The historical period in which Frederic Antoine Ozanam spent his short 40 year life span was one of great turmoil, marked by continual civil and social unrest in his native France and much of Europe.
The French Revolution occurred in 1789. The structure of society and the principal institutions of Western Civilization were shaken to their very foundations during the post-Revolutionary period that followed.
Ozanam witnessed an "Old Order" crumbling away and a "New Era" ascending.
A true intellectual, steeped in the history, literature, language and laws of the Western world, he remained deeply rooted in his Catholic faith and heritage. Shortly after completing his double doctorate in Literature and Law (at age 26) he wrote: "The first, deepest need of mankind and human society is religion - that which binds man to God. That is the corner- stone for which search must be made among the ruins of the old -world in order to raise up the new. " Jean Antoine Ozanam, father of Frederic, was a member of a prominent and prosperous family from the industrial city of Lyons, Jean Antoine entered the military while the Revolution was at its height (1793). He rose to the rank of Captain in the famed Hussars (cavalry) and fought beside Napoleon Bonaparte in several European campaigns. In spite of numerous commendations for valor, he retired from the military in 1798, thoroughly disillusioned by the anarchy and widespread disorder that accompanied the Revolution.
In 1800, at age 27, he married Marie Nantas, also of Lyons. While the couple had fourteen children, ten fell victim to childhood diseases and the scourges of smallpox, cholera and typhoid fever.
Partly because of these experiences and a general desire to address the ills of the age, Jean Antoine gave up his business pursuits to take up the study of medicine. He moved his family to Milan, Italy, to start a new career. There he received his medical training and degree.
It was in Milan, on April 23, 1813, that a son - Antoine Frederic - was born. Shortly after Frederic's birth, the Ozanam family returned to Lyons, where Dr. Ozanam worked at the local municipal hospital.
Young Frederic grew up in a loving, caring Christian atmosphere in which traditional Catholic family values were stressed. Nurtured by the example of his parents and the gentle tutoring of his sister, Elyse, he developed early on a deep devotion to the Mass, the Holy Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin Mary. These remained constants throughout his life.
Still, at age 16, he underwent a deep crisis of faith, not untypical of adolescent development. He became assailed by doubts as his studies exposed him to the religious skepticism of the age. He observed few people living the caring lifestyle which took place in his own family.
Finally, with the help and guidance of an understanding priest, he emerged from this trial stronger than ever in the faith. He made a solemn promise before the Blessed Sacrament to devote his life to defending the truth and uncovering the harmony between faith and reason.
At the age of 18, he enrolled in the College of France, the Sorbonne, in Paris. He plunged headlong into his studies, fascinated especially by history and literature. In a short time he had mastered ten languages, including Latin, Greek and Hebrew, so as to broaden the scope of his research endeavors.
Plagued by homesickness, the irreligious attitudes of most other young students and the blatant anti-Catholicism of many faculty members, Ozanam was sorely tested during this period.
Fortunately, he became acquainted with the brilliant French scientist, Frederic Ampere, who invited him to take up lodging at his own home, and treated him like a son.
To please his parents, who urged him to pursue a career in law, Frederic also enrolled in the school of Law at the Sorbonne. At age 23, he achieved his law degree. By age 26, he attained a double doctorate in Literature and Law. Within five years he was appointed to a full professorship at the Sorbonne. He was (and to this day remains) the youngest person ever accorded such a high position at this prestigious school.
And yet, despite his intense intellectual and academic pursuits, it was at age 20 that Ozanam and six of his close friends formed the first CONFERENCE OF CHARITY.
They had come to the realization that, after much intense debate and many brilliant defenses of Christianity, they had not moved anyone at the University to follow the teaching of Christ or return to the practice of their faith. The small group came together and reached a simple and singular conclusion: It is not enough to move men's minds. It is necessary to move their hearts. Ozanam commented simply: "One thing is lacking - works of charity. LET US GO TO THE POOR. "
That was the start. One of the small band knew enough to contact Sister Rosalie, a Daughter of Charity whose love for the poor was legendary in the slums of Paris. She agreed to provide the group with lists of families desperately in need of help.
The students began to beg money, food stuffs, fuel (coal) - anything of value - and visiting the poor in their homes or tiny apartments on a regular basis. They visited as friends and helpers.
They met weekly to report on families visited, take stock of their resources and plan their activities. Each of these meetings opened and closed with prayer. This basic structure of a "Conference Meeting" has remained unchanged since 1833.
In 1841, at age 28, Frederic Ozanam wed Amelie Soulacroix, daughter of the Rector of the University of Lyons. Subsequently, a child, Marie, was born to them. Hailed in literary and academic circles as a rising star, called upon to serve his Church on every important issue of the day, Frederic now knew and experienced the loving attention and affection of a wife and child.
Still, he pressed on. Within seven years the original band of seven friends had grown to 600 in Paris alone, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, as it was now known, had spread to 15 other cities and towns in France, with more than 2,000 members.
Between 1842 and 1845, Conferences of Charity sprang up all over the European Continent, as well as Ireland, England and Greece. In 1845, just 12 years after its founding, the Society was established in the United States and Mexico.
Ozanam knew that to preserve the basic spirit of the Society - witness to Christ, fraternal union, and direct, person-to-person assistance to the suffering - a simple rule was needed for the membership to follow, regardless of the local conditions in which they had to work.
Its founders set out to write the Rule of the Society. The Rule has been called "eloquent in its simplicity " by some and "Christianity pared down to its essentials " by others. At any rate, the Rule and structure of the Society are the enduring legacy to the poor of this great man who claimed: "The poor have called me out of myself. No wonder I love them so."
At the age of 40, Frederic Ozanam died, his body ravaged by tuberculosis, his spirit consumed by love.