Life and legacy of Blessed Frederic Ozanam Print
Bishop Hying's Column
Written by Bishop Donald J. Hying   
Thursday, Feb. 06, 2020 -- 12:00 AM
Bishop Hying blesses mosaic
Bishop Donald J. Hying blesses a mosaic of Blessed Frederic Ozanam at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on January 26. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Last week, I was honored to celebrate Mass in the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and to bless a newly-installed mosaic of Blessed Frederic Ozanam, the founder of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the Society's presence in the United States.

I have been involved with the Vincentians for 20 years as a chaplain, serving for the last two years on the national level. In preparing my homily for the Mass, I dug deeper into the life and legacy of Frederic Ozanam, realizing with greater clarity his inestimable contribution to Catholic thought and the wisdom of the Church in addressing the social issues of the day.

Visionary founder

As a visionary founder of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, Frederic has helped millions of Catholics to live the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy in a practical and generous manner. He was a journalist, scholar, professor, social activist, husband, and father. He taught literature, history, and law, deeply engaged in the intellectual problems and social challenges of his day. Ozanam has much to say to our present age.

Frederic was born in Milan in 1813, going to Paris to study law, where he suffered a deep loneliness but also was befriended by André Ampère, a scientist exploring the wonders of electricity, in whose home Ozanam became a boarder.

Simultaneously a sophisticated scientist and a devout Catholic, Ampère showed his young charge that there was no inherent dichotomy between Christianity and science or between Catholicism and the social ills of workers and the poor.

Ozanam dedicated his life to articulating and living out the political, economic and cultural implications of the Gospel with concrete and compassionate application to the lives of suffering people, forming a synthesis of thought, belief, and action that many of his peers did not think possible.

Bishop Donald J. Hying's column
What is the Church doing for the poor?

During his studies, Ozanam and his friends formed a discussion group called a "Conference of History" in which they passionately debated all sorts of contemporary ideas and themes, especially the social teachings of the Church.

During one particular conversation, an opponent challenged Ozanam regarding the value and truth of the Catholic Faith. He voiced some provocative questions, "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, in May, 1833, Ozanam and his friends formed the beginnings of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society under the tutelage of Sr. Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity known for her work in the Parisian slums.

Guided by Rendu's wisdom and experience, these idealistic young men went to the poor, entered their homes and their world, befriended them, discerned their needs, and responded with practical and effective help.

During a terrible cholera epidemic, they all fearlessly cared for the victims with heroism and Christian compassion. Frederic's first act of charity was to give his supply of winter firewood to a widow whose husband had died of cholera.

Society spreads

This effective methodology of Christian personalism, summed up in the dynamics of the home visit, became the leitmotif of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, whose immediate and rapid spread throughout France and then the world was truly an act of the Holy Spirit.

Within 12 years of its foundation, the Society had already established itself in St. Louis., Mo.! Today, almost a million Vincentians serve this beautiful mission of Gospel service in 136 countries.

Frederic Ozanam died in 1853 at the age of 40 from tuberculosis. He faced this tragedy with joy and peace. "Why should I ever fear God who has loved me so much?" His life was a creative synthesis of Catholic belief, spirituality, intellectual thought, social analysis, and practical charity.

He sought to not only alleviate the sufferings of the poor but also address the root causes of such social inequality and injustice. While Karl Marx was offering an atheistic materialism, violent class warfare, and a naïve utopianism to address the misery of the working classes at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Ozanam rightly saw Jesus Christ, the Gospel, and the teachings of the Catholic Church as the fully redemptive way to heal what ailed the Western World in the middle of the 19th century. In many ways, he presaged the development of the social teachings of the Church, which ostensibly began with Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

Blessed to be a Vincentian

I am blessed to be a Vincentian, to serve this Society which is dedicated to giving glory to God, growing in personal holiness, and serving the needs of the poor and suffering.

The largest organization in the Catholic Church, the Saint Vincent DePaul Society is a practical and personal way to live out the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy in the often messy lives of real people.

In the end, Christian love is authentic and specific. As Mother Teresa said, "If you want to change the world, sweep your neighbor's house."

I profoundly praise and thank the many Vincentians in our diocese who run a plethora of charitable activities and visit thousands of people in their homes, loving, helping, and serving in the name of the compassionate Christ, who was the inspiration and passion of Blessed Frederic Ozanam.

Like him, we live in a society wounded by political division, suffering economic imbalance, and experiencing an increasing secularity. Like Frederic, we are called to apply the Gospel to these challenges with courage, faith, and love.