Letters of Frédéric Ozanam. Chapter 05

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoWritings of Frédéric OzanamLeave a Comment

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Author: Frédéric Ozanam · Translator: Ainslie Coates. · Year of first publication: 1886.

English translation of Volume X of Frédéric Ozanam's Œuvres complètes, edited by Jean-Jacques Ampère (París 1862, 11 vol.)


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Christian activity — Practical work — Inward questionings.

IT is time now to introduce the notice of one of the two special works which Frederic Ozanam had great share, at least, in initiating. The first of these two was the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which grew out of the Conferences of History which have been mentioned. It was a time of returning Christian activity. Protestants, as well as Roman Catholics, lent their aid in instituting, either alone or in conjunction, many Christian works. Mde. Mallet, a Protestant lady, worked heart and hand with Rosalie Rendu, the well-known Sister of Charity; and in very many directions Christian thought and Christian work were appearing. The conferences of the Abbe Gerbet, which Frederic Ozanam and his young friends bethought themselves to obtain as a further antidote to the University teaching, are mentioned in the letters. The young Christian students felt them­selves refreshed like giants with new wine. Those of their fellow-students who did not share their faith were considerably excited by the struggle in which they had engaged, and several of them threw down a challenge to them. They took it up, and upon this ensued an in­teresting series of colloquies or discussions, in which umpires were to decide whose the victory was in argument. Frederic would often talk to his brother of these religious tournaments, in which both parties appear to have displayed a considerable amount of talent, and also a fair share of temper. No doubt they both enjoyed to a considerable extent this new exercise of their talents. The discussions, however, at length became so lively that they attracted the attention and excited the fears of a good old Catholic gentleman, founder of a journal called Ami de la Religion. He feared that very young and ardent hands might injure the cause they were endeavouring to defend, and he intervened by inserting in his journal a warning against them. This sudden pulling up was very grievous to Frederic, and he replied with considerable warmth. M. Picot did not refuse to insert his reply in his paper. Out of these conferences, however, there grew a very interest­ing work, of which no one like M. Picot could complain. It struck several of the fellow-students to give a practical answer to the various arguments of their sceptical friends. Says Frederic Ozanam twenty years later: ‘ Some of our young companions in study were material­ists; some were Saint-Simonians; others Fourieristes; others, again, Deists. When we attempted to recall to these wandering brothers the marvels of Christianity, they all said to us: ” You are right if you speak of the past. Christianity has formerly worked wonders; but to-day Christianity is dead. And you—you who boast yourselves of being Catholics, what do you do? Where are the works which show your faith, and which would make it respected and admitted by us?” They were right; this reproach was only too well merited. It was then that we said to each other: ” Very well; let us begin to work. Let our acts agree with our faith. But what shall we do? What shall we do to be truly Catholic, unless that which is most pleasing to God? Let us help our neighbours then, as Jesus Christ has done, and put our faith under the protection of charity.” The reproach addressed to the young students had fallen into good and honest hearts, and it brought forth good fruit. They took heed of their adversaries’ rejoinder, and considered—not merely with the ardour of zeal, but with business-like consideration—how they should meet it, and the answer was made plain to all. They should work the works of Christianity—do good to their neighbours. They began immediately, says one account, in a very simple way. Frederic and the one friend who had first spoken together carried to a poor man, whom they knew, the small quantity of wood which they still had in possession. Later on, they talked with others; they went and talked with their kind friend M. Bailly. M. Bailly was a very great friend to the young in Paris. Among other things he had instituted a sort of reading-room, to which he gave the name of Societe des bonnes Etudes. This was very near the School of Law, and here was arranged a large and varied library, seven or eight journals and various reviews. There was a large room for study, open from six o’clock in the morning till ten at night, lighted and warmed in the winter. Here, or in connection with this, also seats could be arranged for literary seances, which would hold about three hundred, or they could have Conferences of Law and Medicine. This specific society had ceased to exist three years before the birth of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul; but it was here that the Conferences of History, of which Frederic Ozanam speaks, were held. M. Bailly had watched over the members of this society with a fatherly care and good­ness, and to the Society of St. Vincent he was one of the best of friends. He was its president for seventeen years. When Frederic, with his friends, applied to him in the beginn’ing for counsel, the result was that in a room to which he gave them access, early in 1833, eight young students installed themselves with M. Bailly to preside; and this was the bud of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. So jealous were they at first of their privacy that when a ninth presented himself, who was unknown to most of them, they found some difficulty in admitting him. With regard to the arrangements for visiting the poor, some of the young men went to the Sister of Charity before-mentioned, Rosalie Rendu, and she instructed and helped them. The thought of their struggles in the Conferences of History, and how better they should sustain themselves in argument, had faded away, dissolved, and been succeeded by the practical thought of this endeavour to work the works of God among their fellows. One more quotation shows the kind of conversation which these young men and their sceptical friends held together. ” One of my good friends,” says Ozanam, twenty years later, ” led astray at that time by the Saint-Simonian theories, said to me with a tone of compassion, ‘ But what do you hope to do? You are eight poor young men, and you pretend to come in aid of the miseries which multiply in a city like Paris! And when you shall even have increased your number, you will never do any great things. We, on the contrary, we are elaborating ideas and a system which will reform the world and rescue it for ever from its misery. We will do in a moment for humanity that which you will not know how to accomplish in several ages.’ You know, gentlemen,” adds Ozanam, “what these theories have come to, which caused this illusion to my poor friend!”

At the time when Frederic Ozanam spoke, the little company of eight who were unwilling to be nine, had swelled into two thousand. They had five hundred con­ferences in France, and they had spread into England, Spain, Belgium, and even Jerusalem. It may be interesting here to give a very brief abstract of this little society. They soon doubled their numbers. They began and ended their meetings with prayer. They generally read a short piece either from the ‘ Imitation of Jesus Christ,’ or from the Life of St. Vincent de Paul;’ then each gave an account of his visit to the poor; they distributed what they had, and ended by a modest collection. M. Bailly opened to them the columns of a journal, and Ozanam and some others increased their finances by literary work. M. Bailly also interested some of the ecclesiastics in their favour; and although it continued an entirely lay association, this was a great thing done. In less than two years they were a hundred. Some of the members were frightened by their rapid increase, and even questioned whether they ought to admit more into their numbers. But one of its main objects being to form a rallying-point and a place of shelter for all young men who were disposed to be Christians, in their first coming to the metropolis, it was rather necessary to make admission easy than difficult, and the only condition had been that they should live a Christian life. They could not, there­fore, refuse any who, on this condition, wished to come; and they moved to a place which was able to hold three hundred persons. They were soon compelled to divide the conference, which was not done without considerable opposition. ” As soon as Ozanam saw,” says his brother, “the finger of God in the rapid growth of the work, he comprehended that the small charitable association, of which he had at first thought, might perhaps begin to realize the design which he had long meditated: the re­conciliation of those who have not enough with those who have too much, by means of charitable works.” The society spread first into those towns where numbers of young people gathered together for study; later, into the great centres of population; afterwards, ” it extended to localities of less importance, and penetrated even into the villages.” ” In 1837 it counted in the capital two. hundred and thirty-seven young people; it had created conferences at Nimes, Lyons, Nantes, Rennes, Dijon, Toulouse, and even at Rome.” They endeavoured to make no noise in the world; this was necessary, some­times politically—sometimes, perhaps, to defend themselves from other attacks. Their motto was, not to conceal themselves or their work, not to put them­selves unnecessarily forward.

One principal work was to visit the poor in their own houses. Each member visited two or three families a week. Receiving-places were established for old clothes, old furniture, etc., also medical services were given. Another principal labour was, procuring work for those who had none. The members interested themselves in all classes of the poor and miserable, from the infants in the creches to the condemned to death in the prisons; and they followed the funerals of those who died. At the time of the Irish famine in 1848-9, this little-known society sent to its relief nearly £6,000. The children of the poor were sedulously looked after. It is said that in 1859, i,ioo apprentices were superin­tended or looked after by the Conferences of Paris; also the soldiers in the garrisons were attended to. In fact, the whole extent of the needs of the poor seem to have been in a measure considered by this association, either from its first beginning or later.

To return to the history of Frederic individually, who, amid all his multifarious occupations, endeavoured not to neglect his perfunctory studies. He scrupulously gave the specified hours to the study of law; but after this, the attractions of letters and philosophy carried him away in spite of himself, and somewhat to the anxiety of his father, who perhaps thought that his son ” had too many irons in the fire.” When he did not succeed in passing with all the desired success, this dis­content found more expression. As Frederic’s brother truly observes, it was very difficult, notwithstanding all his aptitude and his assiduity in labours, for him to achieve with an equal success the bringing to the front the necessary studies to pass an examination in law, and those severe studies which were exacted for a degree in letters, for which he had long been preparing, the more that he joined to all these occupations as accessory a good number of articles for the Revue Europc’enne and for different journals, and was besides a member of several conferences, where often he had to speak. One can hardly help smiling at this review of his brother’s. It was zeal without sufficient discretion, doubtless, which allowed him to append so many ” accessories ” to what was in itself sufficient to engross all his, time. Yet, it is difficult to blame him for his literary pursuits, for there is little doubt that the study of the law, so pertina­ciously insisted on by his father, was not the one to which his vocation led him, however useful it may have been as an ” accessory.” His charitable and religious enterprises were eminently called for. Nevertheless, he might have gone ” more softly,” to quote from a letter written by Lacordaire to him years later, and have taken with advantage a longer time to do all he did. How­ever, just now a time of rest was coming. Dr. Ozanam was too reasonable a man, as well as too affectionate a father, to be seriously displeased for any length of time with a son whose delinquencies were of the nature of Frederic’s; and in the vacation, he returned happily to his ” dear town of Lyons,” where he found father, mother, brothers, a large number of old friends—all which was, in a word, the subject of his “tenderest affections.” An interesting excursion into Italy occupied this vacation.

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