CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 15 June 2019

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True lay leadership


his is a story about a young man, who was especially remembered at the World Youth Day in Paris over a decade ago.

Frederic Ozanam was born in Milan and raised in France. As a teenager, he experienced a crisis of faith. But helped by his teachers, Ozanam emerged from the struggle stronger in faith and with a deep charity towards unbelievers and doubters.

Ozanam was an intellectual. He published his first book when only 18. He went to Paris to study law and he became a notable lay leader at the Sorbonne. He went on to an academic career in law and literature.

He earned doctoral degrees in law and in literature, and became an outstanding international lecturer.

Ozanam was not only an intellectual, he was truly practical. In 1833, at the age of 20, he and several fellow Catholic students established a Conference of Charity dedicated to practical work by laypeople among the poor.

Two years later it changed its name to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The society realised that giving material help to people in poverty was not enough. Spiritual help was needed to give people the hope and courage to rise above despair and abuse.

Today it continues to be a Catholic society, giving both material and spiritual help. It is a truly lay society.

Ozanam had a global vision. Today we talk about globalisation, but for Ozanam this was not just words. The society in one nation was expected to come to the aid of the needy of other countries.

Thus, the Paris branch assisted Dublin during the Irish famine and the Dublin branch reached out to the Parisian victims of the French Revolution of 1848.

Ozanam was a Catholic. He brought his faith to bear to the important questions of his time. He was active not only in helping the poor, but also in social questions. He was an early exponent of what we now call the social teaching of the Catholic Church. It is important to remember that he did all this as a married man with a family and a successful career, even though he died at 40.

Jesus tells us to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame to our dinner-parties. They cannot pay us back. Ozanam did this in a practical way and today, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul continues to bring food and spiritual care to the poor and needy among us.

Can we compare ourselves with Ozanam, with his deep charity and practical work among the poor?

What about his global vision, his interest in political questions active contributions? What about the way he used his brains? Can we compare our leadership and initiative with this young layman’s leadership and initiative?


World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro has just ended. But its spirit lives on, as does that of Ozanam. We can imbibe from both.