June 5, 1998

[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]


June 5, 1998
Saint Boniface

Month of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

During the World Youth Days in Paris last August, Pope John Paul II said: "Dearly Beloved, let us love one another, for charity is of God. And every one that loveth, is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God: for God is charity (1 Jn 4: 7-8). This word of the Apostle is truly at the heart of Revelation." And, in order to give a tangible example of the love of God and neighbor, the Holy Father proceeded to beatify Frédéric Ozanam in Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.

In a mother's eyes 

Though they were French, Jean-Antoine Ozanam and his spouse, Marie, were living in Milan, Italy when their son Frédéric was born in 1813. They moved back to Lyon in 1816. The education Frédéric received from his parents, who were untiringly devoted to God and to the poor, left a deep mark on him: "It was on my mother's knees that I learned to fear You, O Lord, and in her eyes that I learned to love You." Frédéric was a sickly child. At six years of age, typhoid fever brought him down, and thanks to the miraculous intervention of Saint Jean-François Régis, fervently prayed to by the family, he was cured of this grave illness.

Of angelic purity and unfeigned sincerity, full of tender compassion for all suffering, Frédéric still did not have an easy character. In a letter to a former schoolmate, Frédéric described himself thus: "I was never more malicious than I was at eight. I had become stubborn, angry, disobedient. I was punished, but I grew tense against punishment  I was lazy to the highest degree. Every prank you can imagine came to me." At nine years of age, his father enrolled him in the Royal School of Lyon for the fifth class (seventh grade). Thanks to the goodness of his teachers, his character softened up.

Truth does not contradict truth

When he was fifteen, Frédéric went through a period of doubts against the faith. Under the influence of the climate of unbelief reigning at the time, he ended up asking himself why he was a believer. Did not the recent discoveries of science contradict faith? Can reason know with certitude whether God exists?  Such were the questions which preoccupied him. At the height of this trial, he promised the Lord, if He deigned to make the truth shine out to his eyes, to consecrate his entire life to defend it. God heard his prayer, and led him to the Abbé Noirot. This priest, a professor of philosophy, taught him to back up his faith with a correct use of reason. Sometimes people think one must choose between faith and reason; but this is wrong. "Though faith is above reason, teaches the First Vatican Council, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny Himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 159). "Even before revealing Himself to man in words of truth, God reveals Himself to him through the universal language of creation, the work of His Word, of His wisdom: the order and harmony of the cosmos-which both the child and the scientist discover-from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator, for the author of beauty created them (Wisdom 13: 3, 5)" (CCC, 2500).

The Abbé Noirot loved taking walks with Frédéric. Between the master and his disciple, questions about the harmony between science and faith were brought up and discussed. Little by little, Frédéric's doubts gave place to certitude. He would later write: "For some time, I had felt the need for something solid to which I could cling and in which I could take root, in order to resist the torrent of doubt. Behold, today my soul is filled with joy and consolation. In accordance with my faith, my reason has once again found that Catholicism which was taught to me by my excellent mother and which was so dear to my childhood."

The assaults of false science

In 1830, Mr. and Mrs. Ozanam sent their son to Paris to study Law. There, Frédéric grouped together a few young Catholics, who were both firm and intelligent: "We felt the need to fortify our faith in the midst of the assaults which the various systems of false science were waging against it." They established "Conferences of History and Literature," that is, reunions "of friends working together for the edification of science under the standard of Catholic thought." Doctrinal training is indeed of utmost importance, for minds need to be enlightened by the revealed truths about God, Our Lord Jesus Christ and His Church. Without this light of faith, man is blind, as Pope Saint Pius X wrote: "When the spirit is enveloped in the darkness of dense ignorance, it is impossible for an upright will and good morals to subsist  If the light of faith is not completely extinguished, it gives hope for amendment of corrupted morals; but if both corruption of morals and lapse of faith through ignorance are united, there will hardly be room for a remedy, and the way to perdition is open" (Encyclical Acerbo nimis, April 15, 1905). The knowledge of Christian truths is acquired by the study of apologetics (science which proves the divine origin of Christianity), of history, but especially of a synthetic exposition of Catholic doctrine such as the Catechism.

At the time of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II wrote: "A catechism should faithfully and systematically present the teaching of Sacred Scripture, the living Tradition in the Church and the authentic Magisterium, as well as the spiritual heritage of the Fathers, Doctors, and saints of the Church, to allow for a better knowledge of the Christian mystery and for enlivening the faith of the People of God  May the light of the true faith free humanity from the ignorance and slavery of sin in order to lead it to the only freedom worthy of the name: that of life in Jesus Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, here below and in the Kingdom of Heaven, in the fullness of the blessed vision of God face to face!" (Apostolic Constitution Fidei depositum, October 11, 1992).

"Catholicism is dead!"

But doctrinal formation and historical exchanges with friends of every creed soon became insufficient for Ozanam. During his "History Conferences," listeners object: "You are right if you're speaking of the past: Catholicism accomplished prodigies in former times; but today it is dead. Indeed, you who brag about being Catholic, what are you doing? Where are the works which prove your faith to us and which may make us admit and respect it?" Moved by this providential reproach, Ozanam announced: "In order for our apostolate to be blessed by God, one thing is lacking: works of charity. The blessing of the poor is the blessing of God." And, without further delay, he went to work. With a friend who shared his college room, he carried the only firewood he had for the rest of the winter to a poor man.

"Coming to see in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life worthy of the gospel of Christ (Ph 1: 27). They are made capable of doing so by the grace of Christ and the gifts of His Spirit, which they receive through the sacraments and through prayer  Following Christ and united with Him, Christians can strive to be imitators of God as beloved children and walk in love (Ep 5: 1) by conforming their thoughts, words and actions to the mind  which is yours in Christ Jesus (Ph 2: 5), and by following His example" (CCC, 1692, 1694). "Jesus is sent to preach good news to the poor (Lk 4: 18)  Jesus shares the life of the poor, from the cradle to the cross; He experiences hunger, thirst, and privation. Jesus identifies Himself with the poor of every kind and makes active love toward them the condition for entering His kingdom" (CCC, 544).

"You are our masters"

For Ozanam, works of charity are the practical means of loving Christ in His suffering members: "We see the poor with our eyes of flesh. They are here. We can place our finger and hand on their wounds; the marks of the crown of thorns are visible on their foreheads. We should fall down at their feet and say to them with the Apostle: `You are my Lord and my God! You are our masters and we will be your servants ' " On April 23, 1833, Frédéric, along with six friends, inaugurated a "Conference of Charity," under the patronage of Saint Vincent de Paul. Thus was born the work of Conferences of Saint Vincent de Paul, which today counts 800,000 members in 47,600 Conferences, in 132 countries. Ozanam had said: "I want to encompass the whole world in a network of charity."-"The fact that Christian charity has always been eager to offer at all times men and works for the relief of every misery has always been a motive of amazement for whomever studies Church history, as well as, for believers, a confirmation of the Church's divine origin," said Pope Pius XII on April 27, 1952.

To material alms, the new "confreres" added spiritual mercy: "Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently" (CCC, 2447). As Pope Saint Pius X taught: "The pity we show towards the poor by relieving their miseries is certainly highly praised by God; but who will deny the superiority of zeal and labor by which we bring to souls, by means of teaching and advice, not the ephemeral goods of the body, but eternal goods? Nothing can be more desirable nor more pleasing to Jesus Christ, the Saviour of souls, who says of Himself through the prophet Isaias: He hath sent Me to preach the Gospel to the poor (Lk 4: 18)" (Encyclical Acerbo nimis).

Egoism or sacrifice

The material and spiritual assistance given to the poor manifest the vitality of Christian charity. But Ozanam widened his views and, faced with the situation of his times, considered the demands of charity on the social and political level: "The question dividing men today," he said, "is not a question of political forms; it's a social question. Which of the two will gain the victory: the spirit of egoism or the spirit of sacrifice? Will society be just a big exploitation in favor of the strongest or the dedication of each person in the service of all?"

The thought and action of Frédéric Ozanam and his companions offers us an example for imitation, taking into account the new conditions of contemporary society. In fact, if the social injustices of the last century have not yet all been overcome, today there are other disorders not less serious. Pope John Paul II invites us to identify them in order to find the remedy: "Walk as children of light  and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness (Ep 5: 8, 10-11). In the present social context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the `culture of life' and the `culture of death,' there is need to develop a deep critical sense, capable of discerning true values and authentic needs. What is urgently called for is a general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life" (Encyclical Evangelium vitæ, March 25, 1995, no. 95).

Today's evils

The "exploitation in favor of the strongest," of which Ozanam spoke, appears today in the elimination of the weak human beings who are yet to be born. That is why the Church unceasingly denounces the crime of abortion. She exhorts all men and especially Christians to use all their cleverness in order to assist pregnant women who are exposed to this drama, helping them to welcome and educate their child.

Contempt for life is also manifested in euthanasia. The mission of Christians is to come to the assistance of those threatened by this evil: terminal patients, elderly persons, the handicapped, etc. Moral and spiritual support, as well as adapted palliative care can be of great help in this area.

Drug-addiction is also a scourge for modern society. It attacks every social sphere and every region of the world. Right from school, the use of certain drugs is becoming common-place. The distinction between soft drugs and hard drugs favors the spread of this evil. John Paul II notes that "such a distinction ignores and lessens the risks involved in the taking in of any toxic substance, in particular `dependency behavior,' which rests on the same psychical structures, the `dimming of conscience and the loss of personal will and freedom,' whatever may be the drug." A recent inquiry has shown that more than 90% of heroine addicts (heroine is a "hard drug") began by taking a soft drug like marijuana. The phenomenon of drug addiction is a particularly grave evil. Many young persons and adults have died or will die because of it, while others are diminished in their intimate being and capacities, slaves of a dependency which pushes them to seek in prostitution or delinquency the means of paying for their daily dose. The lack of vigorous human and spiritual propositions leads youths to seek in the use of drugs an immediate pleasure which gives them the illusion of escaping reality. Little by little, they end up by thinking that every behavior is equal in value, without being able to see the difference between good and evil and without having the sense of moral limits. That is why all educators must intensify the work of forming consciences, by offering to youths the truth about God, religion and man. The reform of civilization is first of all a religious work, for "there is no true civilization without moral civilization, and no true moral civilization without the true religion: this is a proven truth, an historical fact" (Pope Saint Pius X, Letter on "Le Sillon," August 25, 1910).

"The loving sister, the fortunate brother!"

A few years passed. Ozanam twice received a doctor's diploma; a brilliant graduate of the Faculté of Paris, he held the chair of Commercial Law in Lyon; later he would by professor at the Sorbonne (Paris University). But he had not yet chosen a state of life and hesitated between the religious vocation and marriage. When Lacordaire was restoring the Dominican Order in France, Ozanam sent for a copy of the Rule. He exchanged several letters with the eminent preacher. Frédéric felt drawn by total consecration to God by the vow of chastity. On the other hand, he reflected on the married union for which he was at first reticent.

Little by little, contact with friends who were getting married brought a change in his ideas. He wrote to one of them: "From the tenderness of the one who is going to be united with you, you will draw consolations in hard days; in her examples, you will find courage in times of peril; you will be her guardian angel, she will be yours." One day, while visiting the rector of the Academy of Lyon, Mr. Soulacroix, he met, "by accident" a young girl who was tenderly caring for her paralyzed brother. "The loving sister and the fortunate brother!" he thought. "How she loves him!" Amélie Soulacroix, the rector's daughter had just appeared to him as the living image of charity. The memory of this scene would not leave him. This young girl was the realization of his ideal of the Christian woman. He married Amélie on June 23, 1841.

In January 1841, Frédéric's nomination as Professor of History of Foreign Literature at the Sorbonne gave him the means to answer his calling to be an apologist. He then applied himself to showing the importance of the Catholic religion from history. Here is what he wrote in 1846: "All the irreligion in France still proceeds from Voltaire, and I do not think Voltaire had any greater enemy than history. And how could his disciples not fear this past which they outrage, and which would crush them if they dared to approach it! Let's wash away the bad colors with which calumny has painted our fathers in the Faith and when these images shine in all their splendor, we will see if the crowds won't come to honor them." The civilizing influence of the Church was for Ozanam a weighty apologetic proof, verifiable by any impartial historian. So he undertook teaching, then writing, the history of the Middle Ages, from the 5th to the 13th century, work which remained unfinished at his death: "The entire thought of my book," he wrote, "is to show how Christianity knew how to draw from the Roman ruins and from the tribes who camped on these ruins, a new society, capable of possessing the truth, accomplishing the good and finding the beautiful." The Church does not fear the truth about history. She knows that her members are sinners and do not always act in conformity with her teachings. But she also knows that her spiritual and social doctrine is divine and has produced abundant fruit.

"I am coming"

By a mysterious disposition of Providence, this well-filled life was soon to come to an end. In 1852, Frédéric was 39 years old. He never did have very good health. All that he did, he did while suffering; his pallid complexion fully bore witness to this. In just 18 months he would be overcome by pleurisy. On his 40th birthday, April 23, 1853, he drew up his testament: "I know," he wrote, "that I have a young and beloved wife, a charming child, many friends, an honorable career, works which have been conducted to the point where they could now serve as foundation to a long-dreamt-of undertaking. However, I am now sick with a serious, persistent illness  Must I, my God, leave all these goods that You Yourself have given me? Do You not want, Lord, just part of the sacrifice? Which of my disorderly affections must I immolate? Would You not accept the holocaust of my literary self-love, my academic ambitions, my study projects, in which there probably is mixed more pride then zeal for the truth? If I were to sell half of my books and give the money to the poor; and if, limiting myself to my duties of state, I consecrated all the rest of my life to visiting the poor and instructing apprentices , Lord, would You be satisfied, and would You leave me the sweetness of growing old together with my wife and completing my child's education? Maybe, my God, You do not want this. You do not accept selfish offerings  It is me that You want  I am coming " On September 8, 1853, around 8 P.M. on the feast of the Nativity of the Most Blessed Virgin, Frédéric Ozanam breathed softly a long sigh. It was his last. Mary had come to get her beloved child and introduce him into the inexpressible joy of the Infinite One.

"At the sweat of our brows"

In the homily pronounced on the occasion of Frédéric Ozanam's beatification, the Holy Father said of him: "He loved all the needy  In this, his ideas were akin to those of Saint Vincent de Paul: `Let's love God, my brethren, let's love God, but may it be at the expense of our arms, and at the sweat of our brows  He had the clear-sighted courage of a social and political commitment of the first order, at a troubled time in his country, for no country can accept misery as a fate without its honor being hurt  Today the Church confirms the choice of Christian life which he undertook."

We pray Blessed Frédéric Ozanam to inspire you with a choice of Christian life in conformity with the Gospel for the relief of the miseries which people suffer today and for their eternal salvation. We confide to Saint Joseph all those who are dear to you, living and deceased.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

To publish the letter of Saint Joseph Abbey in a magazine, a newspaper, etc., or to reproduce it on the internet or on a home page, permission must be requested and obtained through email or through http://www.clairval.com.