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Bl. Frédéric Ozanam and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul

Many times we might read accounts of saints and learn that from the earliest days of their childhoods until their deaths, the saints lived such lives of holiness that they seem almost unreal. Based on these accounts, they never held a bad thought, nursed a grudge, got too angry, or were even lazy.

And some of this can be chalked up to biographers who are more focused on the holiness of the saint, usually for providing an example, than on giving a more accurate retelling of the saints' lives. The other reason, of course, might be that the person was that holy or that the minor faults were forgotten in the memories of those who knew the saint.
Fortunately for us, saints are actually real people. Many of them lived lives that were filled with ups and downs and, yes, faults, bad habits, and sins.
Today, I would like to talk about one such saint. He is Blessed Frédéric Ozanam.

From Docility to Rebellion

Born in 1813 in Milan, Italy, to two French parents, Bl. Frédéric was the fifth of fourteen children. His parents, Jean-Antoine-Francoise and Marie Nantas Ozanam, were devout Catholics of the middle class and natives of Lyons, France. In 1815, the returned to their hometown in France after the city of Milan was captured by the Austrians.

By his own account, Bl. Frederic was a very docile child who did not give his parents much trouble until around the age of 7. One wonders how much trouble he thought he might have gotten into before the age of 7, but he attributes his good behavior to his sister Elise who along with his mother provided him his school lessons at home. Among his siblings, Bl. Frédéric was closest to Elise, and he recalled with great fondness how his sister would teach him in such a way that he found learning to be a delight.

However, around the age of 7, he became seriously ill to the point it was assumed that he would die. He had always had somewhat poor health, and this illness seemed like it would be too much for his feeble body. Night and day for 15 days, his parents kept watch over him. When he was presumed to be near the end, he suddenly had the thought to ask to drink some beer despite the fact that he did not like the taste of beer. He quietly asked for some beer, and his parents, desperate to try anything allowed him to sip some beer. It was like a miracle cure, and his health turned in a positive direction with his full recovery some weeks later.
The joy of the family for Bl. Frédéric's recovery was curtailed by the death of Elise only 6 months later. His own illness and the loss of his beloved sister were too much for Bl. Frédéric. He began to act out.
Bl. Frédéric recalls that he began a pattern of disobedience, stubbornness, and rebellion. Bl. Frédéric would disobey his parents, and then he would be punished. Bl. Frédéric railed against the punishment and then wrote letters to his mother complaining of his ill treatment by his father and she. He became lazy and spent more time planning how to misbehave than on anything productive. Throughout, his parents remained kind, but firm, and his siblings, under his parents' direction, did the same.

A Better Attitude and Losing and Regaining His Faith

Around the age of nine and half, Bl. Frédéric, was sent to school where he slowly began to curb his bad behavior. Being fond of his school master, he tried to emulate the positive qualities he saw. And he put more effort in to his school work. As he improved, he gained confidence from his successes in school. Nonetheless, he was known to have fought with his classmates.
Bl. Frédéric recalls that by the age of 12, he had become a much better behaved son having learned to be more gentle and industrious, but he also developed scrupulosity which plagued him for a time.
At the age of 16, his studies in philosophy led to a crisis of faith in which he was disturbed by serious doubts about matters of faith. Through the help of a friend, Abbe Noirot, he was able to see through to a recovery of his faith. In addition, during the year in which he struggle with many issues, he made a vow that if he could just know the truth, he would commit his life to defending the truth.
As a result of his wrestling with faith issues and recovering his faith, he was far more confident in his intellectual bases for believing, prepared to fulfill his vow, and developed a deep understanding for those who did not believe.

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University Life and Increasing his Apologetics Work

Around the same time, his father decided that Bl. Frédéric should become a lawyer. It was not Bl. Frédéric's first choice as he was much more interested in literature, history, and language. And accordingly, after being apprenticed to a local lawyer, Bl. Frédéric would use his free time to pursue his true interests. In beginning to fulfill his vow, he began to write pamphlets for the Propagation of the Faith which was had begun working in his hometown of Lyons.
To begin his studies in earnest, Bl. Frédéric was sent to the Sorbonne at the University of Paris. Coming from his close-knit family, Bl. Frédéric suffered from homesickness and bad company at the boarding house where he stayed. However, he soon found a more suitable living arrangement with the family of a well-known Christian intellectual. The family took to him, and he enjoyed the company of the family and their friends which included a number of the leading figures of the Catholic Revival movement in France.

At the university, he soon found that many were unbelievers who were caught up in rationalism, materialism, and skepticism. As he increasingly experienced these "isms" first-hand in his fellow students and professors, the call of his vow to defend the faith grew louder, and he began to answer it in earnest.

First, through his interest in history, he began writing a literary history of Europe from the fifth through the thirteenth centuries to demonstrate how Christianity had been a guiding force in shaping civilization.
Then, he extended his apologetics to writing articles for newspapers in which he defended the faith in light of current arguments against it.
Finally, with the support of fellow believers, and the sponsorship of a professor, he revived a society known as the "Society of Good Studies" in order to transform it to the "Conference of History". The purpose of the group was to allow for lively discussion among believers, atheists, and agnostics. The group supported debating and discussions about the beliefs of the Catholic Faith.

A Challenge leads to a New Direction

It was during one of these meetings, that Bl. Frédéric's life would take another turn. During a debate that got very animated, Bl. Frédéric and his companions were trying to show by using historical arguments that the Catholic Church is the one church founded by Christ.

One of the young men who was questioning the idea, asked the Catholics what their church was doing today for those who were in need such as the poor. In a way, the questioner was perhaps unbeknownst to himself taking the words of from the Epistle of St. James and noting that faith without works is dead. In other words, the skeptics might believe if they saw actual works from the Church.

The question had a profound affect upon Bl. Frédéric. He realized that there was a deep truth in the question, and his faith needed to be more than intellectual. With the vigor of youthful enthusiasm, his companions and he agreed that they should immediately begin serving the poor.

To demonstrate their new direction, the companions changed the society's name from the 'Conference of History' to the "Society of Charity". They selected seven of them to lead the effort (reminiscent of the seven deacons selected in Acts) and began to organize charitable work to serve the poor of Paris. Being young and energetic was not enough.

Bl Frederic and his friends knew they needed some wisdom to guide their efforts. They found that wisdom of experience in working with the poor in Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity (a religious order founded by St Vincent de Paul and St Louise de Marillac). With her help, they were able to grow their efforts and make a difference in the lives of those whom they served.

Founding the Society of St. Vincent de Paul

Eventually, the society was renamed again to be the "Conference of St. Vincent de Paul" in honor of the great saint who served the poor and to recognize that both emphases of the society were important--apologetics and serving those in material need.
The society quickly began to spread beyond the Sorbonne and as it grew it took that message with it that intellectual defense of the truth and serving the poor should go hand-in-hand.
Today, that society is known as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. And it continues to serve men and women around the world.
As for Bl. Frédéric, he helped oversee the society for the rest of his life. He also pursued an academic career with a doctorate in literature and one in law. At a fairly young age, he became a full professor of foreign literature. His old friend Abbe Noirot introduced him to his wife Amelie Soulacroix who was the daughter of the rector of the Lyons Academy. They had a daughter which they named Marie.
He also never stop defending the faith with intellectual efforts through his writing and engagement with unbelievers.
When a revolution broke out in 1848, Bl. Frédéric served in the National Guard. Following the conflict, the government called upon the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to help serve those who had been most affected by the damage done in the revolution.
With his continuing efforts to defend the faith and maintaining a full work load of teaching at the university, Bl. Frédéric's frail health broke down in 1851. The family moved to Italy in an effort to help him grow healthier. The better climate did not help him, and before he died, he was taken by his brothers to Marseilles in order that he might die on French soil on September 8, 1853.

Image: Bl. Frédéric Ozanam of France

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