Ozanam in his correspondence (Monsignor Baunard) 02

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoFrédéric OzanamLeave a Comment

Author: Monsignor Baunard · Translator: A member of the Council of Ireland of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. · Year of first publication: 1911 (French) – 1925 (English).
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Chapter I: His early years

Ancestors – Family – Education – The crisis of doubt – The Abbé Noirot

Frederic Ozanam was born on the 23rd day of April, 1813, in Milan, which was at that time a French city. His parents came of old French descent and were of the old faith.

His father, Jean-Antonine-Francois Ozanam, who was born at Chalamont, near Trevoux, was a man of character. In that he was the worthy son of Benedict Ozanam, one of the twelve castellans of Dombes, and of Elizabeth Baudin. The latter was a descendant of the family of La Condumine and of the ancient house of Saillans, whose first scion died in 1792, at the head of 20,000 men, fighting in the Jales camp for the Royalist cause.

After an honours course in classics in the Oratorian College in Lyons, Jean-Antoine enlisted at the age of 20 in the Berchiny hussar regiment, in which he displayed conspicuous gallantry under General Bonaparte at the battles of Millesimo, Mondovi, Pavia, Lodi, Castiglione, Arcole and Rivoli. He retired at the age of 25, severely wounded, with the rank of captain. He was identified with a successful diplomatic mission to General Souwaroff, with the capture of a Neapolitan General, Prince Cattolica, whom he took prisoner at Bologna, and with the taking of a Uhlan Standard, which he presented to Bonaparte. He succeeded in retaining the esteem and confidence of that great General.

The soldier was also a devoted and fearless son. He was, on one occasion, during the days of the Terror, on his way with his regiment from Bourg, his garrison town, to Vienne in Dauphiny. He made a detour at the mart of Meximieux in order to pay a visit to his mother in the neighbouring town of Chalamont. To his great amaze­ment he found her in a state of consternation. Her husband had just been denounced, arrested and imprisoned at Ambronay near Amberieu, whence he would most probably depart for the scaffold. Jean-Antoine jumped into the saddle, took with him two hussars armed to the teeth, galloped to Bourg, where, as he knew, the Committee of Public Safety was sitting. He forced his way into the Committee Chamber, and pistol in hand, demanded an order for release, which he took away with him. Then he set off at full gallop to outdistance the gendarmes whom the Committee hurled in pursuit, as soon as it had recovered from its stupefaction. There was scarce time to reassure his mother as he dashed past to rejoin his regiment. Luckily his absence had not been noted.

Young, rich, handsome, amiable, witty, gay, this promising officer resigned from the Army on the establishment of the Empire. He married Marie Nantas, the daughter of a prosperous merchant in Lyons. They established themselves in business in Paris, where they were succeeding admirably until he signed a bill for a bankrupt relative and brought about his own ruin. It seemed that he would then have to resume the sword. Some former comrades-in-arms spoke on his behalf to the victor of Arcole, now Emperor of the French. The rank of Captain in the Imperial Guard was offered to the former brilliant hussar officer. But as he was not a lover of the Empire he declined the offer, preferring loyalty to his convictions to that great honour and brilliant prospects. I He then determined to rely on his own efforts and set out for Milan. When he had settled there he sent for his young family. He occupied his time very fully in following a course of medicine, and in giving private lessons as a tutor. He used to relate in after years how he trudged on foot every three months, from Milan to Pavia, for his examinations. Two years sufficed to complete his course with honours and to become qualified as a Medical Doctor. He distinguished himself almost immediately by a learned work in Italian which brought his name to the notice of the scientists of the day, Count Moscati, Locatelli, Scarpa, who all esteemed his work very highly. In the year 1813 he is to be found heroically performing the duties of a visiting physician to the Milan Military Hospital, when that city was swept by an epidemic of typhus fever. Two of his colleagues had died of the plague; Ozanam, alone, remained to minister by the bedsides of the hundreds of patients. It was his field of battle. Nor did the commander quit the post of danger until the dreaded enemy had beaten a retreat. For his services on that occasion he was decorated by Napoleon, King of Lombardy, with the Iron Crown. Heaven granted him a still greater reward. It was in that same year, 1813 that Antoine Frederic was born, the fifth child of a family of fourteen.

The son wrote in later years of the father in the following terms:

“While passing through camps, revolutions, and many forms of adversity, my father preserved an ardent faith, a noble character, a high regard for justice, a tireless charity towards the poor. He loved Science, Art, and Work. He inspired us with a taste for the beautiful and the sublime.”

Such, indeed, in a few words is the intellectual, moral, and religious inheritance which Ozanam received from his father. It is a great help forward on the path of virtue to be able to walk in the footsteps of those of our name who have shown us the way as torchbearers or pioneers.

Not less exemplary were the light and leading which he received from the life of his mother.

Born on the 18th July, 1781, Marie Nantas’ recollections in child­hood dated back to the horrors of the Siege of Lyons in 1793, when she and her sisters had lived in the cellars. She could remember her father, one of the leading silk-merchants of the city, appointed Captain of his section, devoting his days and nights to the defence of the ramparts. When the city was taken she could remember her brother, Jean-Baptiste, scarce 18 years of age, shot at Brotteaux, with the flower of the youth of Lyons. Her parents only escaped the scaffold by flight. They found a refuge for themselves and their family at Echallens, in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland, between the two beautiful lakes of Geneva and Neufchatel. Thither an old uncle, .a former Prior of the Carthusians of Premol accompanied them. Marie could remember that it was there in a poor little church, in which both Catholics and Protestants worshipped, that she had made her first Holy Communion. With the restoration of peace, the family returned to Lyons to recover, not their property, but their rank. Monsieur Nantas was one of the deputation to offer in 1798 an official welcome to General Bonaparte, then on his way to take over at Toulon the command of the Egyptian expedition.

Reared in such a hard school, one fit to train a fearless woman, the wife of Jean-Antoine did not shrink from the trials of poverty nor from the manual labour which her husband’s reverses and the necessities of a growing family entailed. The example of the brave man who, at the age of 36 years, triumphed over every difficulty in far-away Milan, to carve out a new career for his family, supported her. It was in 1815, when the Austrians entered Milan, that the patriotic Frenchman, not wishing to live himself nor to rear a family under a foreign domination, brought back his young family to Lyons. Even there the struggle for existence for a new and unknown doctor was hard; still harder for the mother of a family of fourteen children eleven of whom died in tender years.

But she did not indulge in idle tears like those who have no hope. At each death her streaming eyes were raised to Heaven. Frederic could write later as follows: “On how many occasions have I not seen my parents in tears; when Heaven had left them but three children out of fourteen! But how often, too, have not those three survivors, in adversity and in trial, counted on the assistance of those brothers and sisters whom they had among the angels! Such are indeed also of the family, and are brought back to our minds in acts of unexpected assistance. Happy is the home that can count one half its members in Heaven, to help the rest along the narrow way which leads there!”

The name of an admirable servant of the family, Guigui (Marie Cruziat) must here be associated with that of Madame Ozanam. She had entered the service of Frederic’s grandparents when a child, her integrity was unassailable and her thrift fabulous. She was a woman of shrewd and sound judgment and of extraordinary loyalty and devotion, who insisted in hard times on adding her mite to the scanty income of her beloved masters.

Better days did dawn at length. The Doctor became known through his contributions to medical journals and when an election was held for the much coveted position of Doctor to the Guild Hall, he secured first place. The Royal Academy of Science in Lyons did honour to his works and admitted him to membership. From 1830 on, we find contributions from his pen appearing in the Revue des Deux-Mondes, and we find his name held in esteem by the whole medical profession.

It was not indeed for the first time that the name of Ozanam had been heard of in the select circles of the learned societies of Lyons. The Academy counted among its scientific celebrities of the 17th century one Jacques Ozanam who arrived in that city at the age of 20 in the year 166o. He taught mathematics with such renown that ten years later d’Aguesseau summoned him to Paris to co-operate in the work of the Academy of Science, and to take the chair of Higher Mathematics in the University. That mathematical work he pursued by means of studies and lectures. Fontenelle delivered the panegyric of the “celebrated mathematician.” This great-grand-uncle of Frederic was pre-eminently a Christian savant. “I desire,” he wrote, “that physical Science shall be Christian as I teach it, and that it shall lead to God.” He was more Christian in his domestic than in his public life. He was simple in character, unselfish, a father of twelve children, who were as religious as he. Inviolably attached to his religion, he boldly answered the Jansenists, and later the Encyclo­pedists of the time: “It is for the Doctors of the Sorbonne to debate, for the Pope to decide, and for mathematicians to go to Heaven by the perpendicular.”

Indeed, if tradition and family records may be trusted, it is necessary to seek much further back for the source of that legacy of religion. It is related that at the beginning of the 7th century, the Archbishop of Vienne, St. Didier, flying from the persecution of Queen Brunhild, found a refuge in the house of a rich Jew of Dombes named Samuel Hosannam in the town of Boulignieux, the over-lord of which he was. St. Didier took advantage of the opportunity to preach the Gospel to him. He converted Hosannam and his large family. The Bishop was martyred soon after, but the seal of baptism remained engraven on the long line of his neophyte, their ancestor in the faith.

To that patrimony of service and merit Doctor Ozanam brought a great charity towards the poor. Lyons can still recall that “the Doctor combined the soundest medical advice with the most wonderful devotion. At least a third of his clients were free. With him the profession of medicine was a true work of charity. He did not even confine himself to giving his medical services free to the poor whom he visited, he also shared his heart with them, seeking to console them in their misfortunes. His was more than compassion, his was true religion, for he saw in the poor the Divine Person. He has been seen on his knees at the bedside of the sick joining with the invalid in asking for the clemency of the Divine Healer.” I t was reserved for him, as will be seen later, to die in the very exercise of that Christian ministry.

The practice of medicine under such unselfish conditions did not enrich the Doctor. It secured for him, however, a moderate com­petency, which his son declared to be proper, free, and most con­formable to a life of dignity and virtue. “I wish to thank God,” he wrote, “for having been born in middle class society, neither rich nor poor, which accustoms one to the idea of privation without the complete deprivation of all reasonable enjoyment: wherein one cannot be enslaved by the gratification of every desire, but wherein also one is not continually distracted by the grinding necessities of poverty. Then follows this humble opinion of himself joined to an act of thanks­giving: “God alone knows what dangers would have lurked for me, with the natural instability of my character, in the luxury of riches or the dejection of poverty.

Frederic was delicate in youth. At the age of six he was almost carried off by typhoid fever. “My parents,” he recalls, “did not leave my bedside, day or night, for a fortnight. Everyone believed that I won through only by a miracle.” The miracle was attributed to St. Francis Regis, patron of Vivarais. Devotion to that saint was then very ardent and a chapel had been dedicated to him in the Church of St. Polycarpe in Lyons.

In a letter dated 5th January, 1830, written to a college friend, M. Materne, Ozanam draws this severe portrait of himself: “I was never worse than I was at the age of eight. I had become headstrong, passionate and disobedient. If I were punished, I revolted; I wrote letters of complaint to my mother; I was frightfully lazy. Every imaginable trick came into my head, notwithstanding the fact that a good father, an excellent mother, and a gentle sister were conducting my education.”

As a companion, and at the same time a contrast to that portrait, we have the following from the hand of his elder brother, the Abbé Alphonse Ozanam, his biographer: “Frederic was, it is true, a quick-tempered child, head-strong in his desires, extremely sensitive and impressionable. But he was tender to little children, compassionate with every form of suffering, of an angelic purity which shrank from the most venial fault, an impossible subject for evil, an enthusiastic devotee of good.” Whereof he gives examples.

Frederic was early brought into contact with the poor clients of his parents. Madame Ozanam had presided for the best part of her life over an Association of working women called “The Watchers,” whose duty it was to minister in turn by the bedside of the sick poor. In later years, husband and wife, now growing old, bound themselves mutually never to mount higher than the fourth storey of a tenement in the course of their arduous charitable mission. But only a short time after that solemn pact and covenant was made, they caught one another flagrante delicto on the threshold of a garret under the roof. It was, one day, to cost the brave doctor his life. Frederic had the example of twenty years of such devoted charity before his eyes.

His Christian education was mainly the work of his excellent and intelligent mother. He could say of her before God: “It is at her knees that I learned to fear You, 0 Lord! and from her looks to love You.” Schooled in sacrifice, she was equal to all the demands of family life as well as of society. The moral influence of her sweet sway made her “the best obeyed and the most beloved of mothers,” and her cultured intelligence elevated her above the average lady of her position. She spoke and wrote well, could draw nicely, had good taste in literature, trying her hand at little occasional verses, neatly turned and better declaimed. No family feast was complete without a joyful song from that delightful mother.

Frederic was desirous that in recounting the work of his education, the name of his sister, Eliza, the eldest of the family, should be associa­ted with that of his mother. He wrote eighteen years later to a friend in the following feeling terms: “I had a dearly beloved sister who co­operated with my mother in my education, whose instruction was so gentle, so well arranged, so well suited to my childish intelligence, that it afforded me genuine pleasure, That explains why it was possible to say that as a child I was gentle and tractable; it has been attributed to my physical delicacy, but the moral influence of my sister is another and a more compelling cause. I was seven years old when that good sister died at the age of nineteen. Oh! How I was stricken with grief!”

Almost at the close of his, alas too brief career, Ozanam recalled, during one of his lectures at the Sorbonne and in a voice already broken by suffering, the transfigured images of his mother and sister: “Gentlemen, however vast this world may appear to be, it is yet too narrow for us, for our desires and for our hopes, especially since after a brief while it will have but six feet of clay to offer us. It is too confined for our memories of the past, especially for those who had a mother who loved the poor and loved us, who spent herself that we might be men of good-will: and for those who had a sister who left this earth before she knew any other love than the love of God. Do we not feel the need for a better world in which to place them? Do we not believe that they are aiding us from on high when a happy inspiration occurs to us? When we recall those dear faces do we not imbue them with some new beauty, until we behold them perfect and immortal, thus adding for ourselves another chapter to the history of the saints?”

Frederic at the age of nine, after a preparation by his father, entered the fifth class in the Royal College of Lyons, which was then directed by a priest. “There,” he himself states, “I gradually became better. The spirit of emulation conquered my laziness. I liked my masters and studied hard. My success led me on so that I began to get proud. But I had much improved since I entered. I then fell ill and had to go to the country for a month. In the fourth class I did not do so well, but pulled up again in the third. This was the year of my first Holy Communion.”

Ozanam saluted that event: “0 day of days I May my tongue cleave to my palate if ever I forget thee! The improvement in my disposition was plain to be seen. I had become modest, gentle and tractable; but I could still be proud and passionate.”

The College lectures of a celebrated missionary during the Lent of 1826 seem to have made a deep impression on him at the age of thirteen. His notes on the sermons contain the following sentence which is for him the one that matters: “Young men, it is in your training here to be good Christians that you will be trained at the same time to be good citizens, and to learn to fill with honour the careers in which you will be called upon to serve your God and your country.” Such was, in his opinion, the sum total of duty. The missionary priest was none other than the future Cardinal Donnet, Archbishop of Bordeaux.

The young student astonished his masters. The beautiful as well as the good was enthroned in his soul and emitted rays of poetry and eloquence not to be expected at that tender age. In his thirteenth year he composed pieces in French, frequently in Latin, in prose and verse in every metre, which his professors showed to one another and to their pupils as little short of marvellous. The subject matter consisted of national or sacred historical episodes; occasionally of contemporary events, as the embarcation of the French in the War for the independence of Greece. But mostly he treated of the Divine Mysteries and of the praises of the Blessed Virgin. Occasionally, too, domestic scenes, taken from life and treated with charming sincerity and grace appeared from his pen. Before his fifteenth year he was able to fill a little volume with his poetic compositions, which he offered on New Year’s Day to his parents with a double dedication, in Latin for his father and in French for his mother; nor would it be easy to say in which of the two languages he speaks with greater delicacy and tenderness1.

Yet it is in the midst of this serene life of study and piety, in his fifteenth year, that Ozanam was to find the clear sky of his faith troubled with clouds, and his heart shaken with the terror of doubt. Up to that time he had believed as a child, but as a thoughtful child; he was now to pay for the precocity and the restless activity of his intellectual life. He himself took the students of the schools into his confidence when dedicating to them his first lectures at the Sorbonne on Christian Civilisation in the Filth Century. His Preface dated Good Friday, 1851, two years before his death, contains the following: “In the midst of an age of scepticism, God gave me the grace to be born in the true faith. As a child I listened at the feet of a Christian father and a saintly mother. I had as my earliest teacher an intelligent sister, as pious as the angels whom she has gone to join. Later, the muffled din of an unbelieving world reached me. I experienced all the horror of doubt, which by day gnaws at the soul without ceasing, and by night hovers over our pillows that grow wet with idle tears. Uncertainty as to eternity left me no rest. In despair I grasped at sacred dogma, only to find it crumbling in my hands. Then it was that the teaching of a priest, who was also a philosopher, came to my rescue. He dispelled the clouds and illumined the darkness of my thoughts. From then I believed with faith grounded on the rock. Touched by such a grace I promised God to consecrate my days to the service of truth. That restored peace to my soul.”

A private letter written in January, 1830, to his college friend, Materne, at the close of this crisis, exposes in more detail the interior struggle, at the memory of which he still shuddered: “My dear friend,” he writes, “I must enter with some detail into a painful period in my life, which began in Rhetoric class and ended last year. After constantly listening to unbelievers and to expressions of unbelief, I commenced to ask myself why I believed. I began to entertain doubt, and yet I wished to believe. I rejected the promptings of doubt. I read books in which belief was established; yet none fully satisfied me. For a month or two I believed this or that piece of reasoning: some new difficulty presented itself and I doubted again. Oh! how I suffered! for I wished to be religious. My faith was not solidly grounded, yet I preferred Faith without Reason to Doubt. All that tortured me. I took to philosophy. The Theory of Certitude quite upset me. I thought for a moment that I should doubt my very existence.”

We have here the picture of the entire man, spirit, heart, and will engaged in that struggle. The spirit is tried with doubt, the heart protests, the will resists. That is the greatest of human sufferings; it is also the great testing-time sent us by God, which brings with it the dazzling vision of love. Ozanam referred to that struggle in a later letter in the following forcible terms:” Shaken by doubt, I grasped the columns of the temple with all my might, even were it to crush me in its fall.”

But God had seen his tears and came to the assistance of His child. The spirit grew clear; faith, beloved and desired, triumphed; tempta­tion (for the crisis was that and nothing else) was beaten back. The martyr, in his very hour of martyrdom, was loyal to God. God would not forget him.

Ozanam turned to God. A friend relates that “In the darkest hour of trial, which had become for him actual physical pain, the young student appealed to the mercy of God for light and peace. He threw himself on his knees before the Most Blessed Sacrament, and there in tears and in all humility, he promised Our Lord that, if He would deign to make the lamp of truth shine in his sight, he would consecrate his life to its defence.” He arose consoled. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, he was to find the Ananias who would enlighten and prepare the disciple.

“The priest-philosopher, whose teaching rescued him,” as he him­self expressed it, was the celebrated Abbé Noirot, who for 20 years professed philosophy in the College of Lyons. He left an indelible mark on all the brilliant young men of the period. His method—which cannot be judged by his written work, for he wrote nothing— was founded on Descartes rather than Socrates. He exaggerated doubt in order to pave the way in the mind for the return of true thinking. Whatever his method may have been, its results were splendid. Christianity, which was the apex of his system, shone in that school of thought with a dazzling radiance of truth and beauty. “The influence which that true master exercised over young Ozanam,” wrote J. J. Ampère, “decided altogether the direction of his thoughts.” The master admired and esteemed the young man, the youngest of his 130 students in the course of philosophy. At the close of his life he spoke of him in the following terms: “He was a chosen soul. Nature had dowered him, in a wonderful degree, with graces of mind and heart. Affectionate, sympathetic, ardent, devoted, modest, at once lively and serious, hating no one, despising falsehood, never was there a more popular student among his fellows. In the words of one of them, they formed in his regard a circle of love and respect.” His also describes him as studying with enthusiasm far into the night. Thus, young as he was, he won his way to the head of his class, which he retained to the end.

Monsieur Cousin did not hesitate to name AbLe Noirot “the first Professor of Philosophy in France,” saying, “other Professors have students: the Abbé Noirot creates disciples.” Ozanam was his chosen disciple. Outside lecture hours the master liked to have him for a companion in his walks through the lonely and rocky paths which surround—or which then surrounded—Lyons on all sides, and “which make the city so dear to minds of a melancholy and contemplative turn.” It was usually on the South side of the city, in the Straits at La Quarantaine that they walked, and thrashed out such questions as the reconciliation of Science and Faith, over which the Abbé Noirot raised the illuminating torch of Revelation. There, too, are to be perceived the first faint outlines of those large historical scenes of Christianity, of which his mind now at peace was already conceiving the first splendid ideas. His convictions had been shaken by a little cheap philosophy of earth; they were now restored in the true science of Heaven. He expressed himself later as follows to two of his friends: “For some time past I have felt the need of some solid ground, wherein I could take root and resist the torrent of doubt. This day, my friends, my soul is filled with joy and consolation. At one with faith, my reason has found again that Catholicism, which was taught me by the lips Of an excellent mother, and which was so dear to me in my youth, Catholicism in all its grandeur, in all its beauty.”

His faith emerged stronger and happier from the struggle; it be­came, also, more sympathetic with the failings of others. “How often,” relates his elder brother, “has not our dear brother confided to us the terrible anguish which tortured him at that time. Ah! he would add, “I am sometimes charged with excessive gentleness towards unbelievers. When one has passed, as I have, through the crucible of doubt, it would, indeed, be cruelty and ingratitude to be harsh to those to whom God has not yet vouchsafed to give the priceless gift of faith.’ “Thus had God moulded and prepared him to be, one day an enlightened and authoritative guide for the young men of his time. The crisis had been for him, at once a lesson, a trial and an apprentice­ship.

Such was his infancy, and such his early youth. At the age of sixteen Frederic Ozanam left College first of first. Now the bloom of that early youth is about to open, that period of his life so holy, so industrious, so fruitful of good works, so unlike the youth of others that one can say “Ozanam had no youth.”

At the age of sixteen this youth was already a man. It is the first fruits of a man’s mind that we shall see in a defence of Christianity extraordinary for his years. All is hurried in this rare life, as if Heaven, which was to make it brief, was eager, even then, to make it full.

  1. A small collection of these Juvenilia was published later in a Biographical Notice in 1854, written by one of the masters in Lyons, on his most brilliant pupil. M. Legeay was then Honorary Professor of the Faculty in Grenoble. He had collected them as promise of a brilliant future for the young student. Now there only remained for him to place them as a wreath on his grave. Will not the cultivation of Latin as a solid foundation for a French author appear an anachronism to the present generation?

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