Chapter V: The Conference of History
The open Conference – Defence of the Church by speech and pen – La Tribune — La Revue Contemporaine – Saint Simonians — L’Ami De La Religion — Charitable action – “Let us go to the poor”.
The Conference of History and of Philosophy which M. Bailly, with the co-operation of Ozanam, had founded on the ruins of the Societe des Bonnes Etudes had quadrupled its membership in one year. Thus Ozanam was able to write on the 13th March 1833: “To-day the Conference numbers sixty young men, many of great ability, and the large hall in which we meet is filled to overflowing.” We have already seen first a hundred, on a second occasion two hundred signatures at the foot of Ozanam’s petitions to Monsignor de Quelen. If all those were not members of the Conference, they were, at least, all friends.
A little handbook which was published towards the close of 1833 furnishes a long and varied list of the subjects of debate in the Conference during the year. In addition to the scientific works to which we shall refer, Ozanam mentions “Poetry and its Influence,” “Clerical and Lay Action,” and “The Philosophy of Christianity.” He read his own verses on New Year’s Day. Lallier read papers on “Mahommedanism,” “Moral and Material Wealth,” the “Economic Theory of Critical and Organic Epochs.” Lamache examined, “Painting on Glass, Architecture and Statuary in the Middle Ages.” Le Taillandier treated “The History of Religious Orders,” “The Fundamental Beliefs of Antiquity,” “The Constitution of the Jewish Nation.” Danton, the future Inspector-General of the University, reviewed “The Spanish Insurrection under Charles VI.” Cheruel handled “The Principles of Wealth,” “The Present State of Religion and Philosophy,” a “Glance into the Future,” etc. We learn that “many points of view found expression on the platform, that the love of Truth presided over the debates, that though members might differ in opinions, they never differed in friendship.”
Nor were the papers always on pure dilettantism. Ozanam frequently introduced ardent religious propaganda, for the Conference was, in his eyes, the theatre of an “intellectual apostolate.” He was careful and conscientious in his preparation. He confides to one of his Lyons friends that he works hard at any paper he prepares. “I am writing a short history of the religious conceptions of antiquity for the Conference; I have already examined those of China and India. However shallow the research may be, it is always of value to me, for it always establishes the same truth. After traversing a long labyrinth of allegories and myths, one discovers at the end the key-word of mystery, which is the Word of God.”
Each Conference was summarised by a Committee who reported to a full meeting. The discussion on the report was, among those young men, a veritable battle.
Whereas the Societe des Bonnes glides had been a closed body, reserved for a certain class of young Catholics of a particular shade of political thought, the Conference of History was open to every mind desirous of instruction, to every shade and difference of contemporary thought, all of which Ozanam counted on bringing over to his propaganda.
The lists are open to every form of thought, even to the doctrines of St. Simon, and, politics alone excepted, there is full and complete liberty of debate. Young philosophers come to demand from Catholicity an account of its doctrine and of its works. Then, impelled by the inspiration of the moment, one of us faces the attack, develops the Christian point of view which has been misunderstood, unfolds the pages of history to show the glory of the works of the Church, and finding perhaps an unexpected fund of eloquence in the grandeur of the subject, establishes upon a solid basis the immortal union of true philosophy and faith.”
This ‘one of us ‘ was generally Ozanam himself, as being incontestably the one who knew most and spoke best. He was ready, quick, prompt and picturesque in reply. In his eyes the enemy was always the Saint Simon doctrine, discredited, it is true, in its application, but attractive in its philosophy. It was then orienting towards Positivism under Augusta Comte, Professor in the Polytechnic. Just as after 188o, it claimed to be the “Religion of Humanity,” the successor to ancient Christianity which was now outworn and defunct. Answering on one occasion a speaker who, in the role of gravedigger, would proceed in haste to inter ancient Christianity, Ozanam thus began: “When the savages in America are getting ready to make a bloody descent on their brothers in the desert, they never fail, in order to buoy up their courage, to chant a war-song, celebrating the victory that is to come, counting in advance the scalps torn from their enemies. Such is, according to travellers, the custom of the Hurons and the Iroquois. Is it possible that this custom has penetrated here? Is it not, as a matter of fact, to be found in the pxan of triumph prematurely intoned by a biassed partisan?”
This conqueror “in a hurry “was called Broet. “M. Broet claims that Catholicity is a spent force, that it is expiring in the anarchy which is tearing it to pieces, in the lethargy which is lulling it into a sleep of death, unconcerned and incapable of benefiting humanity. I beg of him to pursue that line of thought with me.”
The rest may be surmised. “The Church, divine in the enduring basis of its constitution and the perpetual and universal fruitfulness of its action, teaching truth, doing good, radiating beauty throughout the ages; reigning to-day over men’s minds, hearts and morals; adored by her children, victorious over her enemies, a conqueror of two hemispheres.” . . . Having thus re-habilitated the condemned one, the young apostle stops and exclaims: “It is enough. What purpose does it serve to shout to the nations ‘Catholicity is dead!’? Our ears are deafened with that funeral oration for the last eighteen hundred years. That same presumed death was hurled in the teeth of the Apostles. They, too, heard the agonies of the dying referred to, Quasi Morientes. They answered nothing; but they conquered the world.”
The young man joined propaganda by speech with that of the pen in the Press. The Catholic Press was then represented by some poor publications. The clergy knew only “The Friend of Religion and of the King” —which had then become “The Friend of Religion “without the King—when M. Bailly in 1832 returned to publish La Tribune, Gazette du Clerge, if not actually in opposition to it, certainly in competition with it. It claimed “to raise the interests of the Church above passing political opinions, to be open to ideas of progress through Christianity, to be sympathetic to the development of the alliance of Science and Faith, to repudiate Gallicanism as well as Absolutism, and to be definitely opposed to violent attacks and bitter polemics.” That was the declaration of its policy in which Frederic Ozanam collaborated.
For example, he wrote in 1833, dealing with a work on Hebrew:— “You will find that all rational truth tends to religious truth. Our personal task is, of course, much less. The truths of science are too widely separated and too intricate for one man to collect them as a scattered herd, and drive them before him into the fold. We must give the Christian direction to each one in turn.”
A short while afterwards, in July 1833, The Tribune received a still more magnificent and touching contribution from Ozanam. Saint Simonism, already shattered and undermined by ridicule, had sunk in immorality. Its leaders were condemned by law. That was a victory for Ozanam, but he did not celebrate the triumph. Instead of trampling on the fallen enemy, he made a grand gesture, if not to raise him, at least to pity him and to give him credit for noble aspirations. He appealed to him to direct those aspirations hencefonvard to the true Christ, Who alone could satisfy their hearts. Instead of indulging in the prevailing fashion of ridiculing the vanquished, he congratulated them on having shaken off the cloak of indifference in material matters, in order to lead men to think of serious questions of doctrine; on having dreamed in their own way of the redemption of suffering humanity; on having done homage to the Gospel even while making it subtle: “The followers of Saint-Simon have wandered from the true path,” he insisted with a touching confidence. “For many, that deviation from orthodoxy will be a bending of the bow which will spring back again. They are looking for Christ unwittingly. Some have already returned to Him. His arms and the arms of the Church are open to receive the others.”
Must not one admire in that article from a very young man “a merciful impartiality, a loftiness of view, a natural tendency to soar, forming one of the best written pieces of Ozanam, the student? It is better than a master-piece of intellect, it is a master-piece of charity,” That charity of heart towards those who differed from them, whether they were humiliated or reconciled, was more powerful for victory than the charm of eloquence It was none other than the highest form of religious instruction, coupled with the most ardent zeal of an apostle. These young men owed their superiority in the Conference of History to their superior religious instruction as well as to their religious zeal. Ozanam thus explains it: “As the Catholics equal the non-Catholics in number and as they bring to bear on the discussion greater knowledge, ardour, zeal, and assiduity, victory remains always with them.”
Their unity also gave them strength. “Easy and intimate friendship a kind of brotherhood reigns among us; with the others graciousness and courtesy. There are a round dozen of us, more closely united still by ties of mind and heart, a kind of literary company of devoted and sincere friends, who open their souls to each other to express in turn their joys, their hopes and their sorrows.”
Ozanam drew the following charming picture of their serious and joyous friendship. “Occasionally, when the air was pure and the breeze balmy, the police, with furtive eyes, could see in the light of the moon reflected from the majestic dome of the Pantheon, six or eight young men walking arm in arm for hours on that deserted square. Their countenances were open, their gait easy, their language enthusiastic, touching, consoling. They spoke of many things earthly and divine; they gave expression to many noble thoughts, many pious recollections; they spoke of God and of their parents; also of friends who were still at home, of their country and of mankind. The frivolous Parisian, who brushed against them on his way to his amusements, did not understand their speech; it was a dead language which few here know. But I, I understood them, for I was of them, listening to them. I felt and I spoke as they did, and my heart grew strong. I seemed to become a man, and weak and timid as I am, I drew therefrom strength and energy for the work of the morrow.”
This “weak and timid one” was nevertheless he who encouraged them. The “enthusiastic, touching, and consoling language “which they exchanged is the language of his letters of the period, January and March, 1833: “We indeed have need of something to occupy us, to transport us, to dominate and elevate our thoughts. We need poetry in this cold and prosaic world. But philosophy is also needed to link up our ideal conceptions. A complete doctrine forms the basis of our studies, the motive-power of our action. Catholicism must be this central point towards which are to tend all the enquiries of our intelligence, all the visions of our imagination. Then mental vagueness, the evil and depression and the weakness of our age, will disappear.”
These young men did not lack enthusiasm, but they were altogether wanting in experience. Did the Conference of History realise whither the admission of every form of religious belief would lead it? Was not its ardent religious zeal mistaken? While this young Catholic elite submitted its platform to every form of objection, could it be sure that with all its study, it was in possession of every possible solution? Ozanam certainly draws attention to the fact, that discussion was not on purely theological matters, but only on the history, and the social action of Catholicism. But it is none the less true that to see the sacred cause of religion entrusted for safe-keeping into hands, which were yet so inexperienced and so poorly equipped, was not reassuring to those who were not so favourable to the boldness of the young men.
One of those was the venerable Pere Picot, founder and editor of the journal, The Friend of Religion. He was of the old regime, whom faithful service in the Catholic Press had invested with almost dictatorial authority among the clergy. Biassed by training against every form of innovation, made distrustful, even obessed by the excesses of the school of Lamennais, he became alarmed at a like peril, to which the doctrine of truth was exposed, when expounded and defended by those juvenile apologists freed from all ecclesiastical control and direction.
It was, in addition, the period of the appearance of the Paroles d’un Croyant. Outstripping the violence of that mad pamphlet Professor Lherminier had just written “The Papacy is completely exhausted. In our country intellect despises it, and it remains silent. But if I were free to expose the secret contempt you would see what worlds of contumely are heaped on that institution.”
Ozanam took up the insulting challenge. Ignoring Lherminier and Lamennais, he explained to the Conference of History, in his broad and impersonal way, the secular role of the Papacy. He described it as distributing to all, and above all to the little ones, the triple food, material, intellectual, and moral. He traced it back to the Capitol: “Outside it no discoveries worth mentioning have been made, nor,” concluded he, “does anyone hope to surpass her discoveries. Jesus Christ founded a new intellectual world. Subsequent discoveries are but like some petty isles adjacent to the great continent of the revealed world.”
It happened at the same time and place that a confrere, young Élie de Kertanguy, felt himself called to the defence of the Croyant and repeated some of its attacks on the political tyranny of Popes and Kings. Now, Kertanguy was Lamennais’ secretary, and was to become his nephew by marriage. Ozanam, in reply, challenged, as delicately as possible, the panegyrist on the ground of the double connection which put him altogether out of court. Kertanguy withdrew his unfortunate expressions and declared that he alone was responsible for them.
The Friend of Religion held the Conference responsible for what had been said, and especially the member who was Vice-President and well-known to be the leader. “All that had been said was only a rehash of worked-up, old-time, false charges.” Then taking a serious tone: “The danger in present circumstances will be understood. One can appreciate from what has happened, how far young people can be misled in favour of theories and systems. It is to be hoped, that reflection and experience will gradually win them back from that position.”
That was indeed a warning as well as a denunciation.
Ozanam was yet unaware of the cause when a letter of abject apology reached him, not from the author of the article, but from one who had unwittingly been the cause of the denunciation, by making an incomplete and biassed account of Ozanam’s speech to the editor of The Friend of Religion. He was a young ardent Royalist named Cartier. He was now filled with remorse at the pain which he had caused his dear Ozanam, and he confessed his fault and sought pardon in a three-page letter. The incident reflected honour on Ozanam. His reply to Cartier, which has only recently come to light, is a model of cordiality, generosity, and dignity. The following is an extract:
“Sir, I thank you for the loyalty which you have shown, in drawing my attention to the attack on me in The Friend of Religion. Any imprudence of yours in the matter is more than atoned for by the generous avowal which you have been kind enough to make.
“We are young, we are all likely to make similar mistakes. But we are also Christians and we must forgive and forget an involuntary mistake. Your action on my behalf merits gratitude; nay more, it commands my regard and wins my friendship”.
“Therefore, I promise that I shall not mention this matter in the Conference, even though it grieves me sorely; or if, for some good reason I find myself forced to refer to it, I promise you to do so in such a way that I shall not hurt your feelings. It is quite likely that we are not of the same political views. But we shall always be at one on the impregnable maxims of religion and charity. May the relations, which this unpleasant affair has established between us, knit firmly the bonds of Catholic brotherhood, and ensure, for both, happy recollections! I am, sir, your most obedient servant and affectionate colleague.”
Thus could Ozanam pardon.
A letter was enclosed which Cartier was requested to forward to the anonymous ecclesiastic, who was the writer of the article: “There is not anything objectionable in the enclosed, merely an appeal to his kindness and his sense of justice. I hope that you will be good enough to see that it reaches his hands. I am very anxious on the point.”
The enclosed reply was to this effect: “You have done me the honour to discuss me, a young and unknown man, in your last issue; you analysed an address which I delivered in a private literary gathering, in which prudence and peace are desired beyond all else. Since you set sufficient value on our friendly discussions to entertain your good readers with them, you should at least observe a scrupulous accuracy. Yet the summary, which you have made, truncates my thought and ascribes odious and ridiculous expressions to me. It contains also severe condemnation of my views, and attributes to me intentions which I altogether disavow.”
Ozanam had been charged with attacking monarchy.
“As a student, I am studying history according to my lights. I do not know if I am right, but I do not make false charges. I am represented as belonging to a school of thought which is hostile to Kings. Being a Christian, I glory in belonging to no other school than that of Truth, which is the Church. But if my sympathy inclines in any direction it is in favour of a wise Monarchy.” Ozanam was grieved to see such censure visited by a man of venerable age on some young men, who, though few in number, had found the requisite courage in their faith for a lofty defence of their holy Mother the Church. “But it is not a declaration of political principles which I desire to make here. The day will come perhaps when I shall be entitled to hold these opinions. Meantime I live by my faith, which I have from my God, and by my honour which I have from my parents. You will allow me to defend the one and the other.”
Pere Picot did not refuse to insert Ozanam’s rather lively reply; its feeling and sincerity touched, but did not convince him1.
However, the sensitive conscience of the young man had not waited for those warnings of June, 1834. Certain occurrences had already startled his sense of responsibility. It had happened that in the course of discussions which had arisen unexpectedly, the champions of Christianity, taken unawares, had been found unequal to their task. They came together at Lamache’s, to settle on the steps to be taken to avoid similar surprises. They did not succeed.
Lallier, one of the three delegates, was one day condoling with the elder of the little band, Le Taillandier, a Rouen man, a student in the second year of law, who was of a cold and practical turn of mind. The latter concluded quietly as follows: “I should much prefer some other kind of meeting, one altogether composed of young Christians who, instead of controversy and debate, should devote themselves to the practice of good works.” But would not that be to surrender? He found no reply to that objection on this occasion.
Other signs were not wanting. Ozanam thus refers to them: “When we Catholics, in our relations with unbelievers, deists, followers of Saint Simon, Fourierists, artificers in the re-moulding of society, when we sought to direct their attention to the benefits conferred by Christianity, we were met with the invariable answer, “You are right when you speak of the past, in former times Christianity worked wonders; but what is it doing for humanity to-day? Even you, who pride yourself on your Catholicity, what are you doing to show the vitality and efficacy, to prove the truth of your faith?” Ozanam was much affected by that challenge.
An event happened just at this time that emphasized the urgency of the question of which Lamache gives the following account: “One of the Conferences of History, in these same early months of 1833, was more stormy than usual. Ozanam had to face unjust and bitter attacks. He left the meeting very sad. It was the outrage offered to God and to the Church that saddened him. “How sad it is,” said he to us, “to see our holy mother the Church attacked so violently, and Catholicity travestied and maligned!”
He did not advise the abandonment of the defence of religion. “Let us,” said he, “continue to stand in the breach and face the attack. But do you not feel, as I do, the need of some other little society, outside of this militant Conference, which would be composed of religious friends, who would work as well as talk, and who would thus, by showing the vitality of their faith, affirm its truth.”
“Looking back over half a century,” continues Lamache, “that little scene is still fresh in my memory. I still see Ozanam’s eyes filled with sadness, but also with ardour and with fire. I still hear that voice which betrayed the deep emotion of his soul. When the little group broke up, each member carried away in his heart the fiery arrow which Our Lord Jesus had sent forth in the speech of our young comrade.” So far Ozanam had only outlined Christian action in a general way; but what particular kind of action? On a subsequent day, when they had come together in somewhat larger numbers in the more commodious rooms of M. Serre in the Petite rue des Gres, the matter was advanced a step further. Ozanam insisted that the Conference of History should carry on, but admitted at the same time that it was a source of mortification. He opened his heart to them as follows: “Af ter a year’s working and struggling,” he asked, “has any good come of this Conference, to which I have sacrificed my legal studies and by which I have earned for myself the just reproaches of my family. In return for such trials and sacrifices have we made one single conquest for Jesus Christ?”
Then with humility, but with determination, he added: “If our efforts have not succeeded, is it not because something is lacking to the supernatural efficacy of our speech?” He thought so, adding: “Yes, one thing is wanting that our apostolate may be blessed by God—works of charity. The blessing of the poor is the blessing of God.”
The Abbé Ozanam, the clearest of Frederic’s biographers, adds the following note to Lamache’s account of the first beginnings of the Conference of Charity: “On leaving there, Frederic found himself with Le Taillandier, who was not less deeply affected. “Well, to be practical, what are we going to do to translate our faith into deeds?” they asked one another. The answer came from the same Christian heart: “We must do what is most agreeable to God. Therefore, we must do what Our Lord Jesus Christ did when preaching the Gospel. Let us go to the poor.”
They both acted, and acted at once. That very evening Ozanam and Le Taillandier carried to a poor family of their acquaintance the remaining supply of wood which they had for the last months of winter.
Four years later, Ozanam, in a letter to Le Taillandier, dated the 21st August, 1837, recalling those times, added this detail: “Will you not found a Conference at Le Mans? Will you not give us brothers, you, who were one of our fathers: you who were, well I remember, the first author of our Society!” It is also true that in another letter Ozanam gives the same title of first founder to M. Bailly, its first president. In the modest opinion of this young man, every one but himself would have been the founder.
Electrified by his suggestion, those present entrusted him with the task of forthwith communicating their charitable plan to M. Bailly, and requesting him to become its president. They could not have applied to anyone better inclined or better qualified.
- I have great pleasure in referring the reader on this whole matter to the four articles of M. Georges Goyau in the Revue pratique d’Apologétique, Vol. xiv, which are entitled Intellectual Apostolate of young Ozanam. In those articles the popular Catholic writer has made the whole scene live again, the mind, the action, the faith and the great heart of the man, to whom he is related on all sides.