the first virtue. He wrote:
I agree with your intention of emphasizing. ..the necessity for remaining obscure. It would be well to lay down this principle: that humility is as obligatory on associations as on individuals; and to support it by the example of St. Vincent de Paul, who reprimanded a priest of the Congregation of the Mission for calling his Association ‘Our Holy Congregation.’ Our guiding rule should be neither to force ourselves on the public gaze, nor to conceal ourselves from those who may wish to find US.9
He would say later, “Sons of St. Vincent de Paul, let us learn of Him to forget ourselves, to devote ourselves to the service of God and the good of men. Let us learn of Him that holy preference which shows most love to those who suffer most.10
On another occasion, when the names of Richelieu and St. Vincent were mentioned in contrasting political action with charitable works, Ozanam remarked:
The great Minister certainly played a glorious part, but who could, and would if he could, continue it today? Richelieu was but a man of one country, of one period, of a few years. St. Vincent de Paul, on the other hand, for all lands and for all time. His name is celebrated wherever the sun illumines the crucifix on a Church tower. His spirit visits the hospitals and schools of our faubourgs (streets) in the persons of his Sisters, as well as the missions of Lebanon, China and Texas, which are manned with his sons. His work never grows old: who does not wish today to continue it? If we have courage and faith, gentlemen, what will keep us back?11
Toward the end of his life, Ozanam had the opportunity of making a pilgrimage to the place of Vincent’s birth and early years, once Pouy and later named Berceau de St. Vincent in Gascony. In a letter to A. Dufieux of December 7, 1852 he acknowledged a debt to Vincent’s patronage saying, “I do indeed owe that to the beloved patron who saved me in my youth from so many dangers, and who has showered such unexpected blessings on our little conferences.”
Ozanam found in the ancient oak where Vincent took shelter and prayed as a youth a symbol of the heritage Vincent left. He observed:
That fine old tree is now held to the soil only by the bark, which is eaten into with age. But the branches are superb and, even at the advanced season when we were there, the foliage was beautifully green. I saw in it the type of the foundations of St. Vincent de Paul, which have no apparent bond of union with the earth, but which nevertheless triumph over time and grow strong during revolution.12
He subsequently had a branch of the oak cut and sent to the Council General of the Society.
After he died, M. Leonce Curnier, a friend and correspondent of Ozanam wrote, “1 seem to see him in heaven between St. Vincent de Paul and St. Francis de Sales, whose faithful disciple he was.”13
It was in the Gospel spirit of the Good Samaritan and in that same spirit captured by St. Vincent de Paul before him in his own native France that Frederic Ozanam was to embody a kindred spirit in terms of his own spiritual journey shaped by the influences and challenges of his own time and culture.
Since St. Vincent was the patron of the group, it was natural to turn to one of his followers for direction in finding and helping the poor. The early Vincentians were somewhat perplexed at first from not having any poor people to visit. M. Bailly suggested that they go to Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity who lived and worked in the Mouffetard district of Saint-Marceau, a poor neighborhood of ill repute. Jules Devaux, one of the original band of seven, was sent to see her. She gladly advised him on how to deal with the poor, gave him a list of needy families to visit and provided bread coupons to distribute.14
From this time it is said, “…the destinies of Frederic Ozanam and Sister Rosalie mingled in the love of the poor, thus forging lasting bonds between the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the. ..Daughters of Charity.”15 It is further said:
It is scarcely imaginable to retrace the life and work of Frederic Ozanam without evoking the memory of Sr. Rosalie in so much as their collaboration was close in the service of the poor. ..The providential convergence of these two destinies will have marked the history of charity in the nineteenth century.16
- Ainslie Coates, trans., Letters of Frederic Ozanam. New York: Benziger, 1886, (Letters to M.X. ____, Paris, February 23,1835), pp. 123-27.
- Henry Hughes, Frederic Ozanam. St. Louis: Herder, 1933, p.58.
- Ibid., p. 60.
- The idea of re-naming the Conference of Charity as the Conference of St. Vincent de Paul came on February 4, 1834, apparently at the suggestion of Leon le Provost. This confirmed a practice which had been the group’s from the beginning of invoking the saint’s patronage at each meeting. (cf. Charles K. Murphy, The Spirit of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. New York: Longmans Green, 1940, p. 17.) It has been suggested elsewhere that perhaps M. Bailly had suggested the name since devotion to St. Vincent had long been a tradition in his family. (cf. Albert P. Schimberg, The Great Friend: Frederic Ozanam. Milwaukee: Bruce, 1946, p. 68.).
- Hughes, supra, pp. 63-64.
- Ibid., p. 64.
- Msgr. Baunard, Ozanam in His Correspondence. Translated by a member of the Council of Ireland of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Australia: National Council, 1925, p. 127.
- Ibid., p. 114.
- Ibid., p. 130.
- Ibid., p. 273.
- Ibid., p. 275.
- Mary Ann Garvey Hess, trans., Frederic Ozanam. Cahiers Ozanam, Nos. 37/38/39 (January/June 1974), p. 125.
- Baunard, supra, p. 406.
- 0’Meara, supra, p. 62.
- Hess, supra, p. 73.
- Ibid., p. 71.