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The Society of St. Vincent de Paul: Ending Poverty Through Systemic Change

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Mark Gordon - published on 10/15/14

“What is your Church doing now?” Frederic Ozanam has been answering that question ever since.

Recall the cohort of young republican radicals who manned the barricades of Paris in the movie “Les Miserables”? Those thrilling final scenes of the film, based on the Victor Hugo novel, depict the real events of what is known as the “June Rebellion” of 1832, when all of Paris was caught up in a maelstrom of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence. It was out of that maelstrom that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was born.

In 1832, Frederic Ozanam was a 19-year-old student at the Sorbonne. He belonged to a faction aimed at restoring the primacy of the Catholic Church, which had suffered widespread disaffection in the decades preceding and following the French Revolution. In the June Rebellion, 93 republicans were killed and 291 wounded, many of them students at the Sorbonne. During the following academic year, Ozanam and his friends were challenged by some of their radical colleagues to prove that the Church cared for the poor as much as they did. “What is your Church doing now?,” the radicals demanded. “What is she doing for the poor of Paris? Show us your works and we will believe you!”

Ozanam and his companions privately conceded that their radical opponents had a point. During the decades leading up to and then after the Revolution, the Church had indeed abandoned its identification with and service to the poor. Frederic and his friends resolved to change that, if only to restore legitimacy to their claims about the Church. "If we are too young to intervene in the social struggle,” wrote Frederic, “are we then to remain passive in the middle of a world which is suffering and groaning? No, a preparatory path is open to us. Before doing public good, we can try to do good to a few. Before regenerating France, we can give relief to a few of her poor."

And so, with the help of a Daughter of Charity named St. Rosalie Rendu, they formed the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in May 1833, named for the great 17th Century French “apostle to the poor.” Guided by Sister Rosalie, Frederic and his friends personally took the love of Christ into the ghettos of Paris. “Let us go to the poor,” became their rallying cry. They provided food, housing and clothing. They took up legal defenses for the indigent and obtained medical assistance for the sick. They also studied the conditions of the poor – how they had gotten that way and what could be done to ameliorate their conditions – and began to advocate on their behalf.

“The problem which divides people today,” wrote Ozanam, “is not a political problem, it is a social one. It is a matter of knowing who will get the upper hand, the spirit of selfishness or the spirit of sacrifice; whether society will go for ever increasing enjoyment and profit, or for everyone devoting themselves to the general good, and above all to the defense of the weakest.” These words, which could be lifted out of 1830’s Paris and dropped into any contemporary American debate with no loss of force, were not partisan, but they were distinctly political. Frederic knew that it is impossible to separate charity and justice, individual self-sacrifice and collective commitment, private intention and public conscience.

But he went even further. Addressing the poor, he wrote, “You are our masters, and we will be your servants. You are for us the sacred images of that God whom we do not see, and not knowing how to love Him otherwise shall we not love Him in your persons?”

Here, Ozanam echoes both the words of Our Lord – “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” – as well as those of St. Vincent, who wrote, “You are the servant of the poor… They are your masters, and the more difficult they will be, the unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them.”

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