Frederic Ozanam: in His Own Words

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoFrédéric OzanamLeave a Comment

Author: Claire Sweeney DC · Year of first publication: 2013 · Source: Justice Matters Ireland.
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Portrait of Frederic Ozanam in 1852, miniature copy of the portrait by Janmot Louis (1814-1892), probably made by the artist himself.

Frederic Ozanam

Frederic Ozanam was a person who spoke with passion about the things of God even when it was unpopular. He did this all through his life – as a student in Paris, as leader of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, in his writings, and as professor at the Sorbonne. His great passions were his Catholic faith, Catholic social teaching, especially truth, justice and charity and of course his love of the poor. As advocate of the poor, Ozanam opted for the Vincentian way.

The Vincentian way is the way of Incarnation where God is at the heart of life. Vincent de Paul focused on reality in a concrete way. The reality he brought to every experience was that God is in every person, in every event, in every circumstance. God is especially in the poor. To the Daughters of Charity St. Vincent said: ‘Ten times a day a sister will go to visit the sick poor; ten times a day she will find God there.’1

Frederic Ozanam, also a Frenchman, lived roughly 200 years after Vincent de Paul, but only for about half as long. Vincent was a Gascon from the south-west of France. (Gascons are sometimes likened to the people of the south west of Ireland). Ozanam was from Lyons in the south-east. While these two were fired by the same love and respect for people who were poor, Vincent and Ozanam had different personalities and different approaches.

Rosalie Rendu

Rosalie Rendu

It was Rosalie who introduced Ozanam and his friends to the Vincentian way. They had been brought to Rosalie for guidance by her good friend, Emmanuel Bailly. [It appears that Ozanam and Taillandier had tried bringing relief to some poor people before meeting Rosalie and were terrified by the experience]. Rosalie approached the matter of guiding them in an organised way. She wanted it to work well so that it would be a good experience for the young students and of real benefit for the people. She paid attention to the details: she chose the families for them to visit, arranged that they should go in pairs and visit three families only, provided them with vouchers, and perhaps most important of all, she met them before and after their visits to instruct them in the Vincentian way and to get them reflecting on their experience in the light of Vincentian teaching. She exhorted 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. Arnaud de Melun, Sister Rosalie’s biographer and himself a member of the Society tells us: ‘not a week passed without my going to the Mouffetard district … not only to visit the poor … but to listen to Sr. Rosalie’s wisdom and advice on all I wanted to undertake…. She always had time to listen, to adopt my works and to aid in their beginning and their progress.’3 Jules de Gossin who became the second president of the Society was struck by ‘the intelligent way in which Sister Rosalie interested people of wealth in the misery of those of meagre means.’4

Saint_Vincent_de_Paul 4(1)

Vincent de Paul

Having been introduced to the Vincentian way, the little group of volunteers adopted Vincent de Paul as patron. For Ozanam to ‘choose a patron saint does not mean simply adopting a figurehead … [but] a model whom we must try to imitate.’5 He wanted the members to be sincere in this as in all things. In 1838, he wrote to Francois Lallier: ‘We are now reading the life of St. Vincent de Paul so as to be imbued with his example and traditions … His is a life we must continue, a heart where we must warm our hearts, an intelligence where we must seek light’.6 Ozanam acknowledged the importance of St. Vincent de Paul both in his own personal life and also in the life of the Society: ‘I do indeed owe much to the beloved patron who saved me from so many dangers, and who has showered such unexpected blessings on our little Conferences7. In a word, Ozanam recognised the warmth of heart and the intelligence of Vincent de Paul. As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth, let us endeavour to catch something of the warmth of Ozanam’s heart and the depth of his passion, and attempt to catch something of his intelligence. His is also an intelligence where we can seek light and a life we must continue.

Vincent de Paul had exhorted the Daughters of charity to ‘remember that the poor are [your] masters. That is why we must treat them gently and kindly, reflecting that this is why God has brought you together’8. Like Vincent, Ozanam had an extraordinary awareness of the presence of God in the poor and a great reverence for them. In 1836 he wrote: ‘We should fall at their feet and say … “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?”’9

In comparing two artist’s impressions, one of Vincent and one of Ozanam, [Vincent at table with the poor and Ozanam at the door of a poor home] it would seem that Vincent, the former Gascon shepherd and man of the countryside may have been more at home with the poor, whereas it might have been more of an effort for Ozanam, the Professor from the Sorbonne. Ozanam may have had to work harder at understanding and embracing the poor person. He knew that the only way to learn to respect poor people is through direct contact with them. 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 mind10.

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 writings and in his addresses] was not something abstract or fanciful, but rather that fleshy kind of knowing born of practical action and engagement. His was that fuller, denser wisdom that comes only from interpersonal contact with people: ‘Those who know their way to the poor man’s house never knock at his door without sentiments of respect.’11 Ozanam 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 closely to them, we cannot romanticize the conditions of their world. Ozanam singled out the social problem as the most critical issue of his day:

The problem which divides the people of our times is no longer one of political structures; it is a social problem: that of knowing whether the spirit of self-interest or the spirit of sacrifice will gain the upper hand; whether society is merely to be a great exploitation to the profit of the strongest, or a consecration of each individual for the good of all, and especially for the protection of the weak12.

He could be speaking to us in 2013. Certainly now as then: ‘There are a great many people who possess too much and want to possess even more; there are many others who do not possess enough….’13 There are many who remember a time in Ireland when most people had a lot less than they have now but still were content with what they had. But that was before the age of consumerism. Consumerism or reliance on material possessions is one of the big challenges of this age. It is time to ask: ‘Is the consumer culture defining humanness by credit card power? Are people being conditioned to value others by what they own? Does it doubt the humanness of people on the margins?’ This subtle pervasive process is intricately bound up with the influences of global market values. It puts the emphasis on appearances. The deeper, more foundational instinct to look for solidity beyond appearances gets blurred. This process weakens the hold which traditions have on people. It drains the deeper meanings from a person’s world-view, especially from his or her religious world-view. We can see many of the effects of this all around us.

Ozanam would have been distressed by the aggressive secularisation of society and by the exposure of the young to a culture of drugs, violence and sex. He who expended his energy on behalf of the young, so that ‘Christian mothers may have a few less tears to shed, and that their children may return to them as they sent them out…,’ would have resisted this culture with every fibre of his being’14. He who was steeped in the Christian tradition and so keenly attuned to integral value, insisted on concrete encounter with those who are struggling to survive, and he did so in order to achieve depth and substance as well as to honour those who were poor.

Ozanam brought another dimension to ministry. Of itself concrete encounter was not enough. He knew that it was essential to bring these encounters with poor people into dialogue with the gospel, with the attitudes and actions of Jesus. Practice and theory are woven tightly together for him, but precisely as expression and fruit of the overarching Christian story. Reflecting on encounter with people who are poor in the light of the gospel, which today we call Apostolic Reflection, was a core element of his practice. He had learned it from Rosalie Rendu.

As a historian he had a great awareness of how important it is for us to connect with our roots. In January 1831, he wrote to Ernest Falconnet: ‘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 future15. I believe Ozanam would have the Irish dwell on their cultural heritage as well as on their Christian heritage so as to be inspired. Think of the elements of the Irish cultural heritage – resilience, hospitality, sharing and togetherness – gospel values expressed in phrases such as ‘ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine’ and ‘ní neart go cur le chéile’, values that are being eroded through the pressures and the power of global market forces.

Like Vincent de Paul, Ozanam saw the need to engage the rich on the side of the poor. In a post- revolution France which had seen the worst effects of class struggle, he warned: ‘the precise wrong move would be to disengage from the class struggle, or to stand with only one side and cut off dialogue with the other.’ His compassion was wide enough to embrace the oppressor as well as the oppressed: ‘Let us weep for the misfortunes of our oppressed brothers; let us weep for the cruelty of our brothers the oppressors’16. Above all, he saw the need for taking a stand on the side of justice, with respect for the oppressed:

God forbid that we should belittle the poor whom the gospel blesses, or render the suffering classes responsible for their own misery, thus pandering to the hardness of heart of those who believe themselves exonerated from helping the poor when they have proved his wrongdoing17.

But he wanted to do this without losing the good will of the oppressor. He would have us keep all channels open: ‘Let us principally learn to defend our convictions without hating our adversaries, to love those who think differently from us, to recognise that there are Christians in all camps and that God can be served today as always.’18

This attitude in Ozanam is reminiscent of what Gilles de Robien, French Minister for Transportation, said of Sister Rosalie Rendu at her beatification in 2003: ‘She used every Bureau of Public Assistance but avoided all pointless disputes that might prevent her setting up and maintaining a movement to help those who were poor…. She recognised only two categories of people, those who needed to receive help and those who can, should and above all need to give it. In bringing together two worlds that wished to ignore each other… Sister Rosalie was able to promote an experience that proved contagious.’19

All through his writings, Ozanam promotes the rights of all people. He was constantly concerned that the poor were being exploited and badly treated. He is a strong advocate of liberty, fraternity and equality, seeing them as gospel values. On the exercise of authority he wrote to Ernest Falconnet: ‘But I think that in the face of power there must also be the sacred principle of liberty, and I think the power which exploits rather than expends itself should be condemned with courageous and unyielding voice’20. This remains a challenge for us too.

Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Rosalie Rendu and Frederic Ozanam shared in the passionate love of Jesus for people who were poor. Speaking of Charity Vincent de Paul said: It’s certain that when charity dwells in a soul, it takes full possession of all its powers; it gives it no rest; it’s a fire that’s constantly active; once a person is influenced by it, it holds him spellbound’21. 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’22. The tenderness expressed by Ozanam, Vincent, Louise and Rosalie 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’23. Ozanam was deeply touched by the sufferings of the poor: ‘I can no longer resign myself to behold the evil which is allowed to go on’24. He who rarely spoke in praise of his own efforts, claimed: ‘I am habitually compassionate towards the poor’25.

What of us? Do we have the reverential spirit of Jesus, of Vincent de Paul, of Louise de Marillac, of Rosalie Rendu or of Frederic Ozanam in the presence of poor people? How do we think about them? How do we feel about them? Are they touched by the mystery of God’s love in our meetings with them? Are we? Do we let them touch our hearts? Ozanam did. Seeing the lack of justice for poor people at court in Lyons, he said: ‘I come back almost always from the tribunal deeply wounded’26. It was with a heart full of God’s incarnate compassion that he listened to the personal presence of those he met? His approach to them was full of unconditional positive regard? His way of being was an unconditional readiness. We too must pay attention to the experience and reality of the poor, to the mystery of God in the poor.

Ozanam was above all a man of Hope. He believed that there was a better, a more just way. He believed he could make a difference. He believed the time is NOW! He believed in the people: ‘It is in the people that I can see enough faith and morality left to save a society whose higher classes are lost….” In his controversial speech of 1848, ‘Passons aux Barbares’ [Let us go to the people] he claims that ‘we should occupy ourselves with the people, whose wants are too many and whose rights are too few; who are crying out, and fairly, for a share in public affairs, for guarantees for work, and against distress ; who follow bad leaders, because they have no good ones’27. This is a call that seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Maybe it is a call that will be heard in our time.

Ozanam knew that help honours when it occupies itself with the things that set a person free, but he also knew that ‘one does not help persons by detaching them from the bonds that paralyse them but rather by attaching them to their destiny’28. Let us, also, respect the deepest longings of people who are poor. Let us help them access their destiny? God’s loving tenderness for his people can be experienced only in the deepest desires of their hearts.

I know of no person more on fire with zeal for the Kingdom of God than Frederic Ozanam, no one more moved by the poverty around him, no one more consumed with love of God, no one more effective in the legacy he left the world when he created a network of charity spreading all over. He was willing to give every drop of energy he had in order to promote the measures of justice that would alleviate the sufferings of the people. His earthly life was a mere forty years, but two hundred years later his legacy lives on. He would wish the members of the Vincentian family to ‘humble [themselves] in gratitude for having been chosen … and to render [themselves] worthy … of so great an enterprise.’29

It seems fitting to give the last words to W.B. Yeats, speaking on behalf of those who are poor in the beautiful short poem, ‘He wishes for The Cloths of Heaven’:

‘But I being poor have only my dreams,
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’.30

  1. Coste, Pierre, C.M., St. Vincent de Paul: Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, [translated by Sr. Marie Poole DC, IX, p.199
  2. Sister Francis Ryan: Notable Daughters of Charity: Sister Rosalie Rendu, Vincentian Heritage 10/2/5
  3. Sullivan, Sister Louise DC, Sister Rosalie Rendu: A Daughter of Charity on Fire with Love for the Poor, Chicago, 2006, p.381
  4. Ibid., p. 195
  5. Dirvin, Joseph, C.M. Frederic Ozanam: A Life in Letters, (Society of St. Vincent de Paul, USA) Letter to Francois Lallier, 1838, p.143
  6. Ibid.
  7. Hess, Frederic Ozanam: Cahiers, translated by Mary Ann Garvey, p.125
  8. Coste, CCD, IX, p.97
  9. Dirvin, p.96, letter to Louis Janmot, Nov 1836
  10. Baunard, Louis: Ozanam in his Correspondence, (Catholic Truth Society of Ireland, 1925) p.279
  11. O Meara, Kathleen, Frederic Ozanam, Professor at the Sorbonne, His Life and Works, p.30
  12. Dirvin, p.96, Letter to Louis Janmot, Nov 1836
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., p.55, Letter to Léonce Curnier, Nov 1834
  15. Coates, Ainslie, Letters of Frederic Ozanam, p.25, Letter to Ernest Falconnet, 1831
  16. Dirvin, p.6, Letter to Auguste Materne, Sept 1829
  17. O’ Meara, Kathleen, Frederic Ozanam, p.324
  18. Baunard, Louis, Ozanam in His Correspondence, p.304, Letter to Alexandre Dufieux, April 1851
  19. Sullivan, Sister Louise D.C., Sister Rosalie Rendu, p.381
  20. Dirvin p.47, Letter to Ernest Falconnet, 1834
  21. Coste, XI p.203
  22. Ibid., p.63, Letter to Léonce Curnier, Feb 1835
  23., accessed, 25 July, 2013
  24. Dirvin, p.116, Letter to Francois Lallier Oct 1837
  25. Ibid., p.12, Letter to Auguste Materne, June 1830
  26. Ibid., p.116, Letter to Francois Lallier, 1837
  27. O’Meara, Kathleen, Frederic Ozanam: Professor at the Sorbonne,, accessed 21 November 2013
  28., accessed 24 July, 2013
  29. Dirvin, p. 163
  30. › William Butler Yeats, accessed 24th July, 2013

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