A large lecture hall of the College of Lyons was filled with chattering young people. Silent in their midst was a fifteen-year-old, Frederic Ozanam, who could overhear the conversations of those near him. –
“Why belong to the Catholic Church any longer?” the young man next to him was asking. “I can’t understand half of the dogmas that are taught and so I do not accept them.”
“I was baptized when I was born,” sneered another, “but I haven’t darkened the door of a church since! My parents don’t even believe in God any more. If God doesn’t exist, why should I waste time worshipping Him?”
Frederic was shocked. He had heard the same ideas expressed so many times since he had entered the college, but each time the blasphemies and statements of unbelief caused new and greater pain in his soul. Here, sitting side by side with him, were young men who closed their minds to the truths revealed by God. Because their small minds could not understand the most necessary doctrines God had revealed, they refused to accept them, thus placing themselves as beings superior to God!
Father Noirot, the teacher of philosophy, walked into the room, took his place on the platform in front of the class and began his lecture.
Although he took notes on everything the priest said, Frederic’s mind was elsewhere. Again and again the thought came back to him, “What if these fellow students of mine are right, after all? What if there is no meaning to life here on earth?”
With each new doubt that came into his mind, the young man became more confused and more miserable. He tried to banish the temptations to doubt his faith, but each time he did so, the thoughts came crowding back into his head again.
When the lecture was finished and the students were filing from the room, Frederic went up the professor’s platform where Father Noirot stood chatting with some of the students. He stood quietly until the others had finished their conversation with the priest and then went forward to greet him.
“Ozanam!” the teacher said, recognizing him and extending his hand to him. “Is something on your mind this morning?”
The young man did not know how to begin. “I am having trouble with doubts about my faith,” he said after a long pause.
“Doubts?” the priest said raising his eyebrows. “Well, it is possible for all of us to have them, you know.”
Frederic was a bit consoled. “May I speak to you alone sometime, Father? It would take quite a while to explain.”
“For my best and favorite student in a class of one hundred thirty, I can always take the time to help you. Why don’t you meet me after classes this afternoon. We can go for a long walk to the south of the city and while we walk, we can discuss your . . . doubts.”
Frederic smilingly agreed. He turned and hurried off to the library to look for all the books that could help him prove to himself that the Catholic Church teaches truth and is the only true Church.
For hours that afternoon, Father Noirot and his student walked over the rocky wasteland south of Lyons. The young man poured out his problems of doubt to the good priest, and one after another of them was explained clearly and logically by the teacher.
For twenty years Father Noirot had been teaching young men, yet never had he found in one so young such deep faith and sincere desire to increase it. The boy beside whom he walked had grave doubts concerning eternity. How could the souls of men live forever after the death of their bodies?
Slowly and patiently the priest explained the natural and supernatural reasons for the truth the Church taught. For the time being, Frederic was satisfied. By the time they had returned to the town and the sun was rapidly slipping toward the horizon in the west, they had covered much ground in their discussions.
“May I come with you on your walks in the future, Father?” Frederic asked as he turned down the street that led to his home.
“Of course,” replied the priest. “It was a real pleasure talking with you today. You are welcome to come with me any time you like.”
Frederic thanked him, bade him goodnight and hurried home. For the moment, his doubts seemed to be resolved. But they were not permanently mastered. Late that night as he tossed restlessly in his sleep, he seemed to see them come crowding back upon him. He sat bolt upright in bed, covered with cold sweat.
In the weeks and months that followed, Frederic Ozanam went through one of the most painful experiences of his entire life. Although he prayed for grace and for an increase of faith, he seemed to plunge all the more deeply into doubt and sadness. For a time the books he read helped him. The advice and clear explanations of his teacher also aided him, but still the temptation to give up his faith would not leave him.
One day when the sorrows that swept over him had made him almost physically sick, he hurried into a church. There he threw himself on his knees before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and cried out, “0 God! In your mercy give me light and peace! Resolve these doubts that have troubled me for so long!”
For a moment he waited, hot tears streaming down his thin cheeks. Then he went on, “Dear Lord, if You will make the light of truth shine in my soul and remove all doubts from my mind, I promise to spend the rest of my life defending the truths the Catholic Church teaches!”
God seemed to be waiting for that promise. No sooner had it been made than the doubts which had plagued the young man for months suddenly vanished. His soul was at peace once more; his faith was restored and increased. For a long time, he poured out his thanks in prayer.
Finally, he rose to his feet, genuflected before the Blessed Sacrament and hurried away to tell Father Noirot the good news.
The temptation had passed, and Frederic had overcome it by the grace of God. The suffering it had caused him, however, was to be of great value to him later. When defending the truths of faith against unbelievers, Frederic was always kind and gentle in his dealings with them regardless of how badly they treated him.
“I am sometimes said to be too gentle toward unbelievers,” he once said. “When one has passed through the crucible of doubt, as I have, it would be cruel and ungrateful for me to be harsh to those to whom God has not yet given the precious gift of faith!”
At the age of sixteen, Frederic was graduated from the College of Lyons first in his class even though he was the youngest in it. Soon afterward, he was called into his father’s study one evening for an important interview.
“I think the time has come for us to talk about the future and what your plans are for it,” Doctor Ozanam began. “Now that you have finished your education, what do you want to do?”
For a moment Frederic was silent. “I would like to write and teach for a living,” he said after a little thought.
His father frowned. “Oh, Fred, let’s be sensible! How in the world could you support a wife and family by writing? Literature and the fine arts are wonderful things, but they are hardly means for making a good living for yourself.”
“I’m not young any more, son,” he went on seriously. “True, I can still practice medicine for a number of years, but when I am no longer able to do so, then, your mother and I will have to depend on you for our livelihood.”
“What do you think I should do in life, then, Dad?”
The doctor smiled. “I would like you to become a lawyer . . . a judge. It is an honorable profession. It provides good income and security. With your fine mind and fluent tongue, you are well-fitted for such a position in life.”
“But becoming a lawyer would mean years of study before I could obtain a law degree.” “Good things in life are bought at the price of hard work and long year–s of training,” said his father dryly. “Do you wish to follow my advice or do you still wish to become a writer and teacher?”
“I shall obey your wishes,” Frederic said calmly. He seemed suddenly unhappy, for in his heart he had long cherished the dream of becoming an important writer in France, and by his pen he hoped to bring the truth of the Gospel to the young who no longer knew or loved God.
“I shall make arrangements with Mr. Coulet, a lawyer here in town, to take you into his firm as a clerk. By working with him, you will learn a great deal about the law profession and then, when you are ready, I shall send you to Paris to study for your degree.”
“It is settled then?” Frederic asked.
His father nodded. “Forget about writing until you have finished your education. Become a good lawyer first. When you are well on your way to a successful life as a lawyer, then in your spare time you can write to your heart’s content. It will be a good hobby for you, but it certainly won’t bring you much money.”
Frederic left his father’s study with a heavy heart. He knew that his father was wise in wishing him to become a lawyer, a profession that would provide excellent income in the years ahead. Because he believed he would one day have to provide for his parents and for a family of his own, he decided to give his attention to a practical profession. He knew it would be a dull one for him, since he had little liking for law. To study it seemed a necessary evil, but he decided to do his best at it.
The doors of Mr. Coulet’s law office soon opened to young Ozanam and there day after day he worked for many hours over deeds and briefs and legal papers until his eyes were sore and his fingers stiff from Copying.
Frederic was not the only clerk working for Mr. Coulet. A number of other men worked in the same office with him, and during the course of the day, they passed around immoral books which they read instead of doing their work. They seemed to enjoy telling each other of their wild parties in the dead of night and of their sinful exploits. Crude jokes were exchanged and then impure stories.
Although all of the clerks were years older than Frederic, he soon put a stop to their bad behavior. One day, while flushed with anger, he told them in courteous but firm words that he had heard enough of the jokes and stories. It made him angry to have to hear such things from Christians. The reading of bad books at the time they were supposed to be working was not only evil but also unjust. They were being paid to work and to learn their profession instead of spending their time doing things that had nothing to do with law!
Strangely enough, the men were so surprised at hearing the young man correct them, that they could not answer him. One of them cleared his throat, tossed the vile book he had been reading into a waste basket near his desk and busied himself at once. Another apologized. The rest were silent and sullen, but from that time on they never dared to offend the young man who worked with them. No more books were brought in on which to waste their time and corrupt their minds.
The talented Frederic found that all of his time did not have to be taken up with the study of law. After his working hours, he made his way to the home of a German teacher and there learned to speak, read and write the German language. At the time, he did it for his own enjoyment and to increase his knowledge of languages and literature. Later, however, this knowledge was to be of great importance in winning for him a professorship of languages at a famous university.
Inspired by his mother’s ability to draw well, he decided to take some art lessons on several evenings a week. Here, while busy working on drawings of people and objects, Frederic came to know and love the art of the Middle Ages.
The young men in the class were much like the clerks in Mr. Coulet’s office. Almost all of them had lost their faith and were living scandalous lives which they made no attempt to keep a secret. At art lessons, they bragged of their sins and shocked and offended only the few who were not like them.
Shortly after starting art work, Ozanam found himself one evening next to a quiet young student who was as offended by the conversation around him as Frederic was.
“Does this nonsense bother you as much as it does me?” Frederic asked as he became more and more angry.
The young man nodded. He seemed timid and shy and lost.
“What is your name?” Frederic asked. “Leonce Curnier,” was the answer.
The young men shook hands. “Shall we put a stop to this noise once and for all?” Frederick asked.
“Go ahead,” said Leonce shyly.
Ozanam got to his feet and demanded silence. The young men laughed in his face. Blood rushed into his cheeks as the anger flared within him. He shouted over the noise and laughter, and the art students finally became silent and attentive.
Kindly but firmly, Frederic called attention to the conversations that had been going on in the room for some time. He begged for the sake of Christian modesty that such things be left unspoken. The evil influence of such ideas on the souls of young people in the room was dreadful.
There was no laughter when he sat down, and there were no more remarks or stories that offended him or his new friend, Curvier. Their friendship was to last for life, and after Ozanam’s early death, it was to be Curnier who would write one of the first books about him.
After the art lesson that night, Ozanam went with Curnier to his apartment. “So you are alone here in Lyons?” he asked as they walked along. “No wonder you are lonely! We have a number of things in common—we are students, we are young, we are Catholics. Why don’t we go for a walk together outside the city on our next holiday? I could show you some interesting things that history books mention.”
Curnier was delighted, and when Frederic left him at his dwelling and prepared to go home, the two men agreed to their picnic at the earliest opportunity.
It soon came and the men set off for the island of Barbe not far from Lyons. Having climbed a steep hill, Ozanam pointed out the ruins of an old abbey on its summit.
“See the valley down there,” he said pointing excitedly. “In that valley centuries ago, the armies of Charlemagne marched and the Emperor stood where you and I stand now and looked down on the men who had conquered and given him the Holy Roman Empire.” Frederic’s extended arm moved in another direction. “Do you see that chapel there?” he asked.
“It is called Our Lady of Fourviere. Many miracles have been worked there through her intercession, and St. Thomas a Becket living in exile, Pope Pius VII on his way home from Napoleon’s coronation, and many kings and queens, prayed there.”
“You certainly know a lot about history, Fred,” his friend said.
Frederic laughed. “I have much more to learn about it, but I find it very interesting. I hope the day will come when I shall be able to write a book that will show all the history of the world, and the search of all men for the true Faith.”
Leonce gave a low whistle of astonishment. “Wow!” he gasped. “You certainly have not set any limits for yourself, have you?”
“I suppose I am foolish even to dream of doing such a thing,” replied Frederic, “but I have promised God that I will spend my life promoting the cause of truth. What better way to do so than by showing that all pagan religions find their end in God and the Catholic Church?”
After their lunch, the men continued the discussion of their future plans. They made their way down the green hillside and back toward the city along the Saone River. Nothing missed the eyes of the gentle Ozanam. The sight of the flowing water of the river, the bright flowers bending in the wind, the flight and call of birds, thrilled him, and before long he was murmuring poetry to express his wonder at the marvels God had given to men, His beloved sons.
Leonce was deeply impressed by the faith and virtue of his friend. Later, he confessed that had he not met and become a friend of Ozanam during his lonely and difficult days in Lyons, he would have lost his faith. How many other young men did Frederic save from a similar fate?
Only God, Who knows all things, can say. But in the writings of Currier we find an interesting sentence. “It was the destiny of Frederic Ozanam to preserve or to win back from the devil of unbelief many young men of his time. I am perhaps the first one who was thus saved from ruin.”
Frederic’s charity reached out to all—to correct those who were in error, to strengthen those who were weak, and to bring back those who had lost their way.
More than one friend of Ozanam could write in later years, “My whole soul and mind and heart were helped by conversations with Frederic. Because of the general unbelief in souls that surrounded me, I felt the faith I had received from my parents weaken. The example and advice of my friend at such a time helped me greatly in overcoming all obstacles to my faith and virtue.”
In an age that destroyed traditions and laughed at the teachings of the Catholic Church, Frederic Ozanam, while still a young man, decided to do his own thinking. He refused to go along with the majority of people in France who thought the true Faith was dying, and that after a great revolution a glorious new age of godless liberty would dawn.