Frederic Ozanam was eighteen when he left Lyons for Paris. He made the long journey by boat and carriage, and was exhausted when he eventually arrived at the house of Madame Marcel where his parents had made arrangements for him to lodge. He was glad to get to bed.
Next morning he headed for the Sorbonne, asking directions as he went along. He was so absorbed in his surroundings that he overshot the College. When he made his way back, his first stop was in the chapel. Kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament, he gave thanks for his safe arrival and asked a blessing on his studies.
Frederic had enrolled in the School of Law and was also going to take courses in literature, history, and philosophy. The Sorbonne, probably the most renowned university in the world at the time of Ozanam, was deemed a very liberal place of study. However Ozanam soon became aware that there was little tolerance for the Catholic faith. The university professors in general made open or disguised attacks on Catholic teaching all the time.
Frederic found his lodgings [or ‘pension’] very unsatisfactory. He wrote to his parents to get permission to look for another place to live: ‘I am distant from the school of law … and from my Lyons comrades … my hostess has the air of a crafty gossip; … and this is my great reason, the company here is not good’1. He was still awaiting their reply when he paid a visit to his fellow Lyonnais, Andre Marie Ampere, the founder of electrodynamics. When M. Ampere enquired about Frederic’s lodgings and discovered that he was unhappy there, he showed him his son’s now vacant room and offered it to him at the same cost as Madame Marcel’s. Frederic speaks of his great admiration for the strong faith of this man of science whom he describes as a devout Catholic with rocklike faith. He had already moved to M. Ampere’s home when he wrote to his father, December 7th 1831: ‘Today I am much better, since I have been settled for two days at M. Ampere’s … an excellent man with whom I find myself installed.”2
As well as getting to know M. Ampere, Frederic met many other men of letters who were strong in their practice and defence of the Catholic faith. Among the most noteworthy were M. Chateaubriand, L’Abbe Marduel, M. Montalambert, L’Abbe de Lamennais, Lacordaire and Gerbet. There were gatherings for young people on Sunday evenings3 at the home of M. Montalambert, who ‘does the honours with a marvellous grace’4. Ozanam found these evenings very inspiring, breathing, as he said ‘a perfume of Catholicism and brotherhood’.5 These meetings played their part in challenging Ozanam to lead the Catholic students to profess their faith openly and to win the mind of intellectual France for God. Accepting this challenge, Frederic began his defence of the Catholic faith in the Sorbonne. He wanted ‘to show the student youth that it is possible to be Catholic and have common sense, to love religion and liberty, and finally to draw [Catholic youth] out of indifference to religion and get it used to grave and serious discussions’. Many of the professors in the Sorbonne, holding that man’s destiny could be found in man himself, were sacrificing scholarship to prejudice against Catholicism. Chief among them was Theodore Simon Jouffrey6. Jouffrey was putting forward the idea that there was no such thing as the supernatural, saying that miracles were mere figments of the imagination. Ozanam challenged him, presenting his refutation in writing, requesting that his memorandum of objections to Jouffrey’s teachings be read in public. Instead of reading Ozanam’s objections, Jouffrey just gave his own version of Ozanam’s objections. Ozanam submitted a second memorandum, which was again ignored. This prompted him to call a meeting of his fellow students. From the beginning of his time in the Sorbonne, Ozanam was on the lookout for students of like mind with himself with the intention of defending the faith he held so dearly. In a letter to Ernest Falconnet, he speaks of ‘how much I have desired to surround myself with young men feeling, thinking as myself7, and later he says: ‘I aspired to the formation of a meeting of friends working together for the building up of knowledge under the banner of Catholic thought ….’8 Fourteen of his fellow students came to the meeting, among them Paul Lamanche, Auguste Le Taillandier, Felix Clave, Henri Pessoneau and Francois Lallier. This was the beginning of student movement in defence of the faith, the beginning of The Conference of History. Ozanam, with his clear and penetrating mind and his strong conviction about the true destiny of man, provided the leadership. The members of the group signed a new protest, a ‘public profession of faith’. On receiving this, Jouffrey read Ozanam’s memo and declared that he had not intended to attack the Catholic faith. By 1832, the Catholic students were well organised. Ozanam wrote to Falconnet: ‘Every time a rationalist professor raises his voice against revelation, Catholic voices are raised in response’9. [Before his death Joufrey returned to the faith.]
Aware of the need for spiritual nourishment for the young people of Paris, Frederic and his friends arranged for speakers to address them. The first of these was Gerbet, who lectured on the philosophy of history. Ozanam saw this as ‘a light in the university’s theological darkness’10. Later on Frederic and his friends negotiated with the Archbishop to have Lenten talks in Notre Dame, Lacordaire being among the most famous of the speakers. [These Lenten talks continue in Notre Dame to the present day].
The group of students associating with each other to discuss matters of importance placed themselves under the direction of Emmanuel Bailly. In 1835, Ozanam wrote to him acknowledging his influence on him: ’four years of your kindness have gotten me used to looking on you as a father’11. These feelings about Bailly were shared by many who came in contact with him. Ozanam says that ‘so many mothers who know you bless you, because you have preserved the religion of their sons’.
When the Conference of History was opened up to everyone, there were voices that were hostile to Christianity. One of the St. Simonians12 issued a challenge to Ozanam and his friends when he asserted: ‘Christianity did wonders in the past, but it is now dead. You who boast of being Catholic, what do you do?’13
Ozanam knew the St. Simonians had a point. He knew that action was needed. He said: ‘Until now, Christianity had been for me a sphere of ideas, a sphere of worship, but not sufficiently a sphere of morality, of intentions, of actions … religious ideas can have no value if they have not a practical and positive value’14. He accepted the challenge of bringing the students together in an organised way to bring help to those who were poor. Again it was under Emmanuel Bailly’s fatherly protection that he and some of his friends joined together to form a new organisation, the Conference of Charity, intent on putting their faith into action.
- Letter to his Mother, November 7th 1831, Ainslie Coates, (1886) Letters of Frederic Ozanam, London: Elliot Stock, 62 PaterNoster Row, E.C., p 35
- Letter to his father, Dec 1831, ibid, p27
- Letter to Ernest Falconnet, January 1833, Joseph I. Dirvan, (1986) Frederic Ozanam: A Life in Letters, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louis, Missouri 63108, p28
- Letter to Ernest Falconnet, March 1833, ibid , p32
- Ibid, p28
- Letter to Ernest Falconnet, March 25th 1832, ibid, p20
- Letter to Ernest Falconnet, December 1831, Ainslie Coates, Letters of Frederic Ozanam, p47
- Letter to Ernest Falconnet, March 1833, Joseph Dirvan, Frederic Ozanam: A Life in Letters, p30
- Letter to Ernest Falconnet, February 1832, Joseph Dirvan, Frederic Ozanam: A Life in Letters, p18
- Letter to Emmanuel Bailly, October 1835, ibid, p70,
- Saint Simonism: the followers of Claude Henri, the Count of Saint-Simon (1760-1825), put forward the principle, ‘to each according to his capacity, to each capacity according to its works.’
- James Patrick Derum, Apostle in a Top Hat, (1960), Fidelity Publishing Company, St. Clair, Michigan, p72
- Letter to Ernest Falconnet, April 1834, Ainslie Coates, Letters of Frederic Ozanam, p96