On 9 September, we mark the feast day of Blessed Frederic Ozanam.
To set the scene: Paris of the early 19th century was in the grip of great upheavals. During and following the French revolution 1788-1799, Paris was profoundly affected by social unrest. The 1830s brought the collapse of the old Bourbon monarchy which had dreams of strengthening the throne with the support from the Church. Large numbers of the country people were moving to the cities to find work in the factories. Many arrived to discover that there was no work, little pay or that the factories were closed due to revolution.
Large slum areas were forming in Paris; thousands of people lived without work, some without clothes, and many were alcoholic.
In addition to an already impoverished city, in 1832 an epidemic of cholera swept through Paris killing up to 1200 people each day. Homelessness, disease, and starvation were common.
This was the world of Frederic Ozanam, a young student who had to walk through the poorer suburbs on his way to university lectures each day. He became deeply moved at the hopeless state of families who had been left without the support of their breadwinners after the epidemic.
It wasn’t until he was taunted by an anti-religious opponent in a student debating society that stung him to action: ‘You are right Ozanam when you speak of the past! In former times Christianity worked wonders, but what is it doing for mankind now? And you, who pride yourself on your Catholicity, what are you doing now for the poor? Show us your works.’
Frederic Ozanam gathered a few friends around him and on 23 April 1833 they met to decide what they could do to assist the poor.
Frederic turned twenty at the first historic meeting of what they called ‘the Conference of Charity’.
After the meeting, Frederic and his flatmate took the remainder of their winter wood supply and gave it to a widow. He left it outside her door, knocked, and because he was naturally very shy, he ran away. Later, he realised that what people needed was someone to stand with them in solidarity, and offer them the dignity of meeting them face-to-face and offering friendship.
Frederic and his friends began bringing these families some bread, wood and above all, much friendship. The financial resources for this work came from a number of sources, but primarily from savings from their scholarships. These young men were mocked by some, in particular the Saint-Simonians who commented: ‘What can seven young men hope to achieve in alleviating the suffering of Paris?’
Fortunately, Ozanam paid little heed to their comments, determined to satisfy his own conscience that he was doing what he could to bear witness to his Christian upbringing by assisting those less fortunate in the community.
As a skilled debater, Frederic could have entered into a verbal debate to defend his position, but he knew it would be more effective to show people how simple acts of kindness to those in need could evoke change.
The small group decided to adopt the name The Society of St Vincent de Paul after the Patron Saint of Christian charity.
They sought the advice of Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity who was visiting poor families in one of the poorer districts. Sr Rendu introduced the young men to people they could assist. They agreed to meet weekly to strengthen their friendship and to respond to the needs of those they served.
It was not long after that other Parisians took note of the charitable works of the students. Within a year membership had expanded to 100 and it became necessary to split the conference (group) into three separate conferences.
At the same time, other conferences sprang up in Parishes around Paris. In its first decade, the Society spread to 48 other cities in France and Italy and numbered over 9,000 members.
After some years the Society reached Rome (1842), England (1844), Belgium, Scotland, Ireland (1845), the United States of America (1846) and Australia on 5 March, 1854.
Despite the overwhelmingly rapid spread of the organisation, Frederic wasn’t perfect in his service of the poor. He was often cheated by those he intended to help and became frustrated when those he sought to assist didn’t want to help themselves.
One man Frederic helped by assisting in obtaining employment for him. But the man once again the man fell into destitution and the man returned to Frederic to ask for help. Instead of offering charity, Frederic lost his temper, turned him out and told him never to return. The man had hardly left when Frederic reflected on what he had done, called him back and showed compassion to assist him again. He realised it was not up to him to judge the man, but to merely assist where he could.
Frederic was constantly challenged by those around him, yet he never gave up. He often faced difficulties and criticism, but never wavered in his desire to help those in need.
His writings pre-dated and formed much of the groundwork for the Catholic Social teaching of the modern era. Frederic Ozanam founded the St Vincent de Paul Society in the experience of visiting the poor in person.
Its members are called to be not only dispensers of food and fuel and clothing to the poor—but dispensers, too, of the love and compassion of Christ, which has been poured into their own hearts by the Spirit of God.
As we celebrate the Feast of Blessed Frederic Ozanam, we are reminded that the way that we would truly make a difference was not through our words, but through our actions. Let us never lose sight of our opportunity to be the change we want to see in the world, conscious that we can be a light in the darkness of people’s lives by doing our part to carry on the mission of Frederic Ozanam.
To read more visit the St Vincent de Paul Society here.
Watch Mass to celebrate the feast day of Blessed Frederic Ozanam with Fr Andrew:
Archbishop Mark Coleridge11 January 2021
Melbourne Catholic11 December 2020