In April 2013, Year of Faith, the 200th anniversary was observed of the birth in France of Blessed Frederic Ozanam. Aspects of his short life of 40 years were recalled but possibly overlooked – the fact that he was a poet and an able critic of poetry. He was the author of a work in Italian on Franciscan poets relating of the 13th and 14th century. His own love and devotion to St Francis of Assisi throughout his life may have inspired him to do so. He was particularly attached to Francis love of the poor and needy. He was keen to celebrate the liberating qualities of Francis. But he also attacked many of the evils of his day such as Albigensianism, a heresy, somewhat present today in various guises attacking the authority of the Church, Tradition, Transubstantiation, Sin, Purgatory, Praying for the Dead and so on. In Ozanam’s time women priests and same sex marriages were not in vogue!
He spoke of Franciscan mysticism as seeing ‘with spiritual eyes’ as trying to see God with one’s own eyes in the course of each day. He was echoing St Paul’s words: ‘I live now not I but Christ lives in me. ’ Spiritual Poverty as advocated and lived by St Francis of Assisi was stressed by Ozanam. His family ancestors were converted from Judaism to Catholicism in the 7th century by St Didier (Desiderius). They saw religious and priests martyred in the French Revolution. Frederic grew up in Lyon, a city of martyrs dating back to the second century. Such was mentioned by Pope Francis in his first Encyclical Lumen Fidei – The Light of Faith: ‘Faith is passed on, we might say, by contact, from one person to another, just as one candle is lighted from another. Christians, in their poverty, plant a seed so rich that it becomes capable of filling the world with its fruit.’
In his life in Paris Frederic attended Mass in a church that was next to the site of the massacre of 114 priests. He witnessed others whose blood was shed for the faith most notably was Archbishop Dionysius Augustus Affre of Paris who lost his life on June 27 1848.
St Vincent de Paul Society
Ozanam and eight students of the Sorbonne founded the St Vincent de Paul Society in 1833. He selected the name modelling the rule upon the same principles that were in use in the 17th century in Paris. The society now operates in 148 countries and has around 750,000 members giving assistance to those in need and hope to all.
Ozanam, a brilliant young man, lawyer, judge, author and professor in the Sorbonne was particularly keen to celebrate the liberating qualities of St Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures which he placed with the poetry by Jacopone da Todi and other Franciscan writings as examples of a medieval view of the loving mercy of God. The total number of Jacopone’s poems does not exceed two hundred and eleven arranged in seven volumes classified under three principle headings: theological poems, satires and small compositions to popularise a sacred thought or to celebrate a festival.
Ozanam the Poet
In keeping with his own humble state Ozanam does not project himself as a poet. He was particularly anxious to celebrate the liberating qualities of St Francis of Assisi later seen as counteracting and in effect Christianising the French Revolution ideas of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity but without God.
Christianity promoted there was a revival of Francis of Assisi and now in 2013 the first Pope to bear his name. There seems to be another awaking in St Francis of Assisi and his work for the poor and needy. Ozanam says: “The problem which divides people today is not a political problem; it is a social one”. He adds: “In spite of the fact that the penitent of Todi wished to bury in obscurity his studies ad his knowledge, we know enough of him already to rank him with the great theologian. We have not forgotten the poem in which…he bids farewell to [theologians] doctors and books in order to find a shorter path to truth.
Ozanam’s book, The Franciscan Poets, suggests possible parallels between the songs or laude composed by Jacopone and the simple, direct communal commitment found in the Fioretti or Little Flowers of St Francis, a classic collection of popular legends on his life.