Frederic Ozanam

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Frederic Ozanam

Frederic Ozanam was born into a European culture deeply affected by the religious cynicism of Voltaire and afflicted by social inequality and class conflict. Voltaire ridiculed the Church and considered religious worship, especially the Eucharist, a mere civic rite to pacify the masses and maintain social solidarity. On the contrary, Frederic, with keen intellectual insight and high social consciousness, viewed life through the lens of faith, seeing Jesus' self-offering as the genuine pattern for solidarity and service within the human community.

As a student at the state-run Sorbonne, this brilliant, sensitive young man of modest middle class background was confronted daily by the misery of the working poor of Paris, immortalized in Puccini's La Boheme and Les Miserables. Unlike the good bishop in Hugo's novel who invests his silver in the future of a poor man, the Archbishop of Paris was perceived to be in league with the King's repression of the working class and inattentive to the desperate situation of the poor. Frederic challenged his friends at the university: "If we are too young to intervene in the social struggle, are we then to remain passive in the middle of a world which is suffering and groaning? No, a preparatory path is open to us. Before doing public good, we can try to do good to a few. Before regenerating France, we can give relief to a few of her poor."

Committed to do more than talk about faith, Frederic, with a small group of friends, formed the first "Conference of Charity," which met weekly to contribute to a secret collection and then visit the poor in their homes. This active witness derived from Ozanam's faith vision but also from his "Vincentian preference" for what he called self-forgetful charity over ostentatious philanthropy. Frederic and his companions were, inspired by Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity, who served the needy, stood at the barricades with the poor, and mentored these young students. Today, the worldwide St. Vincent de Paul Society continues this type of quiet service through its almost one million members.

Frederic knew professional success and professorial achievement. While he honored his father's wishes and became a lawyer and professor of law, he also pursued his abiding passion for literature. Having earned two advanced degrees, he was a prolific scholar on a broad range of topics from the theory of law to Italian and German literature. His journalistic writings are strikingly modern in social analysis, praise of democracy, support of workers' rights, and direct, crisp style. His lectures, books and correspondence document his belief that Christianity and progress, like faith and science, far from being incompatible, are mutually generative.

A loving husband and devoted father, Frederic achieved greatness as a gifted scholar, a dedicated teacher, a generous Christian and a gentle but effective reformer. True to the example of St. Vincent de Paul, he creatively sought to respond to the needy with sensitive charity and to replace class struggle with just relationships.

Food for Thought

Catholic universities will be particularly attentive to the poorest and to those who suffer economic, social, cultural or religious injustice. This responsibility begins within the academic community but it also finds application beyond it.

Pope John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (40)