Frédéric Ozanam, A Layman for Now. Chapter 5

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoFrédéric OzanamLeave a Comment

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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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Chapter 5 – Crises and Decisions in Implementing the Vision

As Ozanam attempted to respond to the Providential unfolding of his life’s work of being an apostle of the Church in a modern world, he had to face a succession of crises in which decisions had to be made between alternative courses of action whereby he could best pursue his life’s work.

Concerning his first significant crisis of faith in adolescence, he wrote to a friend in January of 1830 about the interior struggle he had experienced in his fifteenth year: “. ..After constantly listening to unbelievers and to expressions of unbelief, I commenced to ask myself why I believed. I began to entertain doubt…”1

Two years before his death he referred to the same crisis in his preface to Christian Civilization in the Fifth Century: “In the midst of an age of skepticism, God gave me the grace to be born in the true faith….”2 That grace, as we have already seen, was mediated through the wise and understanding help of Abbe Noirot, his, teacher and lifelong guide. His brother-biographer observed that it was this early crisis of faith that helped Frederic become compassionate toward unbelievers.3

In reflecting upon Frederic’s struggle and its subsequent resolution, certain facts become evident. The influences of environment and culture on faith, for good or ill, were strong. Likewise were the influences of a loving Christian family and a wise and holy guide crucial in the resolution of such a struggle with faith. Yet such struggle and suffering that accompanies it proved to be a time of testing that often precedes genuine grounding and growth for faith. The fruit of such a crisis can include a heightened compassion for others who undergo the same kind of experience. No theoretical insight can match the practical experience of resolving a personal crisis.

Then there was a more protracted crisis of career in which Ozanam was torn between his parents’ desire for one in Law and his own leanings toward Letters.

It was not uncommon in the culture of his time for a young man’s profession to be chosen by his parents. As a matter of fact, even today, the pressures of family preference are strong among middle and upper class French families especially. Filial docility would have prompted compliance. Thus it was that Frederic was to undergo eight years of anguish over his parents’ wish that he enter the law profession. They were wary of the “temptations” of literature, a pursuit which did not seem to them to lead to any practical end.4

He wrote in January 1834 of his resistance to a law career, “I am experiencing what must be one of the greatest trials of my life….”5 At the same time he was experiencing an attraction for a literary career not just through his own natural leanings, but also in outside recognition that his gifts in this direction were receiving. He says, “I am put forward…I am not saying this out of self-pride…”6

But Frederic’s uncertainty was not ended. He consulted his brother and realized that it was not the time for a change of direction. He went on to finish his law studies, eventually got a doctorate and became for a time a barrister in Lyons, which brought a sadness at having to leave science and literature. He wrote in 1837: “1 am suffering from an uncertainty of vocation. I am to see the stones and the dust of every walk of life, but the flowers of none. The Bar especially holds less and less attraction for me.”7

Then he came in contact with the seamy side of the law profession as he observed the methods used and said:

There is scarce any case, no matter how good it may be, wherein there is not something wrong, and in which a just advocate would not have to admit weakness. But that is not the way in which the case comes before the court. ..The Bar has thus grown accustomed to invective, hyperbole and suppression, which even the best members employ, and to which one must grow accustomed!8

He was also shocked at the insincerity and excess with which many claims were made and declared, “I shall never get acclimated to the atmosphere of chicanery.”9

Yet he still found in his law career a chance to defend the poor. In one of his first cases he was appointed to defend a person too poor to afford a lawyer. He undertook the case with great energy and sincerity. For this he was ridiculed by the prosecution for taking things too seriously, to which he replied that he was amazed to find a responsible official making so little of the dignity of the court. He asked, “Was the defense of the poor mere comedy and the position of the judge that of an actor?”10 The judges smiled approval and one bystander shook his hand.

The point that emerges here is that even in his distaste for a law career, Ozanam’s deeper life commitment to Truth and to the poor remained evident.

Even later, when he was a law professor, he declared that he was interested in explaining law by the two basic ideas of justice and utility. One author points to the social theory even in his lectures on law:

Much of his emphasis was on morality in the field of jurisprudence and social economy. His twenty-fourth lecture is particularly noteworthy, for he encouraged the association of laborers, payment of just wages, and government intervention against individualistic economy.11

Perhaps the most arduous and persistent of his crises was that of deciding between the married and lay state and the celibate and religious state. Early in adulthood he seems to have disregard (or fear) of marriage. At 22 he wrote laughingly at one of his comrades “who is inclined to light candles at the altar of hymen with hundred thousand franc notes!” He went on to say:

To fortify myself against such a fate, and to inoculate myself against such contagion, to steep myself in the love of solitude and liberty, I have just concluded a pilgrimage with my brother to the monks of the Grand Chartreuse!12

Frederic began to experience the awakening of passion and the desire for affection beyond the friendships he enjoyed. Yet he seemed to have woman idealized as he said:

Although my age is the age of passions, I have scarcely felt their most distant tremors. My heart has, so far known only the sentiments of comradeship. ..Yet I seem to begin to experience symptoms of another order of affection, and I begin to be afraid. I feel a void growing within me, which neither friendship nor intellectual work fills. I do not know what will fill it. Will it be the Creator? Will it be a creature? If the latter, I am praying that she may come when I shall have made myself worthy of her. I am praying that she may be. ..good looking …she may bring great virtue in a great soul. ..that she may elevate me. ..be as brave as I am often fearful, as ardent as I am lukewarm in the things of God, sympathetic, so that I will not have to blush before her for my unworthiness.13

Two years later the idea of religious life had come to compete with the call to married life and he wrote, “It is not that I have to distrust the inclination of my heart, but I feel there is such a thing as male virginity, which is not without honor and charm.”14 He thought of joining the Dominicans because his friend, Lacordaire, had joined them and had plans of re-establishing the Dominicans and other religious orders in France. He expressed the need for guidance In this uncertainty concerning his vocation and turned once more to the Abbe Noirot who advised marriage.

Two months later at Christmas he mentioned the idea of religious life, but less hopefully to his friend Lallier. In the Spring, after his mother’s death, he decided to postpone a decision pending a year’s mourning. Following that year, further reflection, the course of events and the advice of Abbe Noirot, he finally decided that he was not fitted for life in the cloister, that he had a lay mission.

Baunard says that the most weighty of the many private and domestic reasons for his decision was that he was not morally free to enter religious life since he had contracted “an indissoluble bond with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. ..a work of apostolate, but of lay apostolate.”15 He recognized not only his intense loneliness and’ need for affection beyond that of ordinary friends, but he also could see that good works were not incompatible with marriage. His comrades in works of charity had married. And, of course, his old friend, mentor and guide Abbe Noirot, always felt that Frederic should marry.

In fact, he had someone in mind and arranged a “chance” meeting with the daughter of the rector of the Academy in Lyons—Amelie Soulacroix. His first glimpse on entering the room where he first met her was of a young girl attending to a crippled man who was apparently her brother. “It was the charming image of charity that had just appeared to him.” says Baunard.16 He paid more frequent visits, became engaged and eventually married. He wrote to his friend Lallier on December 6, 1841:

My dear friend, the awful question of vocation, which had been unsettled for so long, has been suddenly solved. A t the same moment that Providence called me to the steep moral incline of the metropolis, an angel guardian was given me to console my loneliness.17

Frederic and Amelie then faced the decision of where they would live -Lyons or Paris. He put the question to her. If they stayed in Lyons it would keep them close to home. But it would mean for Frederic the abandoning of the noble mission that he had dreamed of sharing with her. She expressed confidence in him and willingness to risk the uncertainties of Paris.

After a separation of six months during which he went ahead to assume teaching responsibilities at the Sorbonne which he considered a sort of exile, he returned to marry Amelie on June 23, 1841, at the Church of St. Nizier in Lyons. He was 28 she 21. His letters to friends subsequent to the marriage expressed his intense happiness. They then left for a honeymoon in Italy that sounds more like a pilgrimage!

On August 7, 1845, an only child was born to the Ozanams and he wrote, “After a succession of favors which determined my vocation and re-united my family, yet another is added which is probably the greatest we can have on earth: I am a father.”18

Theirs proved to be a very happy marriage. On the 23rd of each month, the date of their wedding, until the eve of his death, he presented his wife with a bouquet of flowers. When he lectured on “Christian Women in the Fifth Century,” his comments on marriage were inspired by his own experience.19 When he failed in health, he couldn’t thank God enough for his wife’s devotion.

In summary, what becomes evident in Ozanam’s long vocational struggle is the necessity of being aware of one’s personal needs as well as the directions in which one’s gifts seem to be leading and the commitments one had made. Once again we see that the influences and counsel of one’s friends and guides are important to the decision-making process. But what seems most obvious is the confirmation that a right decision brings peace, contentment and the furtherance of life’s commitment; in Ozanam’s case, to the service of Truth and the poor.

  1. Baunard, supra, p. 10.
  2. Ibid., p. 9.
  3. Ibid., p. 12.
  4. Ibid., p. 79.
  5. Ibid., p. 80.
  6. Ibid., p. 180.
  7. Ibid.,p.131.
  8. Ibid., p. 132.
  9. Ibid., p. 132.
  10. Ibid., p. 133.
  11. Renner, supra, p. 121.
  12. Baunard, supra, p. 177.
  13. Ibid., p. 178.
  14. Ibid., p. 198.
  15. Ibid., p. 164.
  16. Ibid., p. 182.
  17. Ibid., p. 183.
  18. Ibid., p. 231.
  19. Ibid., p. 322.

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