A man convinced of the inestimable worth of each human being, Frédéric Ozanam served the poor of Paris well, and drew others into serving the poor of the world.
Through the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, which he founded, his work continues to the present day. Frédéric was the fifth of Jean and Marie Ozanam’s 14 children, one of only three to reach adulthood. As a teenager he began having doubts about his religion. Reading and prayer did not seem to help, but long walking discussions with Father Noirot of the Lyons College clarified matters a great deal.
Frédéric wanted to study literature, although his father, a doctor, wanted him to become a lawyer. Frédéric yielded to his father’s wishes and in 1831, arrived in Paris to study law at the University of the Sorbonne. When certain professors there mocked Catholic teachings in their lectures, Frédéric defended the Church. A discussion club which Frédéric organised sparked the turning point in his life. In this club, Catholics, atheists, and agnostics debated the issues of the day. Once, after Frédéric spoke about Christianity’s role in civilization, a club member said: “Let us be frank, Mr. Ozanam; let us also be very particular. What do you do besides talk to prove the faith you claim is in you?”
Frédéric was stung by the question. He soon decided that his words needed a grounding in action. He and a friend began visiting Paris tenements and offering assistance as best they could. Soon a group dedicated to helping individuals in need under the patronage of Saint Vincent de Paul formed around Frédéric. Frédéric then started a newspaper, The New Era, dedicated to securing justice for the poor and the working classes. Fellow Catholics were often unhappy with what Frédéric wrote. Referring to the poor man as “the nation’s priest,” Frédéric said that the hunger and sweat of the poor formed a sacrifice that could redeem the people’s humanity.
In 1852, poor health again forced Frédéric to return to Italy with his wife and daughter. He died on September 8, 1853. In his sermon at Frédéric’s funeral, Fr. Lacordaire described his friend as “one of those privileged creatures who came direct from the hand of God in whom God joins tenderness to genius in order to enkindle the world.” Frédéric was beatified in 1997. Since Frédéric wrote an excellent book entitled Franciscan Poets of the Thirteenth Century, and since his sense of the dignity of each poor person was so close to the thinking of Saint Francis, it seemed appropriate to include him among Franciscan “greats.” His liturgical feast is celebrated on September 9.
In Ozanam, we are offered a young man as a model, whose life, though brief (April 23rd 1813 to September 8th 1853), was nonetheless exceptionally blessed. This young man elevated family, marital and fatherly love to a great height. His many and varied commitments, all sustained with the same spiritual vigour, were dedicated to faith and charity, to the Church, to the poor, to science and to democratic spirit. Last but not least, he was a man of flesh, blood and spirit just like us, who incarnated a type of Christian with whom we can identify. He also incarnated an ideal which was nourished by the Gospel and provided answers both to the questionings of his contemporaries and to the concerns of our generation. Frederic was not different from other human beings. He led a fully human life which was transformed, even made inspirational, by a holiness which he acquired progressively, it never gave way to a harsh outlook.
The Ozanam story is full of such instances of his compassion, concern and respect for poor people. It is said that when he used to go into a home amidst the squalor of the Paris slums, his first action was to take off his hat and say, ‘I come as your servant, may I present myself at your service.’ Often when poor people got to know him, they would be knocking on his door at home interrupting his studies. They weren’t made to wait outside on the doorstep. Every visitor was shown right through to his book lined study and received there the courtesy equal to any he extended to his colleagues at the Sorbonne.
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