Many older Catholics have heard of the St. Vincent de Paul Society that responds to the needs of the poor. But not many know of Blessed Frederic Ozanam, one of its founders.
Frederic Ozanam died on September 8, 1853, at the age of forty. He studied law and literature, writing a dissertation on Dante’s philosophy. He taught and wrote with a passion. But he also had the sense that faith needed to be related to daily life, especially responding to the poor.
Even though his initial response to the poverty around him in France was charity, he also saw the need to change the social systems that keep people poor and create massive inequality. He supported the aims of the 1848 uprising in France, even though he abhorred the violence.
In some ways he promoted what we call today solidarity, which is well described in this quote from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, ¶28:
Solidarity is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all….
Solidarity helps us to see the “other” — whether a person, people or nation — not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our “neighbor,” a “helper”, to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.
A year before his death, in a book on Franciscan poetry, Blessed Frederick Ozanam wrote, about the genius of St. Francis of Assisi in this regard:
By making himself poor, by founding a new order of poor like him, he honored poverty, which is the most disdained and most common of human conditions. He showed that one can find peace, charity, and happiness therein. He thereby brought calm to the resentments of the indigent classes; he reconciled them with the rich, whom they learned to envy no longer. He eased that old conflict between those who do not own against those who do own and strengthened the bonds already loose within Christian society.
Let us today honor the poor, treat them as our equals, and work for a society where people are reconciled with God and with all others, sharing with those in need.
The quote from Frederic Ozanam is taken from Andre Vauchez’s Francis of Assisi, p. 240.