BY Ian Dunn | April 12 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


What is your Church doing now?

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Society of St Vincent de Paul founder Frédéric Ozanam, whose bid to serve the poor is as relevant today as it was in the early 1800s, writes IAN DUNN

Chapters of the Society of St Vincent de Paul can be found in nearly every parish in Scotland and many throughout the world, helping those most in need. So established is the lay Catholic group, that it is easy to forget they have a remarkable birthplace, Paris in the early 19th century, a hotbed of politics, revolt and violence.

The SSVP was founded by Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, a servant of the poor and a remarkable man who left an indelible legacy, by forming the society when he was just 20 years old.

This month, the 200th anniversary of his birth, is a fitting time to remember this great man and the important work he began. His desire to help the poor arose out of not only his profound Faith but also from his intensive academic work.


Ozanam’s background

A professor of commercial law and then European literature, Frédéric Ozanam, born April 23, 1813, had great insight into tax, welfare, democracy, republicanism, socialism, church and state, civilisation, the secular and the religious, and the timeless ideals of truth, beauty and the good. He was also a journalist and a political activist, standing for election to the French Assembly. Above all, he was a husband and father, committed to love as the highest of all ideals. At the age of 28 he married Amélie Soulacroix, by whom he had a daughter.

In Ozanam’s view, while there is a clear distinction between the realms of church and state, he saw that lay Christians have a key role to play in progressing democracy. If the secular state should be expected to provide justice, it cannot of itself provide the healing power of love. Thus free markets must be tempered by ensuring justice for all, and welfare reform must be complemented by charity.

When the French Revolution broke out in 1848, Ozanam served briefly and reluctantly in the National Guard. This was followed by a short and stormy effort at publishing a liberal Catholic journal called The New Era aimed at securing justice for the poor and working classes. This evoked the ire of conservative Catholics and the consternation of some of Ozanam’s friends for seeming to side with the Church’s enemies. In its pages, he advocated that Catholics play their part in the evolution of a democratic state.


SSVP origins

As a 20-year-old student, Ozanam and a few friends started the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SSVP) in Paris on April 23, 1833. It was a time when the Catholic Church in France was the object of bitter hostility following the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1830.

When challenged in the Conference of History to identify what he and his friends were doing for those in need, Ozanam spontaneously responded: “Let us go to the poor.”

At one meeting, during a heated debate in which Ozanam and his friends were trying to prove from historical evidence alone the truth of the Catholic Church as the one founded by Christ, their adversaries declared that, though at one time the Church was a source of good, it no longer was. One voice issued the challenge: “What is your Church doing now? What is She doing for the poor of Paris? Show us your works and we will believe you!”

In response, one of Ozanam’s companions, Auguste de Letaillandier, suggested some effort in favour of the poor. “Yes,” Ozanam agreed. “Let us go to the poor!”

In 1850, speaking to a conference in Florence, Frédéric recalled that beginning.

“Those reproaches were justified and we certainly deserved them,” he said. “We therefore said to ourselves: Well then, let us set to work! Let our actions be in tune with our Faith. But what can we do to be truly Catholic? Let us help our neighbour, just as Jesus Christ used to do, and let us place our Faith under the protection of charity. ”


Social justice

The ‘charity’ Ozanam spoke of, which he and his followers practised and that continues today, would seem to embrace a Biblical and contemporary understanding of justice. It was not charity in the sense of giving to people out of abundance what they have no right to. Rather it seemed to be the sharing of what belongs to the poor by right.

That work for the poor would dominate the rest of his life, though he never forgot his background in academia and devoted much time to consider the troubles of the day.

In 1838, he wrote to an artist friend travelling to Italy that the answer was Christ.

“The question which divides men in our day is no longer a question of political forms, it is a social question—that of deciding whether the spirit of egotism or the spirit of sacrifice is to carry the day; whether society is to be a huge traffic for the benefit of the strongest, or the consecration of each for the benefit of all, and above all for the protection of the weak,” he reflected. “There are many who already have too much, and who wish to possess still more; there are a greater number who have not enough, and who want to seize it if it is not given to them. Between these two classes of men a struggle is imminent, and it threatens to be terrible—on one side the power of gold, on the other the power of despair. It is between these two opposing armies that we must precipitate ourselves.”


Papal tribute

The last word should go to Blessed John Paul II who spoke movingly about Ozanam’s legacy in Paris in 1997 when the late Holy Father Beatified the SSVP founder at Notre Dame Cathedral on August 22 during the World Youth Day


“Today, the Church confirms the kind of Christian life which Ozanam chose, as well as the path which he undertook,” Pope John Paul II said. “She tells him: Frédéric, your path has truly been the path of holiness. More than 100 years have passed and this is the opportune moment to rediscover that path. It is necessary that all these young people, nearly your own age, who have gathered together in such numbers here in Paris from all the countries of Europe and the world, should recognise that this path is also theirs. They must understand that, if they want

to be authentic Christians, they must take the same road.”






Spirit of Frédéric Ozanam continues to inspire SSVP today

Even as members of the Society of St Vincent De Paul celebrate 200 years since the birth of Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, they are finding new ways in which his life and message remain relevant to Catholics today.

Micheal Balfour, the president of SSVP Scotland, told the SCO that he is constantly amazed by how relevant the teachings of Ozanam from the early 19th century remain.

“With all the talk of the New Evangelisation and empowering lay people, I can’t help but feel he was way ahead of his time,” Mr Balflour said. “He pioneered Catholic thinking on what he called compassionate justice, an obvious forerunner of the Justice and Peace movement.”

Mr Balfour said Ozanam’s thinking combined tradition with innovation.

“He was a very loyal Catholic, but innovative in other ways,” he said. “He was very aware of the need to focus on others, to focus on the poor rather than solely matters of spirituality, he thought it was very important to work on serving the whole person.”

Mr Balfour also believes that Ozanam’s Faith very much informed his work.

“Of course he lived during a time when there was a great deal of anti-religious feeling, anti-Catholicism but that just inspired him,” Mr Balfour added. “For him charity was a means to an end, he sought spiritual elevation above all else.”

For Mr Balfour the connections between Ozanam’s time and the modern day are overwhelming, “All the things he focused on, are a key part of the Church of today.”

That spirit continues to inspire the SSVP to do good work in parishes all over the country.

“We are grappling with the current economic crisis,” he said. “Though as the times have changed we need to as well. In the past, people would ask the priest for help and they would refer them to us. Now it is different, that’s much less common. Even for people who are within the Church, there is a reluctance to ask for help.”

In response, different SSVP conferences around the country are finding new ways of helping others.

“We do need to do things like co-operate with other organisations with local authorities more than in the past,” he said. “Trying to be sensible about what we do with limited resources.”

One example he cites of how the society can help people refers to the current welfare reforms.

“People, especially elderly, may not be aware of exactly how they will affected but we can tell them and help them through the paperwork,” he said. “It is a small thing that can make a big difference.”

One thing is certain, the SSVP is needed now as much as ever.

“We definitely have seen more need over the past five years,” he said. “People are struggling and they really need our help.”



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