“What is your Church doing now?” Frederic Ozanam has been answering that question ever since.
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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.”
Within a few years, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul had spread across France. At the time of Frederic’s death (at the age of 40) there were 2,000 Vincentians in Europe and a Vincentian outpost had been established in St. Louis, Missouri. Today, there are 700,000 members of the Society in 140 countries around the world. In the United States, the Society is present in 4,600 parishes, includes over 150,000 members and provided assistance to 15 million Americans in need last year. Frederic Ozanam was beatified by Saint John Paul II in 1997.
Historically, much of the Society’s emphasis has been on ameliorating immediate conditions like a lack of food and clothing, or else providing rental, utility, and other cash assistance. But in recent years, the Society has begun focusing more and more on “systemic change,” a broad-based approach to ending poverty; if not for all, or even for most, then at least for a few who are ready to take the journey up from destitution.
The idea is for the Society to provide deep resources that address elements in the “circle of poverty,” things like job training, education, basic health and dental care, transportation, housing, and so on. At the same time, needy individuals who desire to understand and overcome the roots of their personal situation are being identified and mentored through a process designed to equip them with the skills they need to build independent and sustainable lives. Finally, through its Voice of the Poor initiative, the Society is taking an active part in political debates over issues like food assistance, the minimum wage and income inequality, with the aim of preserving the social safety net and correcting those injustices that lead to poverty.
All of this is perfectly aligned with Blessed Frederic’s thinking. He wrote, “You must not be content with tiding the poor over the poverty crisis: You must study their condition and the injustices which brought about such poverty, with the aim of long-term improvement.” That improvement is what Vincentians call “systemic change,” and it takes place on the personal, community, and national level. In this way, the Society’s notion of systemic change can be seen as a bridge between the approaches proffered by the political left – which professes compassion but prefers to keep people as perpetual wards of the state – and the political right, which would like to shame or starve the poor out of their condition.
In his landmark encyclical, Rerum Novarum, the father of modern Catholic Social Teaching, Pope Leo XIII, wrote that the Church’s “desire is that the poor should rise above poverty and wretchedness, and should better their condition in life; and for this it strives.” He wrote those words in the same document in which he called for vast changes in the economic and social systems of the emerging industrial world. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s work on systemic change is of a piece with Leo’s: Provide the economic, social and personal means for the needy to walk out of poverty on their own. Fail to do so, and reap the whirlwind.
Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 31 years and they have two adult children.