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The Society of St. Vincent de Paul


St. Jude's Conference, Kalpetta

Doing for the Poor

The magnificent work of Frederic Ozanam lives on in St. Vincent de Paul Society



This is the text of Cardinal O'Connor's homily at Sunday Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral April 27.

When a man's cause for beatification is introduced a hundred years after his death he must have done something extraordinary. Even more, there must be something extraordinary to keep his memory alive. Many people do many wonderful things. Often, very ordinary people do wonderful things and after they die, as generations succeed, no matter who they were, they are forgotten. What keeps the memory of Frederic Ozanam alive? Who is the man Frederic Ozanam?

Frederic Ozanam did some magnificent things in his short span of life, 40 years, which ended in 1843. I do not think there is much question, and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints seems to agree, that it was his founding of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that was perhaps his most fruitful work. The society keeps his memory alive today.

The process for canonization is normally a very long process. When there seems to be reason, and enough people seem to be supportive of it, then eventually the cause, the proposal, is submitted to the Holy See, to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. They study it almost endlessly. They do a historical and a theological study. Then, if they deem it appropriate, they declare an individual a Servant of God. Then there is further study and they declare him Venerable, as is the case with Pierre Toussaint, buried beneath the high altar here. If, then, a miracle occurs and can be certified without any question whatsoever with medical testimony and so on--in other words an event that was humanly, physically impossible nonetheless occurred, such as a cure of terminal cancer--then the Church may declare an individual beatified. Normally one more miracle is required for canonization.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, when it issued the decree for the introduction of the cause of Frederic Ozanam, had this to say on the 11th of November in 1949:

''...[A]s has already been suggested, the greatest achievement of the Servant of God was that work which he inspired and fostered, and of which he is justly regarded as the principal founder, the Society of Conferences, as it is called. This Society had as its object the visitation and helping of the poor [but not in a bureaucratic way].

''The germ of the Society consisted of the Servant of God and a few companions of like spirit and character, but it struck deep roots, and with amazing rapidity grew into a vast tree, whose branches by now have spread into all the corners of the earth. The Society has proved itself of incalculable value, not only to vast multitudes of needy persons, to whom it extends both material and spiritual help, but also to its own members, whom it provides with an opportunity of practicing the works of mercy and every kind of virtue. When Frederic Ozanam died in 1854 there were 1,532 Conferences of St. Vincent de Paul, with a membership of 15,000 brothers. By the end of 1953, there were 17,000 Conferences spread throughout thirty countries.''

Today there are 42,000 plus. This very rapidly growing movement, not an organization, involves the true works of charity, hands-on works with the poor.

Year after year, on Ozanam Sunday, we have made brief remarks about Frederic Ozanam and about the St. Vincent de Paul Society and then gone on to something else. In view of the fact that on the 22nd day of August this summer, in Paris, in the midst of World Youth Day, our Holy Father will declare Frederic Ozanam beatified, I think you agree we should spend a bit more time today to describe the works of this individual, the works of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Let us do so within the context of today's readings.

In the second reading from the first letter of the Apostle John [1 Jn. 3: 18-24] we read, ''Let us love in deed and in truth and not merely talk about it.'' That is what St. John said almost 2,000 years ago. This is what Frederic Ozanam said. ''Social welfare reform is to be learned, not in books or from a public platform, but in climbing the stairs to a poor man's garret, sitting by his bedside, feeling the same cold that pierces him, sharing the secrets of his lonely heart and troubled mind.'' This is the same reason the Son of God became a human being, to share, most particularly, to share with the poor.

When I came into the house last night there was a man standing in front of the house, one sitting on the doorstep; both were either drunk or on drugs, in rags, in tatters, asking for money. I looked at them and I thought, ''These men are made in the image and likeness of Christ! This is why Christ died--dirty, scruffy, smelly, most unattractive.'' It is easy, isn't it, to give money, to write a check, to deduct it from our income tax. That is not what Frederic did. Who is this man?

Frederic Ozanam was born in April of 1813 in Milan, which at that time was a French possession. He was weak and frail; this is why he lived only until 40 years of age. He died of something like pneumonia.

Frederic Ozanam was married and had one child. He loved his wife and his child very much. He was a brilliant man, a genius. He had a double doctorate. He became a doctor of law and a doctor of philosophy in foreign literature. First he taught law at the University of Lyon. Then he became the renowned professor of literature at the Sorbonne in France, a thoroughly atheistic university at the time. France was in shambles, just falling apart at the seams. Poverty was indescribable, and there was seething anger and resentment of the poor against the regime. Unfortunately, a lot of people in the Church sided with the regime. They could not see Christ in the poor. It was difficult, as it was to see Christ in the two men at my doorstep last night. But Christ was there, in them.

Frederic Ozanam said, for instance, ''When you see a poor man like that you should fall on your knees as Thomas did before Christ or as Peter did and say, 'My Lord and my God.' '' Exaggerated? Perhaps in one way, not in another. But it is very possible that one of the major causes of the French Revolution horrors is not only that the poor were ignored by the aristocracy but they were ignored by many in the Church.

Frederic Ozanam was a tremendous debater. He was passionately a defender of the faith, but he was distressed that the Church was not doing enough and, most particularly, that the Church was not preaching enough about the problems in France. He was only 20 years old when he went around gathering signatures and took them to the Archbishop of Paris and asked him to appoint some preachers. He said, ''The preaching in this country is horrible! Nobody is preaching about the poor. Nobody is preaching about justice. Please, Archbishop, do something about the preaching!''

Ultimately Frederic Ozanam got some great priests to preach about the poor and about social justice. In one of his debates, however, something significant happened. There was a tirade going on against the Church, and Frederic sat there and listened to it all.

Finally, he got up and this is what he had to say:

''...Several hundred years ago, a powerful King was about to die.

''...This King left to His followers a command--an injunction which they must obey even after His death if they are to be recognized as citizens of His kingdom.

''His command was--'Love one another as I have loved you.'

''And how greatly did He love them? He loved them with infinite generosity and He was about to die for them. For this King was our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings.

''Now obviously...this command by the Founder of Christianity to His followers, to love one another, to love their neighbors as themselves, means that charity is the very heart of Christianity, the source and center of its life.

''...What other religion...or what philosophy teaches that we must love even our enemies; that our neighbor is the supernaturally adopted son of the Father, and brother, with us, of the Father's Only Begotten Son?

''From the apostolic age to our day, the Church of Christ has declared the slave equal to the master in God's eyes--a teaching which must eventually banish slavery from any truly Christian land. It has taught, and it teaches today, that the rich are but stewards of their wealth for the Supreme Owner, God, and that in giving to the needy, those who have more than they require are but making a just return to God.

''...It was these principles that enabled Christianity to triumph over a hostile, pagan world in which the human person possessed no inherent worth.

''And behold the works of mercy to which these principles have given birth! In the time of Constantine, the Church established the first hospitals known to the world--and for centuries, until with the Revolution France became so largely godless, a Christian society recognized its responsibility for its poor. When the rich and powerful forgot that responsibility, Christian leaders never failed to rise up and remind them of it.''

Then Frederic Ozanam was interrupted and some screamed out.

''You talk of the past--what of today?''

Frederic replied:

''Do you mean to tell me that you have never heard of the [Institute of the Little Sisters of the Poor] whose members devote themselves to nursing the sick poor, and who have been established by the present Archbishop of Paris? Do you not know of the Association of the Holy Family, of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, of the Sisters of Hope, and the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul?...''

But when he finished, again someone screamed out:

''You people put all the burden of relief for the poor upon your religious orders--then you wash your hands of the job!...Don't try to impress us with what priests and nuns are doing for the poor. Tell us, Frederic Ozanam, what are you doing for them--you and your fellow Catholics in this room?

''...Come! show us your works.''

That is what really changed Frederic Ozanam's life. He was a great defender of the faith, a great complainer, a justifiable complainer, about the lack of preaching about the poor among the priests. But this shook him. He was asked, ''What are you doing?'' What are you doing for the poor? Not what are the priests and the nuns are doing. What are you doing? That led to the founding of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

But Frederic Ozanam was absolute. This was to be a hands-on activity involving every individual who wanted to help. He said that there is a priesthood among the poor. They minister to us. He says of the poor, to the members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, to us, ''A person is in need of a messenger of God to us sent to prove our justice and charity and save us by our works. So the poor are messengers of God to us.''

Here is how Frederic Ozanam explained his reason for establishing the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. He says:

''I have found that Christianity had been for me until now a sphere of ideas, a sphere of worship, but not sufficiently a sphere of morality, of intentions, of actions. I want to speak of faith. Religious ideas can have no value if they have not a practical and positive value. Religion serves less to thank than to act and if it teaches to live it is in order to teach to die. The value of Christianity is in this and not in the attraction which its dogmas may present to men and women of imagination and of mind.''

Look at today's Gospel. Be loved. If our consciences having nothing to charge us with we can be sure that God is with us and that we will receive at His hands whatever we ask. Why? Because we are keeping His commandments and doing what is pleasing in His sight. His commandment is this, we are to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ and are to love one another as He commanded us. Is that where some of us slip and fall by the wayside? Are some of us preachers? Are some of us teachers? Are some of us parents? Are some of us poor? Are some of us wealthy? We may be believers. We may come faithfully to Mass. We may enjoy the music. We may feel better but do we convert this into action, to action toward one another within our own families, action toward the poor. Do we reach out to anyone? Will I reach out to anyone today?

How often do I reflect on the loneliness, the misery right here in this city of New York? Some time back I went over to the West Side and visited a shelter run by the Franciscan Fathers. You would not recognize the people in the shelter there, nameless, almost faceless in their anonymity. The people the Franciscans take in are not merely the homeless and the ordinary poor. They take the poorest of the poor. They take the drug addicts, the alcoholics, those whose minds are shattered, those who can no longer do or think for themselves.

I talked to one woman, a trained nurse. She had been living in that shelter for seven years after she had lived in Central Park in the freezing rain and snow and blistering summers. Finally she wandered off the streets to the West Side of Manhattan where the Franciscans took her in. She told me she had been there for four years. She had been seven years on the streets. She said, ''I would be dead now if it weren't for the Church.'' But she did not mean just a grim-looking set of buildings. She didn't mean simply liturgical worship as beautiful and as critical as it is. She meant the Church that turns its love into action, the Church that recognized what Christ recognized--that the poor are made in His image and likeness. This is the great work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, hands-on, person-to-person. We thank God for them.

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