‘If we do not know how to love God as the saints did, it is because we see God with the eyes of faith alone, and faith is so weak. But the poor we see with the eyes of the flesh. They are present. We can put our fingers and our hands into their wounds, the marks of the crown of thorns are plainly visible on their heads. There is no place for unbelief…the poor are the visible image of the God whom we do not see, but whom we love in loving you’Blessed Frederick Ozanam.
To many people the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is the product of the great saint himself but this is not so.
The first conference meeting of the society was in 1833 attended by Frederick Ozanam and five fellow students.
They chose to call their group The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, based on the exemplary charitable life led by Vincent. Frederick Ozanam is considered as being the motivator and principal founder of the Society.
Frederick Ozanam was born in French held Milan in 1813 to the wife of a officer in Napoleon’s Army. He was one survivor of four from fourteen children born to Mme. Ozanam at a time when infant mortality was commonplace. As a child, indeed throughout his life Frederick was delicate but nevertheless had a tremendous capacity for work. After attending a Secondary school in Lyon, he became an apprentice to a solicitor. In his spare time he wrote articles for the local newspaper in which he put up a defence for the Church.
In 1831 Frederick pursues a more academic life, at the Sorbonne University, at a time when there was acute poverty in 19th century Paris. Frederic and his friends participated in many debates and to become better equipped to face persuasive and materialistic orators the small group of friends formed themselves into what they called the Conference of History. Their defence of the faith was always positive and well reasoned but each time their opponents argued that the Church was useless, a thing of the past, unable to cope with the problems of the new industrial era. They threw down the gauntlet ‘WORDS, WORDS – SHOW US YOUR WORKS’ Action not words was the only response.
Works! Where and how?. Frederick and his fellow students, barely out of their teens, inexperienced and lacking authority visited a Vincentian nun, Sister Rosalie Rondu, who advised them and allowed them to visit some of the families in her care who were living in the abject poverty. The Conference of History was transformed into the Conference of Charity and placed under the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul (1580-1660, a man of deep faith and known for his work with the poor. Such was the need that within a year the society had grown from the original six members to one hundred members. It quickly spread into the Provinces, throughout Western Europe reaching England in 1844 and St. Alban’s in 1931.
From the very beginning they realised the need to bear witness to their Christian faith by deeds rather than words.
They considered as their brothers the unfortunates, whoever they were and whatever the nature of their suffering. In them they saw the suffering Christ. These founder members felt an irresistible call to a deepening of their spiritual life. Living in personal contact and united in spirit with those who suffer, is the very essence and character of the society.
Frederick said that the secret of neighbourliness “can be learned not from books , but in climbing the stairs to the poor person’s garret, sitting by their bedside, feeling the same cold that pierces them, sharing the secrets of their lonely hearts and troubled minds”. When Frederick and those first students took firewood to an old man in a garret in Paris, they realised afterwards that much more than firewood he needed to be warmed by their presence. He needed to know someone cared. He needed to someone to share the secrets of his lonely heart and troubled mind.
Having obtained his Doctor of Law degree he returned to Lyon and began to practice as a solicitor. He advised and defended people who were being exploited and he acted for those who otherwise would not be able to be legally represented in the courts because of their poverty. He studied successfully for his Doctorate in Literature, with a thesis on Dante’s philosophy and at the same time he was active with his writings and also with his continuing public debate in defence of his Christian beliefs. In 1841 Frederick moved from Lyon to Paris and married Amelia Soulecroix who gave birth to a daughter. He combined an academic career with lecturing to the Cercie catholique and visiting the poor. An accomplished linguist, he was promoted to Professor in 1846 and began a project on the literary history of the Middle Ages to Dante. But he contacted Tuberculosis and his health began to fail.
Frederick was very much a layman who, whilst remaining steadfastly loyal to the clergy and the hierarchy, always insisted that his was a lay folk’s society working with, not for, the clergy, each following his own vocation, each with the right to call on the other. In his Society, the method of teaching was to be by example, each member giving his testimony to Christ by living the Gospel message on a person-to-person basis with the poor, no matter where.
His devotion to Mass, the reading of the Scriptures, Our Lady, saints like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Vincent de Paul were for him the traditional basis of a very real contemporary spirituality. Like his Master, he felt that he and all Christians were called not to be served but to serve. His message was plain and simple ‘know God and serve Him through His poor’.
In 1848 he participates in the launching of a journal expounding Christian socialist principles. He travelled to Italy in 1853, partly for health reasons but also to collect a prestigious award for his work on Dante. On the return journey he collapsed and died at Marseilles on the 8th September 1853 and is buried in the Carmelite chapel in Paris. Pope John Paul 11 proclaimed him Blessed on the 22nd August 1997 in Notre Dame Cathedral.
Today, the SVP still shows that Christian love is real and active. It is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving shelter to the homeless, comforting the lonely, and helping our brothers and sisters in times of need. This is the kind of witness and commitment which has made the SVP a welcome, familiar and trusted presence in our parishes. Their care for the poor and needy in our parishes is recognised as being discrete, direct and effective. Living in personal contact and united in spirit with those who suffer, is still the very essence and character of the Society in the 21st century.
Blessed Frederick’s legacy is a continued growth of the SVP throughout the world and he is held up as an example of Christian action to help the poor and deprived. He is, indeed, an authentic lay saint for our time.