Chapter X: The Lyons Conference
A visit to Lamartine — First Lyons Coneference — Opposition to the Conference — Ozanam’s report — Growth — Centre for soldiers — ‘To be saints in order to make more saints’ — Letters to Lallier, secretary-general of the Society
Ozanam’s return to Lyons after five years spent in the schools of Paris, filled his parents’ cup of happiness to the brim. He, on his side, gave himself up without reserve to their demonstrations of joy and gladness. The parents’ joy mainly consisted in finding Ozanam unchanged. One mother wrote of him: “Ozanam fulfilled in himself the desire which he had expressed for so many other young men; to return unchanged to the home, loving faith and purity as before, with a heart fixed in the affections of the family, loyal to duty as a Catholic, and determined never to quit the narrow path.” She goes on: “Those who have felt that joy alone know its ineffable sweetness, and say that, of all the favours vouchsafed by Heaven, there is scarce any more permanent or more precious than it.”1 Monsieur and Madame Ozanam had already provided for the accommodation of the coming Barrister at the Royal Courts of Lyons. But they were yet four months from the opening of the sittings. Those holidays were, with the exception of an excursion which we shall describe, devoted by him to the foundation of the first Conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Lyons, which will be the subject matter of this chapter.
The interest of that excursion lies in the meeting which Ozanam, his brother, and a friend, M. de Maubout, had with M. de Lamartine. They were returning from a visit to the ruins of Cluny Abbey, when they were met and stopped by the great man, who invited all three to dine with him at his place at Monceaux. The Abbé reports that the dinner party was large and distinguished. The Deputy for Saoneet-Loire affected to decry philosophy and literature in favour of politics as the dominant influence of the times and of men. Ozanam joined in the conversation quietly and respectfully. He so attracted the attention of the distinguished company by the elevation of his thought and the refinement of his language, that his name had to be communicated to them.
Ozanam barely mentions that meeting to Lallier: “I had two charming trips with my elder brother: one to St. Etienne, where I saw miracles of industry, the other in the Macon and Beaujolais country, where I enjoyed the hospitality of M. de Maubout, the society of M. de Lamartine, beautiful autumn weather, and a population that is remarkable for their astonishing fidelity to the faith and to Catholic practices.” The student had already mentioned in a letter to his mother during the year the desire of that great man of letters to be above all else a great man of State: “I paid a visit,” he wrote, “to M. de Lamartine’s house. He was surrounded by politicians and scarcely spoke to me.” They no longer spoke the same tongue.
The quasi-defection of the poet from religion had been the occasion of a melancholy communication. Ozanam unburdened his grief to his friend Dufieux in the following terms: “But lately we listened in the Meditations and the Harmonies to the melodious murmurings of Christian poetry. However filled with self-complaisance, it presumed to be able to communicate directly with God, needing neither interpreter nor temple. It has stopped, to our dismay, half way on the road to truth.”
The shallow soul seemed at that time to rest on deism and rationalism. The Church should speak out: “Two recent literary events,” Ozanam writes during the same vacation, “have filled me with vexation. I mean the placing on the Index of Lamartine’s Jocelyn and the publication of Lamennais’ Paroles d’un Croyant.”
That is his cause for sorrow; but it is a sorrow not without strength. That strength I admire in its outspoken adhesion to the spirited action of the Holy See, as well as in the following splendid profession of Roman Catholic faith: “Rome,” he wrote to Lallier, “has shown its courage in striking down the first and greatest; it is scarcely likely to fear the second. She does not fear the opposition of genius, for she has on her side what is more than genius, the Holy Ghost, a constant source of inspiration. But it is irritating to see genius solemnly deserting and passing into the camp of the enemy. A useless desertion, because in abjuring faith, it abjures the source of its glory and strength, a two-fold cause of grief for those who loved.”
Ozanam remained one of “those who loved “: “We have often heard our brother say,” witnesses the Abbé Ozanam, “that time and trials would bring back the poet of the Crucifix to his mother’s faith and piety.”
Lamartine showed for his part that few others would have been so well qualified to make straight the path of his return as the young savant of whom he wrote later in his Cours familier de Litterature: ” That young man, whom I have not ceased to like, resembled in appearance, in mind, in the serenity of his gaze, in the regular and affectionate chant of his voice, a Christian Brahmin—the similarity is curious—preaching the Gospel of Science and Peace to our distracted world. He believed, as I did, that truth was more powerful over the heart than over the mind. His dogma shimmers with grace, as the sunrise and sunset of the East are bathed in dew. An atmosphere of tenderness towards others enveloped him . . . His orthodoxy, perfect for himself, was perfect charity for others. It softened all asperities. Although my philosophy was no longer the same as his, the difference did not separate our minds nor later our personal relations. It was possible to differ, it was not possible to quarrel, with this man who entertained no bitterness: his toleration was not condcscenion, it was respect.”
In such eclipses and such failures Ozanam beheld the danger of the Church betrayed, the faithful scandalised, the young men unsettled, and he was heard to say, “Who will fill, my dear friend, the place which those two men have left vacant? Who among us will come and sit in the empty chair of our Tertullian? Who will be bold enough to take up the lyre from the dust and complete the hymn? I know that God and the Church do not need poets or doctors; those who do need them are the weak in belief, whom these defections scandalise; they are those who do not believe, and who despise our poverty of intellect. It is we ourselves who need occasionally to see at our head greater and better men, to lead the way, and to encourage and strengthen us. We young Christians cannot hope to take the place of such men. But can we not make up in quantity what we lack in quality, and by our very numbers fill the gap which they have left in our ranks?”
As a set off the same letter, under the same date, the 5th November, 1836, mentions an event which brought consolation: “I have worked somewhat during the holidays on the organisation of our little St. Vincent De Paul Conference.” This casual but valuable reference, enables us to fix the date of the beginning of the Lyons Conference.
About one month later, on the 4th December, Ozanam reported as follows to the Council of Paris: “Several young men, who had been members of the Society in Paris, finding themselves home in Lyons after their course of studies, remembered those friends who had helped to make their exile in the metropolis easier. They called to mind the happiness which they had experienced in seeking to do some little good together, and to avoid a great deal of evil. Everything impelled them to re-knit bonds which had just been severed. As the result of a quite natural meeting they founded here a Conference of Charity on your model.”
The first meeting had been held on the 16th August. It was small. Soon the accession of others, who also had been members in Paris, raised the number to 13. Six young men in the city asked permission to join, three more were introduced. There were then 22 members “companions in alms and prayers,” all imbued with the primitive spirit of the Society; a spirit of faith and piety, of corporal and spiritual charity towards the poor, of recruitment of young Lyons students in Paris: “They will return trained by you, bringing back with them the sacred fire, which you will have kindled.”
Twenty families were adopted and visited in their homes: “The visited, as well as the visitors, edify one another, living in the unity and under the shelter of the mantle of St. Vincent de Paul.”
This letter was read at the General Meeting in Paris on the 8th December. “On the same day that you are celebrating the festival, we shall be gathered at the altars of the same God, at the feet of the same Immaculate Mother of God, we, the children of the city that was the first to honour her Immaculate Conception with public worship.” In concluding the letter, Ozanam pays a tribute to M. Bailly as President-General “the father who had been the guardian angel of their youth in the Metropolis, and whose wisdom and prudence he and his friends now miss.”
Ozanam’s feelings of gratitude for that great and good man are more clearly exhibited in one of his early letters, in which he recommended to his kind services a young Lyons student who was going to Paris to study: “To whom,” he asks, “could I better recommend him than to you, who, with good M. Ampère, exercised such a moral influence over me, you, whom many mothers are blessing, because you safeguarded their son’s religion? If you think well of it, you could gradually induce him to join the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.”
He adds: “From this on, many of these young Lyons men will come to you, these children of the city of the martyrs. We have already a number here who are experiencing the benefit of your advice and example; we are doing our best to procure the same advantages for the generation whose elders we are. That will be one of the principal aims of the Conference in our city, in union with the Society in Paris. Our branch is newly-born, but it is alive. It is weak, but it can become strong by preserving the bonds of unity with the parent Society. It needs that, were it only to overcome the difficulties here from good people who are timid.”
“Help us then to grow, to multiply, to become better, gentler, stronger, for as days increase in number, evil is added to evil and distress to distress. The political question is giving way to the social question, a struggle between poverty and wealth, between the sefishness which seeks to take, and that which seeks to keep. Terrible, indeed, will be the clash of those two egoisms, if charity does not intervene, if she does not mediate with all-powerful love between the poor who have the strength of numbers, and the rich who have the strength of gold. With such merciful ends in view it is not surprising that Providence inspired you to found our Society, nor that it has developed under your auspices.”
Ozanam was able to acquaint the General Quarterly Meeting on the Feast of St. Vincent de Paul, in the month of July, that the young Conference had increased the number of its members to 4o, who were visiting 70 families, etc. Their numbers had been doubled in eight months. The President added: “Nobody will be missing from this spiritual feast. We shall be all there together, under the eyes of St. Vincent De Paul our father, of the Blessed Virgin our Mother, and ––of Jesus Christ our God.”
The Conference, though altogether lay, had powerful support among the clergy. Several Cures were attached to it, the Cure of St. Pierre in particular; and above all the Vicar-General, who was guardian of the Catholic Associations in the diocese. To crown all, words of approbation and benediction had fallen from the venerable lips of Archbishop Pins, diocesan administrator, taking the place of Cardinal Fesch.
Yet Ozanam wrote, “There need not be any illusion; the Society has been distrusted on all sides. We have just read of the difficulties here from good people who are timid.”
The Bulletin for the year 1837 indicates the causes. The Society did not originate in Lyons, and moreover it originated in Paris; its novelty “in a city not less attached to traditional institutions and practices than to its faith and morals”; finally, the routine piety of many, who were naturally suspicious and blindly zealous.
Ozanam in his account of his difficulties to his confreres in Paris, describes the traditional simplicity of the meetings, the blind prejudices opposed to them, and the Christian methods with which those straightforward and peaceful young men met them: “We meet every Tuesday evening at eight. There is, just as in Paris, a plain table, a green cover, two candles, tickets for provisions, old clothes, etc. Neither the room nor the purse is well filled. We have met some difficulties which we had foreseen. Good people, even serious people, have grown fearful. They exclaim that a cabal of young men, who succeeded in imposing Pere Lacordaire on the Archbishop of Paris, wish to make themselves masters of Lyons; that they had begged all the Sisters of Charity in the city to furnish them with lists of poor families; that they were at least thirty in number; that some of their number were not even Christians; that they would discredit all other Associations of Charity by the irregular way in which they would conduct theirs, etc.”
“Following our rule we have humbled ourselves; we have made clear our innocent intentions, our respect for all other Associations of Charity. After a while they contented themselves with saying that we would not succeed . . . I hope that, notwithstanding their dismal prophecies, we shall succeed, not through secrecy but through humility, not by numbers but by love, not under patronage but under the grace of God.”
Ozanam, in a personal letter to Lanier, with whom he was more at his ease, lets himself go in his own picturesque style on the subject of “these lay writers of orthodoxy, patres conscripts in frock-coats and spats; infallible doctors, who pronounce ex cathedra when the case is finished; provincial puritans, for whom everything that comes from Paris is anathema; doctrinaires, whose political opinion is for them the thirteenth article of the Creed, forestallers of every Association which they must monopolise, etc. You cannot imagine the pettiness, the gibes, the insults, the finnicking and the finessing, which these good people have used against us, with the best intentions in the world. Chaurand and I, as the principal founders and directors of the Society here, have been constantly on the defensive; a struggle which has wearied us greatly. The greatest resultant harm is a little bitterness of spirit which always remains behind; charity necessarily suffers from such wrangles. Yet we cannot avoid them in the interests of the Society and of truth.”
Such regrets were not however signs of discouragement, as the rest of the report shows: “The Conference had in 1837 increased the number of its members to 50, of whom 35 attended regularly.” The December report stated “The severity of the season procured a welcome for us everywhere, and plenty of aid from the Christian population here; faith among the poor; treasures of joy and of resignation for ourselves. In the business of Charity the expenditure is small and the profit great.”
Owing to the growth of membership and the distance between different parts of the city, the Conference decided to sub-divide: one for the north side, another for the south: one in the Parish of St. Pierre, the other in the Parish of St. Francis. Seventy-five fami ies were visited: “One rescued from proselytising influences, an infant baptised, several men led back to the Sacraments, showed our Brothers that divine grace had not been wanting to our feeble efforts.”
The principal special work, and one very appropriate to the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul, was a Club or meeting place for the soldiers of the many garrisons in the city. “A good priest of the diocesan missionary house, situate in the centre of a number of barracks, taking pity on so many poor neglected men, asked our co-operation in their salvation. A house was selected. A library of 50o volumes was installed. In five months 268 soldiers came to a healthy source for instruction. Books were lent and circulated, and more than one thousand readers enjoyed the benefits of this institution.”
“A school was added to the library. Twice a week lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic were given by the Brothers. Thus, by multiplying the points of personal contact, confidence was reposed on one side and good advice imparted on the other. A little meeting, which we hope will increase, takes place on Sundays, to listen to an instruction from a priest, and to say night prayer in common.” Ozanam mentions the fruit! “We have learned much in our frequent interviews with soldiers. We should never have believed that so many noble hearts beat beneath the uniform, or that so many preserved a tender attachment to their mothers’ faith and their sisters’ example.”
M. Bailly said, in answer to Ozanam: “I handed your letter on the Special Work for Soldiers to the Archbishop. He was much affected by it. It is indeed a beautiful mission. Try and write again before the loth December next, when we come together again. Ozanam wrote before that: “We should be very glad to see established, first in Paris, later elsewhere, something on the same lines as we have here, in order that our good soldiers when they leave here will find the same friendly care in other garrison towns.” . . . He indicated a zealous priest, vicar of St. Valere, close by the Invalides, as one very suitable for the work.
Let us state here that the following year’s report showed progress in each of the two Conferences as well as in their special works. They had succeeded in procuring medical aid for the sick from young doctors in the Society, and free distribution of medicine from two chemists of the districts: “We hope that in thus ensuring material help, it will be possible to ensure at the same time spiritual improvement. It is extraordinary what wonderful metamorphoses a pious doctor can bring about at the death-bedside.”
The same report mentioned conversions due to the Sunday evenings’ instruction to the soldiers. The seed which had been sown would germinate sooner or later. That depends in a great measure on ourselves. “Ah!” exclaimed Ozanam “who could measure results if our piety were more lively and we were less anworthy of our vocation?—Ordinary Catholics are plentiful enough, everywhere; we.,1 need saints. How make saints without being ourselves holy? How I preach to unhappy people about virtues, in which they are richer than ) we? We must indeed admit with St. Vincent de Paul that, in that, they are our superiors. “The poor of Jesus Christ are our lords and our masters, said the saint, and we are unworthy to render them our poor services!”
The solicitude of the absent founder was unceasingly directed on Paris, the headquarters and centre of the Society. Ozanam wrote to Lallier, Secretary-General, the right-hand man of the venerable President, reminding him of his responsibility. His chief obligation was to keep the Conferences in touch with one another, and with Paris, their common centre of light and heat. “It is a poor thing to increase, if unity be not maintained; the centre must be kept in touch with the circumference by regular chords! Our little Society of St. Vincent de Paul has become sufficiently large to be regarded as providential, and it is not for nothing that you hold an important position in it. Make no mistake about it, Secretary-General, you are, after M. Bailly, the main-spring of the Society. On you depends the unity of Conferences, and on that unity, the vigour and life of the Society.”
Ozanam mentioned specifically the means by which that was to be accomplished. The first in importance was the President-General’s Address to Conferences, attached to the annual report. The report sets forth the activities, the President-General’s Address recalls the spirit, the rule, the aims and object of the Society. It was indeed with the year 1837 that Lallier inaugurated the series of Addresses of the Council-General which have contributed so much to widen and deepen the river of Christian charity, flowing to the very ends of the world: “We now begin with you,” said the first, a correspondence which, to us, will be indeed most delightful. You know that one thing especially supports and strengthens us in this world—it is the thought of having near us friends on whom we can rely for advice and example. The individual who has friends lives a dual life, and so do charitable societies when other branches arise.”
In addition to this chief duty, the Secretary-General was to be regularly present at special meetings; to meet Presidents from time to time; to keep in hand the meetings of the Council-General; to stimulate occasionally the excessive calm of the President-General; not to neglect correspondence with county Conferences; to insist on punctuality in the furnishing of reports. Then, in conclusion: “Now, my dear friend, I should dearly wish to have a few hours’ chat with you, to tell you hundreds of things which may be spoken but may not be written.”
He scolds him at times: “Let us not limit too narrowly the number of Brothers, or the length of the meetings? Why may not the active membership of the Conferences of St. Etienne du Mont and St. Sulpice exceed 5o? Look to it. It is your privilege and duty, by virtue , –of your seniority and responsibility, to make new appeals from time to time to the zeal of members, not departing from the primitive spirit, but grafting progress on tradition.”
He congratulated and thanked him frequently: “The notification of three new joint meetings which you have held of Conferences in Paris, has given us great pleasure. Let us not reject what makes for unity, nor place difficulties in the way of bringing members together! Continue to direct the Addresses of the Presidents to those points most likely to interest members. . . If you only knew the authority of an announcement which comes to us from Paris!”
He was searching for the means to link up to one another and to the centre of the Society, those youthful associates whom a completed course of study would isolate in their native town: “Where a Conference does not exist, would it not be possible to unite young men in prayer, in charity, in the private exercise of good works which they could report by correspondence and which would appear in the annual report? There would in this way be an interchange of views, of sentiments, and of edification from all parts of France, wherever the children of St. Vincent de Paul would be scattered. The Conference in Paris would not then be merely a resting-place for two or three years, leading nowhere, and you would not have to lament more than two hundred associates who are now lost to us. You would then be the summit of a pyramid, the base of which would rest on the four corners of the country, and the French youth of the igth century would have erected a pleasing monument to God on the soil desecrated by the youth of the last century.”
Ozanam was well aware how weak the instruments were: “We are as yet but apprentices in this divine craft,” he writes elsewhere. “Let ‘ us hope that one day we shall become skilled and useful workmen. Then in our several spheres we shall engage in friendly rivalry as to who will do the most good and best instil virtue. When you will I acquaint us with your success we shall inform you of ours. Then from I every part of France a harmonious chorus of faith and love will ascend) in praise of God.”
Those letters of Ozanam have postscripts for his former poor families in Paris, particularly for the children: “If you see M. de Kerguelen ask him to remember me kindly to the little apprentices, Marius and Blondeau.”
The most important matter which he discussed with the Secretary-General was fidelity to the primitive spirit of the Society, which is the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul. Humility is the first virtue. He feared pride more than opposition; he wished for obscurity rather than prosperity for the Society: “I agree with your intention,” he wrote “of emphasizing in your next President’s Address the necessity for remaining obscure. It would be well to lay down this principle: that humility is as obligatory on associations as on individuals; and to support it by the example of St. Vincent de Paul, who reprimanded a priest of the Congregation of the Mission for calling his Association ‘Our Holy Congregation.’ Our guiding rule should be neither to force ourselves on the public gaze, nor to conceal ourselves from those who may wish to find us.”
Ozanam disapproves “of pride in the Society which under the cover of a feeling of esprit de corps, produces bombastic reports of the great deeds of Conferences and Brothers. He disapproves of addresses and preachers who wish to do us a service by crowning us with laurels. He congratulates the Society on having been able to disarm envy by discounting itself: “It was prophesied for us that publicity meant death; it is to our obscurity that we owe our life, our development, and whatever good work we have done; thanks to it we have been able to falsify the prophets of evil.”
It was indeed the gifts of wisdom and understanding that God had given to the young Solomon, whom He had made the chief of His young tribes and whom He had chosen as the rock of His temple of Charity. The same letters state: “The leaders of such associations should be holy, in order to draw down God’s graces. That is why I, who am so wicked and so weak, often ask myself how I can venture to represent such a large number of good young men!” “My dear friend, who will deliver me from myself unless He whom we ask to deliver us from evil? Let us ask together and we shall receive! For myself I never receive Holy Communion without praying in a special manner for you. Good-bye We shall meet, I presume, next Sunday, at the rendez-vous of the Holy Eucharist.”
Meantime Lallier, having also obtained the Degree of Doctor of Laws towards the close of 1838, and having practised for a while, left Paris to live in Sens. First a post as auxiliary Judge, and subsequently his marriage with a young lady of the city, made him settle down there for life.
Ozanam, too, was practising at the Bar for a year, and it is at the Court in Lyons that we next find him.