By Jon Cornwall, SVP Director of Membership
Sat in a beautifully decorated Parisian living room, each new detail I notice serves to make me feel more comfortable and welcome. I can hear the distant yet familiar noise of crockery, a teapot being filled, and what I imagine sounds like petit fours being placed onto plates. I look around the room and my eyes take in details of simple elegance. The Ozanams are by no means penniless, but they are not wasteful. Their home is warm, welcoming and comfortable. Neat bookshelves adorn most walls with a small pile of place-marked books next to what I assume is Frédéric’s seat. On the side table sits a vase of beautiful, freshly cut flowers. I had heard that Frédéric would buy these monthly for Amelie to celebrate their marriage afresh. Pollen from those flowers is being caught up in beams of sunlight streaming in and for a moment the light glitters.
I sit comfortably for a moment and enjoy this scene and I am honoured by the invitation. I do not notice the footsteps as Frédéric enters, rushes forward and shakes my hand. Here is a man who did not live through 2020. As I am shocked back into reality he smiles at my surprise, and in heavily accented English he welcomes me. He sits down in what was indeed a favourite spot, and turns to greet his Amelie who is close behind having provided refreshments. With thanks she leaves, and you can feel the love and warmth radiate between them.
I had prepared so many questions for this moment and suddenly I find my mouth dry, my consummate host sets about pouring some perfectly steeped tea and he breaks into the silence.
“I hear you are from the Saint Vincent de Paul Society in England and Wales…”
“I am yes, thank you, it has been an interesting time recently.” He nods and smiles knowingly. We find ourselves saying the same thing: “Do you still trust in Providence?” It is so strange to be speaking to the man whose many quotes I have taken to heart. I know to what he is referring and find myself repeating his words back to him. “Yes, I know what you mean, ‘Providence is like a mother who takes away the chair in which her child is sitting, just so that she can pick him up and carry him in her arms.’ Yes, I believe we do, we have found new ways of supporting people. We have used new technology to stay connected, we have done everything we can to care for others.”
Frédéric smiles and nods. “It sounds like you are providing service, no act of charity is alien to the Society.” I reply: “Thank you, the members inspire me every day.” He laughs knowingly and seems amused how little changes over the centuries. We each pause and take a sip of tea as I consider my first question. As a black coffee drinker myself, I must admit that I would prefer that this were a more tar-like drink. I am surprised though that Frédéric seems to be equally underwhelmed.
“It is kind of you to make time to share a cuppa with me, but I failed to ask whether you actually like to drink tea?” He smirks at my discovery that he does not especially like tea at all. I continue with my first question: “What would be your drink of choice?” He laughs. “Honestly, I am happier with a beer.” Living through his own time of an epidemic of cholera, he knew the value of drinking sterile water, and as such one of the healthiest options was in the form of beer. I suggest that perhaps we finish our teas and then make for the nearest terrasse?
As we sip at the tea, which neither of us enjoys, I ask: “Did you ever imagine that the Society would grow this much? Over 150 countries and almost a million members worldwide and counting?”
Quick with a smile, he replies: “I always dreamed it would and trusted in Providence. I would like to embrace the whole world in a network of charity.” It is my turn to smile hearing this famous phrase being spoken back to me, and I am stunned and humbled, not so much by his words, but now by his tone. There is confidence there, not just in himself, but in the Spirit and the generosity of hearts touched by it. Frédéric has a great deal of faith, but also a great deal of faith in people drawn to care.
We leave, wishing Amelie a good day. She chides us both that our time talking will only be useful if it leads to a time of action and I can see that this is a very well-matched couple. We step out into a beautiful spring day and walk through leafy Paris. Within moments we find ourselves sat outside a café with drinks imminent.
“Did you have any other questions for me today?” Frederic asks. I think through all the questions I had prepared, but somehow in the moment they do not seem appropriate. “Do you have any message for the members of the SVP in 2021?” I venture. “I do, thank you,” he continues. “Yours must be a work of love, of kindness, you must give your time, your talents, yourselves. You must not be content with tiding the poor over the poverty crisis, you must study their condition and the injustices which brought about such poverty, with the aim of a long-term improvement.”
“The Good Samaritan,” I say, pre-empting his next point. He nods, pleased to see that his words are ringing true. I continue: “Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who was attacked.”
Frédéric finishes his own quote: “…but it is justice’s role to prevent the attack.”
Frédéric takes a sip from his beer and releases a contented noise which tea did not achieve. He realises the enormity of the challenges which present themselves, but is unphased. I, meanwhile, am having one of my less confident moments.
“How do we do it? What is the secret to success? How can we ensure that this Society continues to grow for future centuries?”
Frédéric is kind with me, but for a moment I see the hard-nosed academic side of him behind his eyes. “I asked you at the beginning,” he says, “do you still trust in Providence? I do not think you fully understood me.” I am stunned into silence, but keen to see where this goes. “You seem to think that Providence is just the Holy Spirit sending you what you need, the funds and food you seek to provide, the stuff… You are only trusting in God for materials, why not also trust in the people who are filled with that same Spirit? Trust in your members, trust in partners and other charities we do not need to work alone, trust in those you are helping. Do you not think that they would also wish to help themselves? Trust in Providence does not even stop at people, it is the hope which carries you, the seemingly impossible can only be achieved by people who believe it can happen. You are good Vincentians, so please don’t worry, do not allow yourselves to become daunted, but seek to do what you can, perhaps only a little each day, but it grows like a mustard seed.”
“Do you get tired?” I ask. “Physically, yes, I am not a healthy man, but emotionally, spiritually? I used to. Amelie reminds me to take breaks, to rest, to think and to think more of others. Amelie and I often remind each other that the best way to economise time is to ‘lose’ half an hour each day attending Holy Mass. I never get quite so tired when I have made time for prayer.”
“Thank you so much for your time Frédéric, and we will do our best. Thank you for the Society you founded for us, thank you for the cup of tea and the beer, and may I wish you a very happy birthday.”
Frédéric remains seated. Some people nearby have already begun to chat with him. They appear to be some fellow Conference members. They wave me off and seem to be touched to know that almost 200 years after the foundation of this Society it is still responding, loving, growing and caring.
This conversation was not just a work of fantasy, it was a prayerful encounter.
We pray for the spirit of providence to empower our Society to serve and grow. Inspiring others to join us in charity and justice. Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, pray for us.