Outstanding French historian, literary critic, legal authority, AND exemplary lay leader, Antoine Frederic Ozanam was also the founder of the international hands-on charitable organization, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Although born in Milan, Italy, Frederic was a part of French history. According to family tradition, he was the descendant of a 7th-century convert from Judaism, Samuel Hosannam. Raised in Lyons, France, he experienced a “crisis of doubt” in his teens; but with the aid of his teacher, Abbe Noirot, he emerged from the struggle all the firmer in his Catholic faith, and with deep charity towards unbelievers with similar doubts.
Having published his first book — a refutation of socialism — when only 18, he went to Paris to study law. Here he met and became closely associated with the most notable young Catholic lay leaders at the Sorbonne. Active in countering the anti-Catholicism then prevalent at the University, he and several Catholic fellow students also established in 1833 a “Conference of Charity” dedicated to practical lay work among the poor. Two years later its name was changed to the “Society of St. Vincent de Paul,” and its formal rules were published. It aimed at serving the needy of every faith and nation, and the Society in one nation was expected to come to the aid of the needy of other nations in seasons of crisis. (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.) The remarkable thing about this worldwide organization, which now has 46,650 local conferences with 880,000 members, is that, although blessed by the Church, it is strictly a lay undertaking.
Meanwhile the young founder himself continued his studies and won doctorates in law and in literature. Elected professor of foreign literature at the Sorbonne in 1844, he became noted for his Dante scholarship, and for his general proficiency in Latin and foreign languages. But his interests were not merely literary. In a country where most Catholics were monarchists, he believed that they should play a role in the Christian evolution of the democratic state. He himself ran for office (although unsuccessfully) in the French National Assembly in 1848. The social question was also being raised in his era. In his law lectures he denounced both economic liberalism and any form of socialism even before Karl Marx and Friederich Angels published the Communist Manifesto. His brilliant exposition of Catholic social doctrine anticipated much of what Pope Leo XIII would teach on social justice in the historic encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891).
Ozanam, married and a parent, was therefore unrivalled as an exemplar of the lay apostolate in family, intellectual, and social life. The cause for his beatification was introduced in 1923. On July 6, 1993, Pope John Paul II approved the decree of heroic sanctity, which conferred on Professor Ozanam the title “venerable.” The same pope declared him “blessed” in Notre Dame Cathedral on August 22, 1997 at the “World Youth Day” in Paris. The occasion of the beatification was appropriate, for Blessed Frederic was a young man (only 40) when he died, and his greatest accomplishments had been those of a youthful layman full of practical faith and worldwide compassion.
–Father Robert F. McNamara