In the midst of the complexity and the crises of the nineteenth century a group from among the children of the Church revealed with great clarity that the following of Jesus Christ had social implications. Among this group we highlight Antoine Frederic Ozanam1, the great apostle of charity and reconciliation, an important thinker, a man of action and a man of tremendous transcendence during the first half of the nineteenth century2, a time when the social questions was being raised.Frederic’s profound faith and his love of the Church led him along the path of perfection in charity. From the early days of his youth Frederic’s steps directed him toward the road the leads to a life of witness and holiness. The gift of the most high God, Frederic’s love of the truth and his option to live out his faith on a daily basis guided him along the path of the love of neighbor, especially those sisters and brothers most in need. This movement in Frederic’s life gave form to his earthly journey and led him to embrace the Christian life to its ultimate consequence. Charity cannot exist in the heart of an individual unless it reaches out toward others. Charity, he wrote, is a fire that is extinguished when it is not maintained and good works are the nourishment of charity … but charity ought to be the means and not the end of our association3 which attempts to spread among young people the Christian spirit which is also the spirit of love. The gospel truth ought to be spread among young people who are the victims of so many disastrous doctrines.
On the eve of the Third Millennium of the faith, the great apostle of charity and reconciliation during the nineteenth century would be recognized by the Church as one who lived the Christian virtues in an heroic way and therefore is held up before our eyes as a symbol of integrity in living the Christian life in a world submerged in secularism, functional agnosticism and so many other ideologies that separate individuals from God and from one another. When the time came for John Paul II to proclaim that Frederic Ozanam would be beatified, the world was able to contemplate the image of a forward looking follower of the Lord who embraced the very necessary tasks of the New Evangelization.
Faith sustains his life
Antoine Frederic Ozanam was born on April 23, 1813 in Milan4, the northern part of Italy. He was baptized on May 13th. Thirteen years later, on May 11th, 1826 he received his first communion in the church of Saint Peter in Lyon. Frederic was the fifth child of Jean-Antoine Francois (a former official in Napoleon’s army and later a medical doctor5) and Marie Nantes. They established a home in which a lively faith enlightened daily life and in which love was not only shared among the family members but was also extended to those sisters and brothers in need. From the time he was a child Frederic learned to respect people who were poor and helpless. Indeed, he was instructed in the school of charity by his father, who as a medical doctor assisted many poor people who often were unable to pay for his services and by his mother who combined Christian goodness and simplicity with generous service on behalf of those in need. With their gifts Marie and Jean-Antoine provided a very clear and profound Christian spirit to their life as a family. Frederic’s formal education took place in France, in Lyon and also Paris, and during this time he became aware of the anti-Christian literature that was in vogue at the time but also deepened his own knowledge of the faith.
In the early stages of Frederic’s faith development he experienced a powerful religious crisis. These were very difficult months for him. The impact of numerous anti-Christian lectures had left their mark and called for a more determined formation in the faith. By dint of hearing talk of unbelievers and unbelief, I began to ask myself why I believed. I doubted … I dismissed my doubts … but then an objection arose in my mind and I doubted again. An intense sensitivity with pronounced existential characteristics became obvious during this crisis. At the same time Frederic became more aware of an internal path that leads those who suffer such a crisis to experience these doubts in the depths of their being. In his suffering he begged before the Blessed Sacrament: Lord, only you can restore my faith and he received his answer. From that time on, through the grace of God, he moved forward with the conviction of a convert, with a renewed faith, a faith that was livelier, deeper, and more awakened. His gratitude was expressed in a promise that he would fulfill throughout his life: I promised God that I would dedicate my life to the service of the truth that had given me peace. Later, unafraid of the great challenge that he would undertake he would explain the task that he had planned to commit himself to and said: To overcome without risk is to triumph without glory but the more difficult the task, the more beautiful is the accomplishment of that task.
In 1831 Frederic traveled from Lyon to the City of Lights. This was during the reign of King Louis Philippe, also known as the citizen-king because of his bourgeois ideas and perspectives. Here Frederic is found in the midst of a society that was experiencing great tension since it had still not recovered from the situation that was created by the French Revolution, the Napoleonic War, and the failure of the Bourbon restoration. We are dealing with a society marked by powerful anti-Christian demonstrations. The Sorbonne, where Ozanam studied, had become one of the focal points for these anti-Christian demonstrations … a number of the professors there boasted about their opposition to the faith.
Even though Frederic was shy he was nonetheless a person of strong and profound interior convictions. His faith was revealed in everything that he did. Thus he suffered greatly as he contemplated the sad situation that today we would called secularism and he longed for the friendly and welcoming environment of Lyone which he left behind in 1831. He wrote: The coldness of Paris freezes my heart and its corruption paralyzes my spirit. Providentially he met a wise scientist, Andrè-Marie Ampère, a devout Catholic whom he met when paying him a courteous visit. Ampère offered Frederic lodging in his house and welcomed him as a member of his family. Frederic accepted this invitation and wrote: He [Ampère] is deeply religious and every morning I find him at Saint Éntienne-du-Mont. Many times when we speak about the wonders of nature and express our awe at the work of the Creator, he will exclaim, “How great God is and compared to God we are so ignorant. In the letters to his mother Frederic wrote about the wise Parisian master: The other day he told me to study the realities of this world but to do this by looking at these realities with one eye so that the other eye might be constantly focused on the eternal light. Later he said that one should listen to the learned with one ear so that one is able to hear the beautiful words of our heavenly Friend with the other ear. Unless you act in this way you will easily fracture your head on some stone. Under the guidance of Ampère the intellectual foundations of Frederic’s Christian life are deepened and this will be helpful for the apostolate that he will undertake and consecrate his life to. Previously while in Lyon, Father Joseph Mathias Noirot had contributed in a noticeable way to the spiritual formation of Frederic. Very quickly Frederic’s leadership was felt at the Sorbonne and he wrote his family: Each time that a professor raises his voice against the faith, many Catholic voices are raised in protest against said professor. As he overcame the religious crisis that had afflicted him while in Lyon he became convinced of the fact that we possess two paths: one to seek the truth and the other to live the truth. During our whole life we have to live the truth. On the university campus in Paris Frederic had found a propitious environment where he could live the truth and share this truth with others.
Toward an integral vision of charitable solidarity
Frederic, active by nature, joined with fellow students from the University as well as with a professor of philosophy and a Catholic publicist, Emmanuel Bailly and in 1832 this group would become known as the Conferences of History. These sessions formed the environment for his intellectual apostolate where he could counteract the ideas of Volterianism and San-Samosians which were prevalent at the Sorbonne. In the meetings of this group there were intense debates about the faith. As a result of one of these sessions in which many young men (including university professors) gathered together, a group of then, led by Ozanam, made a decision to go forth to the encounter with the poor.
Convinced that the history of the Church would be like a battering ram that would overwhelm (sweep away) the rule of rationalism, these young men who had partikcipated in the Conferences of History looked for ways to respond to the challenges of the established ways of thinking that were in vogue in France and Germany. Confronted with the anti-Christian argument — an argument that today is as famous as the ….. that was stated in one of the sessions that made Ozanam react: You are right when you exalt the wonderful things that Christianity has accomplished in the past, but at the present time Christianity is dead. Where can we find the deeds that give witness to your faith? What do those individuals do who present themselves as the messengers of Redemption? Evaluating this argument in prayer and with the conviction to silence every possible objections in this regard, an answer arises that reveals charity as the way to live out the evangelizing mission: action for the love of God and the neighbor.
The Saint Vincent de Paul Society
Thus in 1833 at the age of twenty without abandoning the apostolate or “intellectual charity” which he would exercise during his whole life, Frederick, with the support of Bailly6 and the participation of five other companions established the Confraternities of Charity (the Saint Vincent de Paul Society). The purpose of this group was to deepen the faith of its members and reawaken the practice the charity in the life of young Catholics through personal encounters with people who are poor, through seeking one’s personal sanctification and the kingdom of God.
- Certainly the reference to Frederic Ozanam is important when speaking about the nineteenth century but continue to have equal importance at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
- The reference here is to the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.
- The former Mediolanum was conquered by France in 1796 and will under French rule when Frederic was born there.
- Was the author of an important medical history of the diseases that resulted in epidemics that spread throughout Europe from the time of the fourteenth century.
- The well-known professor of philosophy and the editor of The Catholic Tribune was elected the first president of this new association. The act of foundation was preceded by the praying of the Veni Sancte Spiritu which reveals the roots and the orientation of the Conferences.