Thursday, April 22, 2010
Frédéric Ozanam: St. Vincent de Paul's founder was wise beyond his years
Frédéric Ozanam, founder of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, an association of charity that has spread throughout the world, lived in fidelity to God's grace as a Catholic layman. He was a loving husband and devoted father, a distinguished writer and a man who actively practiced the works of mercy.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul began in the spring of 1833, when Ozanam and several Catholic student friends began meeting regularly for prayer, debate, and discussion at the home of Emmanuel Joseph Bailly, a forty-year-old Catholic owner of a print shop and publisher of a newspaper. They initially called their group “The Conference of History and Literature.” They also agreed to contribute to a fund, which they would then personally distribute directly to poor people in Paris. By the following May, the Society had become so popular among the Catholic students at the University of Paris that Bailly’s home could no longer accommodate all of the members at their meetings.
In May 1833, Ozanam and friends reoriented The Conference on History and Literature to focus on charity to the poor. Thus began the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, named in honor of Saint Vincent de Paul, probably by Bailly, whose brother was a Vincentian priest. A fundamental principle of the Society is its premium upon direct, personal interaction with the poor, and not on bureaucratic and anonymous administration of programs — “it was a basic rule of the Society that the members must personally visit those they were assisting.”
Ozanam and his friends began bringing wood and coal to the poor for fuel. In a letter to a cousin, he explained his hopes:
[W]e are too young to intervene in the social strife. Shall we remain inactive in the midst of a world which suffers so grievously? No, there is another way open to us. . . we can endeavor to do good to some individuals. Before regenerating France we can help at least a few of her poor. Thus I hope that all young people with similar desire will unite for charitable purposes and form a vast generous association for the comfort of the masses.
Ozanam’s vision of a worldwide “network of charity” quickly became a reality. By 1855, there were 2,814 local conferences (groups of volunteers called Vincentians) of the Society located throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Asia, Africa, and much of Europe. Today, there are more than a million members of the Society working on every continent. It continues to be lay-led. It continues to offer the opportunity to actually do something tangible and real in the alleviation of poverty and suffering, and to directly practice the corporal works of mercy.
Ozanam was beatified by Pope John Paul II on August 22, 1997.
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