Frédéric Ozanam, A Layman for Now. Chapter 6

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoFrédéric OzanamLeave a Comment

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

About the Author: 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 6 – A Model for Today

In the on-going need for the Church to address the question of modernity and adaptation to a culture while yet confronting it with Gospel values, are there any insights to be gained from the life and work of Frederic Ozanam? Is he a person for our times? I believe that this brief glance at his spiritual journey reveals a number of insights with pertinence for today.

In general the very fact that he had both the conviction and the courage to make Christianity relevant for his own time and culture speaks strongly to the Church today in which some would seek to evade the painful responsibilities of adaptation and renewal. Under the aegis of orthodoxy, there are those who would hanker after “the good, old days” and like to turn the clock back to the safety and security enjoyed pre-Vatican II.

Ozanam demonstrates a strong compatibility between passionate love for the Church and orthodoxy and yet a profound commitment to a tradition of development of society aided and abetted by Christianity as promoter of growth. At the same time, his was an orthodoxy accompanied by an orthopraxy—right doctrine along with right behavior. Not only was he concerned about the integrity of Truth as preserved in the tradition of the Church, but he was also concerned about how that Truth was lived and practiced -in a spirit of love for the poor to be served and also for those both inside and outside the Church who did not share his views.

I would think that there is something here to be heard by those whose zeal for either right or left seems uncompanioned by a charity of manner in pursuing their cause. Ozanam’s deep appreciation of the past as a basis for meeting the challenge of present and future confronts those who would dismiss the past as irrelevant. His unremitting belief in the action of a Provident God in the unfolding of history likewise provides confrontation for those who would see events and seek solutions from a limited, closed-world view.

His youthful aspiration and accomplishment of so much in such a short span of years is perhaps living proof of the spiritual power of the union of knowledge and virtue effected by a singleness of purpose that lends life an unequivocal sense of direction. Yet his struggle with faith and subsequent decisions about his life while experiencing intensely the human condition in terms of feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, anxiety and the like would seem to make him all the more imitable. His life hardly bears the stamp of unapproachable sanctity.

In a world since that has seen such advances in the realm of knowledge, Ozanam’s love for science and his devotion to scholarship would certainly make him a kindred spirit. But, at the same time, he found no enmity between the acquisition of knowledge, the development of a critical sense and his life of faith. On the contrary, his faith lent depth to his perception and direction for his pursuit of Truth.

Despite a general aloofness from politics as such, Ozanam’s vision of the future with a growing respect for and advocacy of Christian democratic principles and structures of government as well as his support of the separation of Church and State would seem to make him a congenial figure for Americans. As a matter of fact there is some indication that he was influenced somewhat by a book about the United States by a friend and kindred spirit—A. de Tocqeville’s Democracy in America.1

(A) More specifically, Ozanam’s life and work provide a model of spiritual insights in three especially pertinent areas: a) spiritual discernment; b) sharing of ministry; c) concern for justice. This is of current concern to many serious about their Christian commitment and seeking directions in their own journey today. Ozanam’s early commitment to his life’s work of being an apologist for the Church provided him with a basic orientation for all his subsequent decisions.

A few observations about his process of discernment:

1) His choices of career and life style were made in the light of his fundamental vision and the gifts he discovered in himself with the help of others.

2) He possessed a faith conviction that a Provident God was guiding both the history of mankind and his own personal destiny. This enabled him to move step-by-step from decision to decision with trustfulness in God. There was a sense of God’s help being mediated through the guidance of his mentors and friends, yet he did not abdicate the anguish and responsibility for making his own choices. Throughout his life he possessed a strong critical sense and intellectual approach to life; yet, at the same time, he was attentive to affective dimensions of his life and allowed them to influence him. He was all too aware of his areas of un-freedom such as ambition, vanity, and anxiety for which he took measures to reduce their influence for ill on directions he took.

3) Ozanam did not leave inspirations in the realm of inoperative intentions, but translated them into action. He was not satisfied with theoretical insights or vague commitments to a cause, but rather put his gifts and energies to work to make his dreams reality. His convictions got beyond rhetoric to the point of life-involvement and were not compromised by convenience even when they were met with opposition by foe or friend.

4) The convincing criteria of true discernment in his life seem to be fundamental charity and humility. Charity animated him habitually and found concrete expression in his love of family, friends, and especially in his dedication to the cause of the poor. His humility preserved his purity of heart that is prerequisite to all spiritual discernment.

5) His love for the Church and all it represents both defending it against unjust attacks and challenging it to meet the demands of modernity constitutes the kind of ecclesial sense that seems to be the hallmark of valid discernment. Sentire cum ecclesia appears invariably in various traditions of discernment. It certainly found expression in Ozanam’s life.
(B) Sharing of ministries. In addition to a current reawakening of interest in the tradition of spiritual discernment, there is also a developing sense of ministry .Its scope is broadening as recognition is being given to different gifts for ministry among all the people of God, not just clerics, and efforts have been launched to bring these gifts into concert in team efforts to further the Church’s mission.

At the same time, we Americans are heirs to some extent of a Protestant work ethic and a tradition of rugged individualism which has not left our practice of ministry and spirituality un-affected. Cultural influences like these have left us more prone to individualistic rather than communitarian piety, to solitary rather than communal models of ministry, to competitive rather than cooperative striving in group effort and to work-oriented rather than person-oriented attitudes even in ministerial projects concomitant with dichotomous relationships between ministry and spirituality.

In addition, one finds at times a somewhat trivialized notion of ministry that is used to cover a multitude of altruistic activities without Gospel or Church reference or to relegate the contribution of laity to auxiliary services for the clergy.

Several observations concerning Ozanam’s efforts might be made apropos of all this:

1) He had a perception of vocation as layman in the Church as well as the lay character of the Conference that grew in clarity with the passing of time. It was precisely because of the alienation of the clergy and Church from the people that he and his followers saw their work as that of a Good Samaritan.
The work to which they were committed, however, was directly related to the Gospel in that it was seen as a means of self-sanctification as well as a visible and tangible concern of Christians as Christians for their brothers and sisters in need. The intent was an explicit one of reconciliation of factions antagonistic at the time to the point of violence -rich and poor, faith and reason, past and present, throne and altar. And he saw clearly the relationship of those charitable efforts to one’s personal growth in faith.

This, it appears, is pertinent to our present exploration of the concept of lay ministry in the Church and the search for integration between such ministry and spirituality.

2) It was clear from the beginning that Ozanam never meant to accomplish his great work for the Church, for the cause of Truth and in service of the poor through solitary venture. His entire disposition was to seek his goal in the company of others. He saw vividly the need for a Christian environment for both study and charitable work not just to protect one from the influences of seductive thought and un-Christian behavior, but also positively to support each other in the rigorous. demands of the apostolate as well as to enhance and broaden the base of its effectiveness. In the group he was able both to recognize and accept his own gifts and those of others and to nourish their development. Everything seems subordinated to the larger vision to which they were mutually committed.
His life seems imbedded in a mosaic of significant and mutually enriching relationships -family, wife and child, numerous friends,2 models, guides, peers, students and followers. He was able to align himself with the thinkers and the doers who shared his vision {indeed helped to create it) and mission to the under- privileged. Yet he was able also to maintain a critical sense in dealing with what he perceived to be errors and differences in their thinking and behaving from his own.

3) Ozanam had a strong sense of Church to which his life and work were strongly attached. As we have seen, the initial impulse for the work of the Conference came as a response to a challenge for the Church to respond to the needs of the poor so that it might truly be credible.
His allegiance was to the Roman Catholic Church, not merely to a Gallican expression of it. He delighted in Italy, Rome and the papacy with all the Church’s tradition they embodied. Particularly was he enamored of the ascendancy of Pope Pius IX and his promise of liberal reform. His own studies and travels brought him to Church horizons beyond his native France and these expanded horizons were reflected in his teaching and writing; in his founding and nurturing of charitable works -not just the Conference of St. Vincent de Paul, but others like the Propagation of the Faith as well. His love for the Church and his insistence on orthodoxy enabled him to espouse liberal causes and yet to avoid their pitfalls. His commitment to social reform enabled him lovingly to challenge the Church and the tradition he cherished.

This love and adherence to the Church would seem to have important implications for those who seek reform and renewal today in dealing with the structures and institutions that seem so obstructive even within the Church itself. He and his followers were adamant about keeping their Society from political involvements so as not to prejudice their purpose of serving the poor. The same logic would still hold for today when groups, both secular and religious, are prone to exert the leverage of a political power base.

4) Ozanam’s leadership among his “Vincentian” brothers advocated a great openness and flexibility. From the start he advocated expansion of the Conferences as people near and far were attracted. And when it came to the variables of places and works, he favored a diversity kept in unity by the same spirit. There is much to be gained from this attitude in efforts today to find unity rather than uniformity in shared ministries and in balancing the polarities of unity and diversity in groups.

5) Social justice. Frederic Ozanam and his followers would seem to speak to current issues of social justice in ways in which these issues might be more effectively addressed by Christians. His love for and dedication to the poor was expressed in both theoretical and practical ways. As teacher and writer, he sought social reform aimed at causes and systems. As founder of the Conference, he worked tirelessly and in concrete ways to bring help to those in need and influenced countless others to join him in the task. His words and deeds foreshadowed the social encyclicals and lay apostolic movement that would come later in the nineteenth century.
(C) As he pursued this double-pronged effort to champion the cause of the poor by word and deed, several observations might be made with particular challenge to our contemporary situation:

1) He was unwilling to seek change by means of mere humanitarian reform. As we have seen, he made careful distinctions between charity and philanthropy. Both his motivating force and methodology were rooted in the Gospel. The love of God and neighbor and finding Christ in the person of the poor were the Vincentian heritage to which he made himself and his followers heir. And the protection of that fundamental charity that informed the works was a personal and corporate humility that saved the effort from the contamination of selfish pursuit or ambiguous motivations. Great insistence on anonymity in services rendered and on benefits received from serving the poor were a legacy preserved in the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul.
This would seem to speak to modern efforts for liberation and the need to ground them in such charity and humility so as to avoid the pitfalls of neglecting the spiritual dimension so essential to total human development of people and sustained dedication in their behalf. This spirit of charity and humility would seem to offer much to media-conscious Americans to save them from individual and corporate recognition needs and political ambitions that can upset priorities. The spirit of Vincent and Ozanam challenges advocates of social reform to save them from the illusion of building merely a kingdom of this world for the poor, and from the deception of messianic aspiration. There are lessons to be learned in the practice of these Christian principles of charity and humility that perhaps purged the ideals of the Revolution from the chaff of selfishness that produced new oppressions. One gets the feeling with some of the modern liberation movements of our own time and culture that some striving for liberation often become new oppressors.

2) Consonant with this spirit of charity and humility, it is not surprising to find in Ozanam and his conception of the Conferences that of a mediator. Though he took clear and strong stands on issues, his design was to bridge the gaps. Consequently he displayed great respect for those whose views differed from his own as well as insistence on finding solutions through peaceful rather than violent means because he perceived this as the Gospel way.
This appears to confront polarization and tactics today that tend to divide and to conquer rather than to unite and to elicit free cooperation.

3) For Ozanam, the real school for those who would work for the poor was ‘personal involvement in the lives of those to whom help was given -through visiting the poor and the sick and the underprivileged in the places where they lived and struggled. And it meant for Ozanam and his followers not just bringing them material aid, but it involved attention to deeper needs of the spirit.

Further, such personal attention to the needs of the poor was not just token and for a time, but was to endure through the years. Then Ozanam felt people would have the right and competency to theorize.

Does this not speak of an “education by action” for our own time and needs? Does it not remind us of a priority of action over theory and warn us of the dangers of theorizing from a dearth of praxis and of substituting rhetoric for action?

4) The charity of which Ozanam speaks and which he and his followers practiced would seem to embrace a biblical and contemporary understanding of justice. It was not charity in the sense of giving to people out of abundance what they have no right to. Rather it seemed to be the sharing of what belongs to the poor by right. Nor was it that the members of the Conference were to give condescendingly as a mere expression of their own largesse. Rather it was that they needed the poor more than the poor needed them. Seemingly central to the Vincentian spirit is a charity that embraces justice and makes of the poor masters to those who help them. Perhaps those sentiments attributed to St. Vincent3 best summarize the spirit that animated him and was likewise reflected in Frederic Ozanam.

You will find out that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the bowl of soup and full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give bread and soup. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor. ..They are your masters, and the more difficult they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them.

In the end, the question I seem left with is how this spirit of Vincent, so well embodied by Ozanam and his followers, found such congenial soil here in the United States so early on after its beginning in France, how it has grown since and what promise it has for the future for the Church as Christians here and elsewhere seek the perennial presence of Christ in the poor.

Addendum 1 – Examen on the Spirit of Vincent


  • How humble am I?
  • In acknowledging my origins?
  • In letting go of my ambitions?
  • In seeking anonymity? In working quietly?
  • In giving credit to others?
  • In being aware of my gifts?
  • In handling opposition? Criticism? Misunderstanding? Being unnoticed or unappreciated?
  • In owning failures and faults?
  • In being aware of my creatureliness? Dependency?


  • How simple am I? How uncluttered?
  • In my life-style? Dress? Possessions? Tastes? Entertainment?
  • In my speech?
  • In the company I seek?
  • In my transparency? Straight forwardness? -53-


  • How charitable am I?
  • In realizing how much God loves me?
  • In putting myself out for others who don’t deserve it?
  • In not expecting return?
  • In being faithful despite lack of return?
  • In abandoning myself to the Father’s Will?
  • In taking on the burdens of others?
  • In being sensitive to the needs of others? Near and far?
  • In loving the poor and finding Christ in them?
  • In making the needs of the poor known to those who can help?
  • How much of a sister/brother am I to others?
  • How much does the American culture in which I live help me to be humble? Simple? Charitable?
  • How much does it obstruct?
  • How can my Conference help me to be more humble? Simple? Charitable?
  • How can I help the other people in the Conference?
  • If Vincent were in my situation, what would he do differently?

Addendum 2 – Examen for a Vincentian

  • How do you see yourself as poor?
  • How do you see yourself as needing the poor for your personal spiritual growth?
  • What special gift do you have for helping the poor?
  • What kinds of poverty have you found and tried to help alleviate?
  • Do you spend more energy in discovering needs not yet met or in reporting on those you have?
  • How do you help the poor beyond providing material things?
  • Do you take time to listen to the people you help?
  • How do their needs affect your prayer?
  • How do you show concern for the poor who suffer elsewhere in the world?
  • What do you do to remove the causes of people’s poverty?
  • Do you care who gets the credit for the good you do?
  • What effort do you make to see if anyone else can meet the needs that you meet?
  • How, as a Vincentian, are you related to the Church?
  • What are the special needs of the Church in your region?
  • Do you see your work as a Vincentian as ministry?
  • How well are you working together with other Vincentians?
  • Do you attend meetings regularly?
  • Are you finding spiritual nourishment from them?
  • How shared is your decision-making?
  • Has growth in numbers and funds hurt or helped personal attention to the poor?



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  1. Albert P. Schimberg, The Great Friend: Frederic Ozanam. Milwaukee: Bruce, 1946, p. 232.
  2. Ibid. The very title of the book gives some indication of the presence and priority Ozanam gave to friendship in his lifetime.
  3. Apparently these words from the script of the film, Monsieur Vincent, are a paraphrase of similar statements made by Vincent in various contexts.

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