The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is the largest lay Catholic organization in the world, with about a million members and volunteers in 155 countries around the world. As the primary founder, and inspirational leader of the earliest Conferences, we can very fairly say that Blessed Frédéric Ozanam left a very large legacy – he literally changed the world. Yet we know him to have been a very humble and modest man. Although there is no record of him saying this actual phrase that is often attributed to him, it is very fair to say that he truly sought in his life “to become better, and to do a little good.”
How could such a modest goal become such a great, apostolic legacy? Perhaps it would be better to ask how it could not. After all, the very Kingdom of Heaven, Christ taught, is grown from the smallest of seeds. Frédéric accomplished great things not by setting out to accomplish great things, but by setting out to make himself better by growing closer to Christ, and to share the good news with others. This was his vision for the Society, too, as a “a community of faith and works erasing little by little the old divisions” made up of members resolved “to become better themselves in order to make others happier.” [Letter 290, to Amélie, 1841]
Frédéric believed that the church offered the solution to “the social question” precisely because it was not of this world; because through the saving word of Jesus Christ we will be able to place all questions in their proper place, and be united by love, not divided by material concerns. At the same time, he recognized the great challenge of this, and asked the very same kinds of questions we often ask ourselves: Am I holy enough? Who am I to try to teach others the path to holiness?
As Frédéric once put it, “how does one make saints without being a saint oneself? How do we preach resignation and courage to the unfortunate when we feel devoid of it ourselves? How do we reproach them for things we too are guilty of?” We’re challenged, he said, when we see “we are equals in infirmity and in virtue often inferior to those we are visiting.” [1372. Report to Gen’l Assly, 1838]
In his deep and lifelong kerygmatic commitment, Frédéric recognized that it is we who are first evangelized when we see that it is Christ we serve, that love of neighbor can never be separated from love of God, and that our own growth in holiness makes each of us not a mighty tree, but something much greater – a tiny mustard seed.
To seek personal holiness might seem, Frédéric conceded, a “motive of personal interest, this egoism which is at the bottom of our work.” [Letter 82, to Curnier, 1834] But we only become better by becoming smaller, greater by becoming more modest, and we change the world by first changing ourselves.
Am I holy enough?