Mass to Celebrate the Bicentenary of the Birth of Blessed Frederick
OzanamSt Mary’s Chelsea
28 September 2013
Today, as we celebrate this anniversary of the birth of Blessed Frederick Ozanam, above all we thank God for the gift of faith, the faith that shaped his life, and the faith which we embrace so that it may shape our lives, too.
It is with the eyes of faith that we see our daily living, see it, judge it and come to act in it. When we look at our world through the eyes of Jesus, then we see it in the light of truth. Indeed without that light, life is often little more than a painful puzzle: the puzzle of suffering that has no meaning and death that is simply oblivion. If we do not know God in and with Jesus, Our Lord, then all of reality is transformed into an indecipherable enigma. Without faith there is no way to follow, and without a way there is neither life nor truth. In contrast, to see life with the eyes of faith is to see it in its grandeur and depth. As St Vincent de Paul wrote: ‘If you consider the poor in the light of faith, then you will see that they take the place of God the Son, who himself chose to be poor.’ In this light, every aspect of life takes on new depth and new meaning: there is a Saviour given to us; his language and power is that of love; he reveals that at the heart of all creation there is nothing other than love for ‘God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God and God will live in him.’ (John 4.16)
Here, in this mystery of love, emerging only in the light of faith, we find the unifying meaning of all aspects of reality. Today many sense that lack of a unifying sense of meaning and purpose in life. They look to information to provide what is missing. Indeed, in the search for this meaning we are flooded with more and more information. But information cannot provide that which is given freely in the gift of faith. For this reason today we rejoice whole-heartedly in our faith, our greatest gift.
You are all familiar with the life of Frederick Ozanam. And what a remarkable story it is, a story shaped to its core by this same gift of faith, a story that has so much packed into a short life of 40 years. Here are some of the features to which I was drawn as I searched for indications, foundations, of all that has flowed from his remarkable life.
First, his early experience of the death of loved ones, especially his sister Elise, must have created in him a profound capacity for compassion for others who are carrying the weight of suffering and sorrow.
Secondly, his keen mind and exceptional academic gifts and achievements were constantly used to defend Catholic faith and to explore its truths, in circumstances of academic disputation. Already at the age of 18, Frederick published an effective and acclaimed booklet defending the true meaning of our faith as a positive factor in the fabric of society. Indeed he argued throughout his life that Christianity, looked at both historically and philosophically, was the key to civilization. Christianity had the power always to have a profound civilising effect on society.
Then we see that he was a person who understood the importance and effectiveness of student societies, especially in the climate of the Parisian Universities which were so hostile to the things of faith. He played a major part in starting up the Society of Good Students which later became the Society of History. And it was from one of the debates in that Society, in April 1833, that his great step emerged. One evening there was a fierce discussion about the truth of the Church and its impact in society. Dissenting voices threw down a challenge: ‘What is your Church doing now, for the poor of Paris? Show us your works and we will believe in you.’ Frederick’s response was immediate: ‘Yes, let us go to the poor!’
Then, thirdly, he was a man of practical action, a man of the Gospel who was not able to walk on by, on the other side of the road. Blessed Frederick Ozanam engaged not simply in debate, but in the building up of an organisation, a movement of practical charity. This he did while also being the Professor of Foreign Literature at the Sorbonne and an author of great distinction. The Society which emerged from the Society of Good Students and the Society of History was the Society of St Vincent de Paul which, by the time of his death twenty years later, had almost 2000 members. Today it has over 700,000 members world-wide and is active in at almost 150 countries.
As we ponder our tasks today we need these same qualities: compassion in abundance; intelligent and robust faith in the way we see all that is around us; practical good sense and organisation. Then we will indeed be a sign of the love in God in our land.
What kinds of poverty do we see today? Briefly may I suggest the following:
We see every human being through the eyes of faith, each person endowed with God-given dignity, born and flourishing in relationship to others and to God. This suggests that we need to have eyes for the poverty which robs people of these truths: the relational poverty experienced by so many elderly people today; the poverty of parenting which undermines family life and even children’s’ health; the spiritual poverty of those fed on an exclusive diet of superficial excitement or much worse. These are poverties made more visible in the light of faith and in that same light we can act to relieve them.
As we celebrate this Mass of thanksgiving and here renew our dedication to the work of the Societies of St Vincent de Paul, it is good to have in our hearts this fundamental truth: only from the Eucharist itself will the civilisation of love spring forth. May our celebration of this and every Mass, in which we enter again the death and resurrection of the Lord, fill our hearts with the gift of divine love of which the Mass is the fullest expression and source. Only then with our love be secure and our service be truly to the glory of God alone. And may Mary, our Mother, to whom we give a special place on every Saturday, help us always to present her Son, Love Incarnate, to all whom we meet.
Most Rev V Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster