France in the 19th century was rent by the continuing reverberations of the Revolution. The Church hierarchy allied itself with the conservative cause, incurring the distrust of the working class and the disdain of those intellectuals who embraced the republican spirit of liberty. One man who tried to bridge this gap was a Catholic layman and scholar, Frederic Ozanam. As a student and later professor at the Sorbonne, Ozanam was moved by the appalling squalor of the urban poor. Convinced that Christianity is not about ideas but about deeds of love, he formed a fellowship of Christian laypeople who would immerse themselves in the world of the poor, performing acts of charity at a personal sacrifice. This became the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
In entering the world of the poor, Ozanam learned to see reality and the Gospel from their perspective. He challenged the Church to renounce its alliance with the rich and powerful, along with its nostalgia for a bygone prerevolutionary era. The poor, he believed, were “messengers of God to test our justice and our charity and to save us by our works.” Comparing the present age to the fifth century when the Church had faced the fall of Rome, he said it was time for the Church to do as it had done then: to “pass to the side of the barbarians”—that is, to go over to the people. His stance earned the suspicion of fellow Catholics, leaving him isolated and discouraged. He died on September 8, 1853. Nevertheless, his society spread across the globe. He was beatified in 1997 by Pope John Paul II.
“Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveler who has been attacked. But, it is justice’s role to prevent the attacks.”
—Blessed Frederic Ozanam