Frederic Ozanam and his colleagues were quick to learn the way of St. Vincent de Paul or the Vincentian way of going to help people who were poor. The Vincentian way is the way of Incarnation. The reality that Vincent de Paul brought to every experience was: ‘God is in every person; God is in every event; God is in every circumstance; God is especially in people who are poor. To the Daughters of Charity he said, ‘Ten times a day a sister will go to the sick poor; ten times a day she will find God there.’1
Ozanam came in touch with the Vincentian way through Sr. Rosalie Rendu. When Emmanuel Bailly introduced the young enthusiastic students of the Conference of Charity to Sr. Rosalie for direction, she took her role very seriously. She told them to ‘be kind and love, for love is your first gift to the poor. They will appreciate your kindness and love more than all else you can bring them.’2 Sr. Rosalie showed them how to go to the people in a Vincentian manner and they adopted Vincent de Paul as their patron.
For a man of Ozanam’s sincerity, adopting a patron was not a trivial matter: ‘to choose a patron saint does not mean simply adopting a figurehead … [but] a model whom we must try to imitate … endeavouring to acquire something of his warmth of heart, attempting to catch up the threads which were in his brain….The work of Vincent de Paul never grows old: who would not wish to continue it?’3 And to encourage his colleagues to model their lives on Vincent de Paul he put before them the importance of getting to know their patron: ‘… read the life of Saint Vincent de Paul so as to be more imbued with his example and traditions. His is a life that we must continue, a heart where we must warm our hearts, an intelligence where we must seek light.’4
Vincent de Paul had exhorted his followers to: ‘Remember that you are servants of the poor; regard them as your masters and serve them with great gentleness and humility.’5 Like Vincent, Ozanam had an extraordinary awareness of the presence of God in the poor and a great reverence for them. He wrote: ‘We should fall at their feet and say: ‘Tu est Dominus et Deus Meus. You are our masters, and we will be your servants. You are for us the sacred images of that God whom we do not see, and not knowing how to love Him otherwise shall we not love Him in your persons?’6
He knew that the only way to learn to respect people who are poor is through direct contact with them. Speaking on the ‘Origins of Socialism’ in 1848, he said: ‘The knowledge of social well-being and reform is to be learned, not from books, nor from the public platform, but in climbing the stairs to the poor man’s garret, sitting by his bedside, feeling the same cold that pierces him, sharing the secret of his lonely heart and troubled mind.’
This insistence on regular face-to-face contact with poor people is surely one of Ozanam’s greatest legacies. He engaged nineteenth-century society and its flaws very concretely, most especially in his up-close interaction with the people who benefited least from it. The knowledge he used as his baseline for the Society (and also in his writing and addresses) was not something abstract or fanciful, but rather the fleshy kind of knowing born of practical action and personal engagement. His was that fuller, denser wisdom that comes only from interpersonal contact with people. He knew that solidarity with the oppressed is attained only in the concrete recognition of their suffering, not in the abstract notion of their impoverishment. Interacting with people on a regular basis in their home-setting does not allow for disconnected theorizing about how to help them. Operating so closely to them, we cannot romanticize the conditions of their world.
Vincent de Paul and Frederic Ozanam shared in the passionate love of Jesus for people who were poor. They had hearts full of the com-passion of God. Ozanam spoke of charity as: ‘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.’7 This tenderness for poor people that we find in Ozanam resonates with the exhortation of Pope Francis in his inaugural address: ‘Let us adopt tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for compassion.’8 Ozanam was deeply touched by the sufferings of poor people: ‘I can no longer resign myself to behold the evil which is allowed to go on.’9 He who rarely spoke in praise of his own efforts, claimed: ‘I am habitually compassionate towards the poor.’10 I know of no person more on fire with zeal than Frederic Ozanam; I know of no one who more passionately sought the Kingdom of God.
- Pierre Coste, Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, IX, p199
- Notes on the life of Rosalie Rendu in Archives of the Daughters of Charity, Evansville, USA
- Ozanam to Francois Lallier, May 1838, in Joseph I. Dirvin, C.M., trans. and ed., Frederic Ozanam: A Life in Letters (St. Louis: Society of Saint Vincent de Paul Council of the United States, 1986), p143
- P. Coste, IX, 430
- Ozanam to Louis Janmot, Nov 1836, p96.
- Ozanam to Leonce Curnier, Feb 1835, Dirvan, p63
- Pope Francis at his inauguration, St. Peter’s, Rome, 19 March, 2013
- Ozanam to Francois Lallier Oct 1837, Dirvan, p116
- Ozanam to Auguste Materne, June 1830, Dirvan, p12.