Chapter 4 – The Emergence of Ozanam’s Vision: Being Christian in a Modern World
When he was barely eighteen years old, Ozanam began what was to become his life’s task -that of being an apologist for the Catholic faith in a life devoted to the service of “Eternal Truth” in the realm of ideas and to the service of the poor in the realm of action.
At this time he wrote a series of articles against Saint Simon-ism, a false but seductive doctrine especially attractive among the young which claimed to be the new religion with extravagant promises of social reform and liberal theories of equality that called for a return to certain primitive “Laws of Humanity .”
Ozanam attacked this teaching as based on a foundation foreign to Christian faith, as unhistorical, as illusory, as self- contradictory and as ultimately impeding human nature on its journey to perfection. His efforts were rewarded with favorable regard from such notable Christian social theorists as Lamartine and Chateaubriand. In this attempt he later saw “the seed of what is to occupy my life.1
His “life’s task” took shape in what his biographers consider an extraordinary letter to two friends and fellow students dated January 15, 1831. In it we find: 1) a commitment to a life’s task of working in the realm of ideas for the transformation of society; 2) a notion of development of society, the principles and elements of which are to be discovered by a search in our past heritage; 3) a belief in the continued presence of divine Providence in history and the need for religious ideas for continued development; 4) a strong declaration of his Catholic faith both as the solid ground on which he can personally resist doubt and as a force to lead civilization to happiness; 5) a desire to attach himself to others of like mind in pursuing this task; 6) the realization of the necessity of studies that would equip him for the task.
He speaks of the strength and persistence of his call:
When an idea has seized upon you for two years and takes the first place in your thought, impatient as it is to spread itself without, are you master to hold it back? When a voice cries to you without ceasing, (Do this, I will it! Can you tell it to keep silence?2
He also spoke of the encouragement he had received in the project from his friend and guide, Abbe Noirot. In another letter the following month he echoed his plans and expressed the great principle that was to dominate his outlook – the Catholicism of religious ideas as well as the great joy of being alive in his own age. He said:
When my eyes turn towards society …the prodigious variety of events excites in me the most different sentiments: …joy. ..bitterness. ..happiness. ..desolation …I tell myself about the spectacle to which we are called is grand; that it is great to assist at so solemn an epoch; that the mission of a young man in society is today very grave and very important. ..I rejoice at being born at an epoch when perhaps I shall have to do much good and then feel a new ardor for work. .. And I see more clearly for the last result the great principle which at first appeared to me through so many clouds -the perpetuity, the Catholicism of religious ideas, the truth, the excellence, the beauty of Christianity.3
I pursue my researches as much as possible. I prepare myself for work. ..and I see more clearly for the last result the great principle which at first appeared to me through so many clouds -the perpetuity, the Catholicism of religious ideas, the truth, the excellence, the beauty of Christianity.4
Later that same year he again asserted the absolute necessity of religion for intellectual and moral development, that reason alone was not enough. He again referred to his notion of development (palingenesis) saying:
If, then, it is true that society is to undergo a transformation at the end of revolutions which it experiences, we must acknowledge that the elements of this definitive synthesis are to be found in the past. ..In the same way as a flower contains in its bosom the innumerable germs of flowers which must succeed it, in the same way the present, which comes from the past, contains the future.5
His thought was influenced by some German comparative mythologists who pointed out that dogmas of Christian belief could be seen in the myths of all nations, indicating a common parentage.
Thus Ozanam was launched on a life’s work of a defense of Christianity which is revealed in his subsequent historical writings.6
Writing to his mother on November 7, 1831, he expressed his sadness at the irreligion of Paris, yet found consolation in his parish church, St. Etienne-du-Mont:
I have seen the Pantheon…a pagan temple in the midst of a town whose inhabitants are Christians or atheists -a magnificent cupola, lacking the cross which crowned it so well …What signifies, in effect, a tomb without a cross, a place of sepulcher without the religious thought which presides there? …The worship of the Pantheon is a veritable comedy, like that of Reason and Liberty. But the people have need of a religion, and when they have taken from them that of the Gospel, necessity is great to fabricate for them another, were it at the price of folly and stupidity…7
He continued describing the consolation in the beauty of St. Etienne.
Later that same month to his cousin, Ernest Falconnet, he expressed his conviction that all knowledge is included in religion, his admiration for the thinking of Ballanche (though later he will recognize errors in his thought)8 and his approval of a traditional rather than psychological approach to truth.
In this Ozanam was rejecting the thinking of people like Rousseau whose rationalist thought was represented by certain professors at the Sorbonne. He aligned himself with the thought of people like Chateaubriand, Ballanche, Lamennais and the Germans, Schlegel and Goerres. We hear him beginning to express a desire to join with kindred spirits among the students.
…how much I have desired to surround myself with young men feeling, thinking as myself; now I know that there are many such—but they are scattered abroad as the gold on the dunghill, and difficult is the task of him who would unite the defenders around one flag.9
To his cousin again in February 1832 Ozanam mentioned that he was responsible for conferences given by Abbe Gerbet who was laying open for the young students the philosophy of history of Lamennais.10
The following month he wrote to his cousin once more expressing interest in the political economics of de Coux and that he was reading Ballanche. He also described an episode involving some successful efforts of Catholic students in defending the Church against the attacks of a rationalist Professor Jouffroy and rejoiced in “God’s work being done by young men.”11
In October of the same year he again spoke of a new era for Europe when Catholicism would be once more understood and with the task of bringing Christianity to the Orient:
This redoubtable crisis will probably be decisive, and on the ruins of the old and broken nations a new Europe will arise. Then Catholicism will be understood; then Europe will be given the task to carry Christianity to the Orient. This will be a magnificent era; we shall not see it.12
As the new year of 1833 began Ozanam, the young man of ideas, became a man of action as he linked action to theory in describing his Conference of History: “Let’s not relegate our beliefs to the domain of speculation and theory; let’s take them seriously, and let our life be the continual expression of them.”13
Then, in March, his desire for a working group surfaced again: “You know that I aspired to form a reunion of friends, working together at the edifice of science, under the standard of the Catholic idea.”14 He spoke of Montalembert as he said, “. ..another source of life are the assemblies of the young and the excellent Count de la Montalembert.”15And his vision of the future appeared like a glorious parade of history:
The future is before us, immense as the ocean. ..above us religion, a brilliant star which is given us to follow; before us the glorious track of the great men of our country and our doctrine; behind us our young brothers, our companions -more timid -who wait for an example.16
A month after the first meeting of the newly established Conference of Charity, he wrote to his mother describing a public manifestation of faith on the part of the young men at a Corpus Christi procession in the town of Nanterre, home of St. Genevieve. He spoke of the day as “one of the most charming of my life.”17
As 1834 dawned he wrote to Falconnet of a plan to show Christianity as “the formula necessary for humanity.”18 There was also a humble recognition of his own leadership among the Catholic youth even as he struggled with the uncertainty of his vocation. He referred to himself as:
…a sort of chief of the Catholic youth of these parts …1 must be at the head of every movement. ..a crowd of circumstances, independent of my will, besiege me …and draw me out of the line that I traced for myself….I do not tell you this by self-love. For, on the contrary, I feel my weakness so much. I, who am not 21 years old, that compliments and praises rather humiliate me, and I almost feel the desire to laugh at my own importance …I suffer incredible annoyance when I feel that all these fumes rise to my head. ..and may make me wanting in that which, until now, has seemed to be my career. ..Nevertheless, this concourse of exterior circumstances may it not be a sign of the will of God? I know not; and in my uncertainty I do not go before, I do not run after,. but I let things come -I resist – and if the attraction is too strong, I allow myself to follow.19
In April Ozanam’s conversion from the world of ideas to the world of action took a sharp turn:
…I have found that Christianity had been for me, until now, a sphere of ideas, a sphere of worship, but not sufficiently a sphere of morality, of intentions, of actions. ..I want to speak of faith! …religious ideas can have no value if they have not a practical and positive value. Religion serves less to think than to act; and if it teaches to live, it is in order to teach to die. ..The value of Christianity is in this, and not in the attraction which its dogmas may present to men of imagination and of mind.20
It is in July of 1834 that we find his belief at the time that the Church need not consider democracy as the only true form of government. His complete espousal of democracy was not articulated until 1848. But at this time he said to Falconnet, “I do not despise any form of government.”21 In this same letter we can perceive a further expansion and integration of united action with ideas of a social scheme in which work for the poor is seen as a kind of school for the young who will regenerate France:
We others, we are too young to intervene in the social struggle: will we then remain inactive, in the middle of a world that is suffering and moaning? No, a great preparatory way is open to us! Before doing public welfare, we can try to do some good for people; before re- generating France, we can assist some of the poor. Also, I would like all young people with judgment and spirit to join together for some charitable works and to form throughout the country a large, generous association for the help of the common classes. I will tell you what to do in Paris in this matter, this year and last year.22
His admiration for Lamartine as the embodiment of genius and virtue is evident in a letter to Lallier of October whom he described as “a great man who has brought civilization into these places.”23
When faced with the crisis of expansion or restriction of membership in the Conference of Charity, Ozanam took a firm stand on the side of expansion as indispensable to growth. He wrote to M. Bailly:
Don’t you think that our charitable society itself, in order to last, must modify itself, and that the spirit of friendship on which it is founded, and the enlargement it must accept, would only know how to reconcile them- selves by dividing into sections which would have a common center…?24
Unity with the Conference in Paris would not necessarily be by way of the same works, but by way of sharing a common spirit; namely, unity in friendship which is more important than numbers. Speaking of a harmony of spirit he said to a new Conference in Nimes:
The end which we have in view in Paris is not, I think, absolutely the same as that which you have in mind in the country …You are breathing a pure atmosphere. You are living in the midst of good traditions and good example. The world is not crumbling under your feet. Your faith and virtue do not need organization for their preservation, but rather for their development. I do not know if I have expressed myself clearly. I would like to draw your attention to the differences in aim, since it calls for a difference in means.25
In February of the following year in a letter to Curnier, we find a striking expression of his dynamic and historical understanding of Christianity and his commitment to the cause of modernity.
The faith and charity of the early centuries? It is too much for our age. Aren’t we like the Christians of the early times, thrown in the middle of a corrupt civilization and a crumbling society? Glance at the world which surrounds us. The rich. and the happy, are they worth much more than those who answered St. Paul? ‘We will listen to you at another time!’ And the poor and the people, do they enjoy more well-being than those to whom the apostles preached? …the earth has grown cold and it is up to us Catholics to begin the era of martyrs again. ..to be a martyr is to give one’s life for God and one’s brothers. ..it is to give Heaven all that we have received from it; our gold, our blood, our entire soul. This offering is in our hands, we can make this sacrifice.26
He drew an important distinction between charity and philanthropy:
Philanthropy is a proud dame for whom good actions are a kind of adorning and who loves to look at herself in the mirror. Charity is a tender mother who keeps her eyes fixed on the child she carries at the breast, who no longer thinks of herself, and who forgets her beauty for her love.27
It is in this letter also that Ozanam presented the parable of the Good Samaritan as paradigm for the Conferences of St. Vincent de Paul which has been dealt with earlier .
The following month he evidences an attack by the “Noon- day Devil” in a letter to Dufieux:
…At this very moment, when the call from above is sounding in my ears, when I feel inspiration withdrawing from me as it were in warning. ..I cannot will, I cannot do, and I feel the weight of daily neglected responsibility gathering on my head …I fell into a state of languor from which I cannot rouse myself . Study. ..now fatigues me. ..I can no longer write. Strength. ..is not in men. I am blown about by every wind of my imagination. Piety is a yoke to me, prayer a mere habit of the lips, the practice of Christianity a duty which I accomplish with cowardice…28
Yet, as he indicated later, he was able to carryon precisely because of the support of his friends which he perceived as an expression of divine Providence:
…I am always the same. ..abundant in words and poor in works, always suffering from my powerlessness …finding neither strength nor repose, except in friend- ship, the lessons and the example of others. Providence has not willed that this succor should fail me. It has given me excellent friends.29
He spoke further of the benefits of association in good works as he acknowledged the fledgling nature of the task they had begun: “Good is done, above all, among us who mutually sustain and encourage one another. We are yet only in our apprentice- ship in the art of charity.”30
Ozanam’s aspirations were not limited to the Conference. He wished to infuse a Christian spirit also in the world of artists and poets as he wrote in reply to a friend who had formed an association of artists and who had asked Frederic to be an officer . His commitment to orthodoxy was clear as he said: “Let us be convinced. ..that orthodoxy is the nerve center, the vital essence of every Catholic society.”31
His persistent dependence upon Providence in reference to both his own life and the life of the Conferences continually appeared as it does in a letter to his mother in June of 1836: “I am very much persuaded that in the case of charity works, one must never worry about pecuniary resources, some always come along.”32
In a letter to Lallier on November 5, 1836, Ozanam expressed his gratitude for having been born and raised in moderate circumstances and he articulated for the first time the primacy of the social question and the duty of Christians to mediate between the rich and the poor so as to establish equality. Even this mediation he saw in terms of God’s Providence:
I desire to give thanks to God for having caused me to be born in one of those positions on the limit of embarrassment and ease…where one cannot slumber in the gratification of all one’s desires, but where at the same time one is not distracted by the continual solicitation of want, God knows. ., what dangers there would have been for me in the soft indulgences of riches, or in the abjection of the indigent classes,
For if the question which today disturbs the world around us is neither an individual question nor a question of political forms, but a social question; if it is the struggle of those who have nothing with those who have too much,’ if it is the violent shock of opulence and of poverty which makes the soil tremble under our tread -our duty as Christians is to interpose ourselves between these irreconcilable enemies, and to bring about that the ones may despoil themselves, , , and that the others may receive as a benefit,’ that the ones may cease to exact and the other to refuse,’ that equality may operate as much as its possible among men,’ that voluntary community may replace taxes and forced loans,’ that charity may do that which alas justice knows not how to do, It is a happy thing, then, to be placed by Providence on neutral ground. , .to act as mediator…”33
He repeated the primacy of the social question the following week to Janmot. Like St, Vincent and St, Francis of Assisi, Ozanam reflected here a spirituality of seeing God in the poor:
It seems that one must see in order to love, and we only see God with the eyes of faith. , , But men and the poor, we see them with human eyes,’ they are there, and we can put our finger and our hand in their wounds .., and we should fall at their feet and say to them with the apostle, , , ‘You are my Lord and my God…’34
And then, speaking of Christ reflected in Francis, he said:
His immense love embraced God, humanity, nature,’and considering that God made Himself poor to inhabit the earth, that the greater numbers among humanity are poor.. and that Nature herself, in the midst of her magnificence is poor, since she is subject to death, he desired to be poor himself also. The characteristic of love is to assimilate itself as much as is in it to the things beloved. Alas! if in the middle ages the sickness of society could not be cured by the immense effusion of love -which was made above all by St. Francis of Assisi. If later, new troubles called for the helping hands of. ..St. Vincent de Paul -how much are not needed now of charity, of devotion, of patience to heal the sufferings of those poor people, more indigent now than ever , because they have refused the nourishment of the soul, at the same time that the bread of the body is failing them! The question which divides the men of our day is no longer a question of political form; it is a social question…’35
In March of 1837 he again mentioned the social question, the social importance of charity and the value of a “community of charity” in addressing social needs:
Do you not find that it is marvelously pleasant to feel your heart beat in unison with the hearts of two hundred other young people scattered over the soil of France? … And independently of the present employment which results from this community of charity, are there not great hopes for the temporal future? …We see every day the schism. ..in society become deeper. ..Here is the corps of the rich, there the camp of the poor. .. One only means of safety remains- it is, that in the name of charity the Christians interpose themselves between the two camps. ..that they obtain from the rich such alms, from the poor such resignation. ..that they accustom them to regard themselves anew as broth- ers: that they communicate to them a little mutual charity …to make them but one fold under one shepherd.36
A few months later when he wrote to Ampere, he spoke of his father’s death remembering him as a ‘servant of the poor’ and as such exerting an influence on Frederic.37
When he wrote to Lallier in October of 1837, he distinguished various levels of life, the highest of which is the Christian life, “which draws us out of ourselves to lead us to God, where henceforth we find the central point of all our thoughts -the central support of all our works.”38
A letter to the same Lallier the following April gives us some indication of his attitude favoring a separation of Church and State. In his own words: “For us a great thing has happened: the separation of two great words. ..throne and altar.”39
Another theme that keeps asserting itself in Ozanam’s writings as he spoke of concerted and concrete actions for the poor is individual and corporate humility. But for him it meant a genuine brand, avoiding a “modesty which keeps a man from doing good.”40
He was insistent on the secular nature of the Conferences. Writing to M. Arthaud in July of 1839 he said, “One wants the Society to always be neither a party, nor a school, nor a brotherhood, but deeply Catholic without ceasing to be secular.”41
To Montalembert he likewise confided his desire to keep religion separate from politics as well as his aspiration of reconciling past and future:
…the reconciliation of the past and the future, the separation of the religious principle from among the political ideas with which it is involved, the work in a word, to which you have concentrated such generous energy, begins to be accomplished even in our city…42
Later that same year we have some indication of the influence of his mother in shaping his notion of Church and Providence as he wrote to M. Reverdy about her death:
…it was she whose first teachings had given me faith; she who was for me a living image of the holy Church -our mother also: she who seemed to me the most perfect expression of Providence.43
On Christmas Day of 1839 he had occasion once more to speak of the mediating and reconciling role his Society played in the social division of their times. He pictured it as a kind of a holy ‘Robin Hood’ band:
The little Society of St. Vincent de Paul subsists and develops. ..We make progress in the art of plundering the rich for the profit of the poor. ..But how little is all this, my friend, in the presence of a population of 60,000 working people, demoralized by work and by the population of bad doctrines! Freemasonry and Republicanism take advantage of the troubles and passions of this suffering multitude, and God knows what future awaits us if Catholic charity does not interpose to arrest the slave-war which is at our doors.44
From Germany in 1842 he wrote of his conviction that that nation’s greatness consisted “in the fact that Germany is indebted for her genius and her entire civilization to Christian ideals…”45
When he was attacked by Conservative Catholics as a “deserter from the Catholic struggle,” he wrote to M. Dufieux, in June of 1843, without recrimination. The letter ends with a plea for prayers that he “shall never fail in the fraternal mandate from my friends, to defend the inseparable interests of Religion and true Science.”46
When he visited Italy in 1847 he wrote to Lallier of finding great consolation in visiting the tombs of the martyrs and also of being present at the inauguration of Pope Pius IX whom he greatly admired because of his progressive policies.47
He again incurred the wrath of conservatives in 1848 when he expressed his views on democracy:
Conquer repugnance and dislike and turn to democracy, to the mass of the people to whom we are unknown. Appeal to them not merely by sermons but by benefits- Help them, not with alms which humiliate, but with social and ameliorative measures, which will free and elevate them. Let us go over to the barbarians and follow Pius IX.48
We have in the same year a couple of letters in which he expressed his love for the working person and for the ideals of equality and fraternity and exhorted others to go over to the side of the poor.49 Yet he repudiated Socialism and distinguished it from the Christian reform of society as he said to Dufieux:
We are not. ..socialists in the sense that we do not want the overthrow of society, but we want a free progressive Christian reform of it. ..One cannot avoid the social issues; precisely because they are formidable God does not want us to turn them aside. We must lay a bold hand on the core of pauperism. ..I am afraid that if property does not know how to freely strip itself, it will be sooner or later compromised.50
The extent to which he was converted to democracy is clear as he said: “1 believe, I still believe in the possibility of Christian democracy. I don’t believe in anything else in political matters.”51
All this time, while the Society of St. Vincent de Paul had been going to the poor, Ozanam was launching a journalistic effort by way of The New Era to try to elicit the sympathy of the public. The articles embraced the whole doctrine of Christian Economics. One, in particular expressed the need for concrete action for the poor, that deeds are superior to words.52
He repeated to his friend Dufieux in 1851 his conviction that politics were inadequate in effecting conversion as was the government in carrying out the Church’s mission. He said:
…we do not have enough faith, we want the re-establishment of religion by political means. ..No, conversions are not made by laws, but by consciences which must be besieged one by one. Let us not ask God for bad governments, but let us not try to give ourselves one of them which releases us from our duties, while taking upon itself a mission that God did not give to it in the service of our brothers’ souls.53
In summary as we become privy to the emerging consciousness of Frederic Ozanam through his letters, we see the ideals of youth move from the realm of theory to practice and both theory and action interweave and mutually influence the other. The dream, to some extent, gets tempered by the realities of life, yet is never compromised. Not only does he never waiver in his determination to mediate in favor of the poor, but it grows stronger, even when his convictions cost him the opposition of conservative adversaries and the misunderstanding or confusion of friends.
- Baunard, supra, p. 20.
- Coates, supra, Letter to M. Hippolyte Fortoul and M.H.____, Lyons, January 15, 1831, pp. 18-22.
- Ibid., ______, Lyons, February 21, 1831, pp. 22-24.
- Ibid., p. 23-24.
- Ibid., pp. 25-30.
- Sr. Emmanuel Renner, The Historical Thought of Frederic Ozanam. Doctoral dissertation, CUA, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 1959, p. 3. This author’s primary concern with Ozanam is with his historical thought. Although this is not the focus of my concern here, some of her conclusions are germane: ( 1) Ozanam as apologist comes out even in his historical writings, although he approached his study of history in a spirit of intellectual open-mindedness; (2) He demonstrated a sense of historical criticism that he developed largely through self-education; (3) His writings on literature from the fifth to the thirteenth century show the influence of traditionalism, liberal Catholicism and social Catholicism. She says: “Under the influence of the traditionalist school, he thought that art, science and morality were so clearly related to religion that progress was possible in these areas only if they were rooted in Christian metaphysical principles. He believed that the plan of God for man was the progressive realization of Christian principles in the temporal order and looked upon men and nations as instruments of divine Providence in this Christianization of the world….Despite ages of apparent decline there was progress, for society underwent a series of “revolutions; which aided in the transformation from pagan into Christian civilization…” (p. 74) .She continues: “Through his contact with liberal Catholics and social Catholic movements in France and as a result of his knowledge of the sweep of history, Ozanam came to look for the gradual establishment of the Christian principles of liberty, equality and fraternity in the political and social order. By the time of the Revolution of 1848 he had become convinced that democracy was the natural goal of political progress and that Providence was leading mankind in that direction.” (pp. 74-75). ( 4) A spirit of conciliation was characteristic of his historical works, social and political activities. She says: “Conciliation did not mean concessions in matters of principles; where it was a question of defending the truth, Ozanam never hesitated.” (p. 75) . It was typical of him that his defense of the Church was done in a spirit of charity. She quotes him: “The sanctity of a cause must not be compromised by the violence of the means.” (Des devoirs litteraires des Chretiens, Oeuvres, VII, 153-54.) She goes on, “He deplored the use of vitriolic polemics by Catholics as detrimental to the cause of the Church.” (p. 75) .( 5) Her final conclusion is that he was a good historian. She says: “Ozanam’s position as an historian has been overshadowed by his contribution to social reform…his historical works deserve a greater recognition…he was a pioneer in these studies…His thorough understanding of the Catholic Church gave him a valuable insight into medieval society and enabled him, without ignoring the imperfections of time, to portray the essential influence of Christianity on medieval language, literature and art.” (p. 76).
- Coates, supra, p. 36.
- 0’Meara, supra, p. 8.
- Coates, supra, p. 47.
- Ibid., p. 53.
- Ibid., p. 55.
- Ibid., pp. 60-62.
- Ibid., pp. 63-67.
- Ibid., p. 70.
- Ibid., p. 71.
- Ibid., p. 72.
- Ibid., p. 75.
- Ibid., p. 84.
- Ibid., pp. 85-86.
- Ibid., pp. 96-98.
- Ibid., p. 107.
- Ibid., p. 107ff.
- Ibid., p. 111; cf. also p. 121.
- Hess, Supra, pp. 60-62.
- Coates, supra, p. 117ff.
- Ibid., pp. 123-27.
- Ibid., p. 124.
- Ibid., pp. 128-31.
- Ibid., p. 138.
- Ibid., p. 146.
- Ibid., p. 154ff.
- Hess, supra, p. 120.
- Coates, supra, p. 167ff.
- Ibid., p. 173ff.
- Ibid., p. 173ff.
- Ibid., p. 182ff.
- Ibid., p. 193ff.
- Ibid., p. 200ff.
- Ibid., pp. 211-14.
- Ibid., p. 214ff.
- Hess, supra, p. 17.
- Ibid., p. 18.
- Coates, supra, p. 248ff.
- Ibid., p. 262ff.
- Baunard, supra, p. 195.
- Ibid., p. 214.
- Ibid., p. 249.
- Ibid., p. 254.
- Ibid., p. 255.
- Hess, supra, p. 21.
- Ibid., p. 127.
- Baunard, supra, p. 291.
- Hess, supra, p. 27.