Preaching the Saints at Universities – A Case Study

Blessed Antoine-Frederic Ozanam (1813-1853)

In his Apostolic Exhortation The Word of the Lord (2010), Pope Benedict XVI includes a section entitled “The saints and the interpretation of Scripture.”

He writes: “The interpretation of Sacred Scripture would remain incomplete were it not to include listening to those who have truly lived the word of God: namely, the saints . . . The most profound interpretation of Scripture comes precisely from those who let themselves be shaped by the word of God through listening, reading, and assiduous meditation . . . Every saint is like a ray of light streaming forth from the word of God.” (48)

The Memorials and Feasts of Saints on our Catholic liturgical calendar are, of course, an invitation to interpret and preach the readings in light of the biographies, commentaries on Scripture, writings, charisms, and ecclesial missions of a wide range of saints in history.

With a new era of Catholic campus ministry, formation and evangelization on university campuses, with the contributions of such groups as the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, there are new opportunities to preach biblically the lives of the saints.

I would like to offer a compelling example and case study of how this can be done.

Blessed Antoine-Frederic Ozanam (1813-1853), the Founder of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, was beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II on August 22, 1997 at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris during World Youth Day Festivities in Paris. Pope St. John Paul II intentionally and strategically held up Ozanam as a model for youth. This Mass gives us the opportunity to continue to pray for the canonization of Blessed Ozanam.1

I invite you to visit the St. Vincent de Paul Chapel in the upper level of our Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC. There you will find a statue of St. Vincent de Paul and to the right of this statue a beautiful mosaic of his spiritual son, Blessed Frederic Ozanam, dedicated in 2020.

Providence College History Professor Raymond L. Sickinger has written a ground-breaking book filled with extensive new research on Ozanam entitled Antoine Frederic Ozanam published by the University of Notre Dame press in 2017.2

Ozanam was a Renaissance man who had doctorates in law and literature. He was a lawyer, a professor of literature at the Sorbonne and a journalist.

Preaching Ozanam biblically to university students helps them to realize that the cultivation of being a Renaissance person with a wide range of interests and possibilities for conversation makes them more effective evangelizers who can cast the nets of Catholic mission in many directions.

Ozanam had struggles with faith as a young man. He questioned many aspects of the faith and worked through many difficulties. He credits a philosopher-priest mentor Abbe Noirot with helping him confront his difficulties and grow in his understanding and capacity to articulate the faith. Ozanam writes: “It was then that the teaching of a philosopher priest saved me. He put my thoughts in order and light; I thought now with an assured faith, and received a rare benefit; I promised God to devote my life to the service of the truth that gave me peace.”3 Catholic Faith and Reason mentors like Abbe Noirot are critical for the faith development of University students.

What Abbe Noirot was to Blessed Ozanam in the nineteenth century, people like Bishop Robert Barron, our fine priest chaplains, lay campus ministers and faith-filled university professors are to so many university students and young adults in the twenty-first century.

The Holy Spirit led Ozanam in his search, and with his characteristic sincerity and openness, the Spirit helped him to resolve them.

It also gave him an empathy and understanding of his young peers who were atheists, agnostics or simply having trouble with faith. He had a beautiful intuition about how to help them spiritually, intellectually and emotionally.

He is a model for university students reaching out to roommates and a wide range of people in the university community.

Ozanam is a great model and intercessor for university students struggling with the existence of God and the truth claims of the Catholic Church.

He teaches us to be sincere and tenacious in searching for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the ways of Truth that always set us free.

The universities in Paris were hostile to Catholicism and religion in general. Ozanam and a group of his friends began holding debates at these universities in which they defended and explained the teachings of the Church in hostile territory.

At one public debate, one of his opponents went on the offensive and said that Ozanam and his debate partners could explain the Catholic faith, but what did they actually do to live and express it?

This challenge was a great moment of conversion and growth for Ozanam and precipitated his founding of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in the streets and poor homes of Paris and very soon in streets and poor homes all over the world.

This young intellectual with his great capacity for reasoning through and explaining his Catholic faith diversified and strengthened his faith by combining his commitment to the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy.

What a model for the twenty-first-century university student!

Ozanam’s Catholic witness ignited and his Catholic evangelization became more effective. He realized that the truths of our Catholic faith are synthetic, organic and interdependent.

It’s an insight as old as the Acts of the Apostles and as new as Pope Francis’ Evangelium Gaudium (2013) and Fratelli Tutti (2020).

It’s an insight that can inspire the twenty-first-century university student.

Ozanam teaches us, and in a special way the contemporary university student, to allow the Holy Spirit to cultivate breadth and depth in our Catholic faith. Every dimension of our Catholic faith is strengthened when we open ourselves to new dimensions of the faith.

An intellectual approach to Catholicism is strengthened by a spiritual and contemplative approach to Catholicism.

A Social Justice approach to Catholicism is strengthened by a Gospel of Life approach to Catholicism.

A Corporal Works of Mercy approach to Catholicism is strengthened by a Spiritual Works of Mercy approach to Catholicism.

A Catholic Integral Ecology approach to Catholicism, expressed so powerfully by Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, is strengthened by an understanding of the Natural Law, the Sanctity of Human Life, Catholic anthropology and the objectively true moral norms on which Catholic Integral Ecology rests and cannot be separated from.

An authentically Catholic celebration of Diversity and Inclusion and pastoral outreach and accompaniment is strengthened by a transparent assent to the Ten Commandments, fidelity to the objective truths of Catholic teaching on marriage and anthropology and an understanding of the devastating impact of “the dictatorship of moral relativism” on the religious liberty and conscience rights of all Americans.

Every dimension of Catholicism the Word of God, the Creed, the Sacraments, Catholic moral teaching and Catholic teaching on prayer is interdependent with every other dimension and a constant spirit of adventurous discovery during our university years and throughout the course of our lives helps us to grow in holiness and a commitment to Catholic evangelization.

Ozanam was an agent of the Corporal Works of Mercy (feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the prisoners, bury the dead, give alms to the poor) and the Spiritual Works of Mercy (counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving injuries, bearing wrongs patiently, praying for the living and the dead).

Through his contemplative spirit and his commitment to the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy he became an instrument of positive social change, but a true and authentic social change grounded in the objective truth, charity and mercy of our Catholic Social Justice teaching and our Catholic teaching on the Sanctity of Human Life and a belief that the “Word of God cannot be chained.”

Preaching biblically the life and message of Blessed Ozanam helps to form university students to discern critically and prayerfully authentic and positive social change from destructive and misleading masquerades of social change.

Ozanam realized that his commitment to the Works of Mercy and the social change that occurs through the Works of Mercy could only be sustained and enriched through prayer, silence, contemplation, a commitment to lectio divina of the Sacred Scriptures and being “plunged (in the power of the Eucharist, the Mass and the Sacraments) into the Paschal Mystery.”4

Preaching Ozanam biblically also offers excellent possibilities for the proximate formation of university students for a vocation to the Sacrament of Marriage.

Frederic Ozanam and his wife Amelie5 shared many letters between them which are touching for their humanity, their aspirations to grow in holiness together as husband and wife and their commitment to Catholic theology and spirituality. Their letters bring to life a living Catholic spirituality of marriage.

Frederic and Amelie realized individually and together that their intimacy with each other could only grow and deepen if their intimacy with Father, Son and Holy Spirit was growing and deepening.

There are many beautiful human touches in their letters of affection, heroic sacrifice, forgiveness, patience with each other’s faults, and the desire to keep their relationship strong, fresh and growing in holiness.

Ozanam’s life also illustrates the critical role of parents in the Catholic formation of their children.

In a sense, Frederic’s father Dr. Jean-Antoine-Francois Ozanam was the co-founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, since he was a Catholic doctor devoted to the Eucharist who took care of countless poor people not only physically but spiritually. He prayed with his patients and turned the hearts of his patients to the Divine Physician.6

Ozanam’s mother Marie passed on to Frederic her gracious and gentle personality as well as an understanding of the wounds the French Revolution had left in France (her 19-year-old brother Jean-Baptiste had been put to death by the revolutionaries and her family often had to go into hiding).

Ozanam’s life, message, and charism were prophetic in regard to the development of Catholic Social Teaching later in the nineteenth century with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and in regard to the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the Apostolate of the Laity and the baptismal call to holiness and mission of the laity.

Just as the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul in the seventeenth century inspired and animated the witness of Frederic Ozanam in the nineteenth century, so too Ozanam’s witness has inspired and animated the witness of countless Catholic saints, mystics, theologians, Vincentians and university students.7

Blessed Frederic Ozanam’s tomb is located in the lower crypt of St. Joseph-des-Carmes Church in Paris near the remains of 114 priests massacred during the French Revolution in September 1792.

The epitaph on his tomb reads:

Here rests in peace Frederic Ozanam,

Who stirred the young into action in the

Service of Christ, Principal founder

Of the Society of Saint-Vincent de Paul.


By science, history, eloquence, poetry and charity,

He consecrated himself to transforming everything

In Christ’s name. He enclosed the whole world

within a network of charity.


His name shall be invoked

From generation to generation.

Nations will celebrate his wisdom

And the Church shall praise him.8

There is a providential reason why in 2020 the mosaic of Blessed Frederic Ozanam was placed next to the statue of St. Vincent de Paul in the heart of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and in the heart of the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.

May our priest university chaplains preach biblically the lives of saints like Blessed Ozanam to inspire the university students of the twenty-first century.

  1. This section of the homily draws on Bishop Barres’ article “Blessed Antoine-Frederic Ozanam, Founder of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul,” in the May 2019 Long Island Catholic as well as his September 27, 2022 Memorial of St. Vincent de Paul homily to the Board of Trustees of the Catholic University of America.
  2. Raymond L. Sickinger, Antoine Frederic Ozanam (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).
  3. See Sickinger, 34.
  4. In his June 29, 2022 Apostolic Letter Desiderio Desideravi: On the Liturgical Formation of the People of God, Pope Francis writes: “The Liturgy is the priesthood of Christ, revealed to us and given in his Paschal Mystery, rendered present and active by means of signs addressed to the senses (water, oil, bread, wine gestures, words), so that the Spirit, plunging us into the paschal mystery, might transform every dimension of our life, conforming us more and more to Christ,” (21) The saints, mystics and martyrs live this transformational liturgical truth existentially.
  5. See Matthieu Brejon de Lavergnee, A Heart with Much Love to Give: Amelie Ozanam, 1820-1894 (Maryland Heights, MO: National Council of the United States, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Inc., 2022).
  6. See Sickinger, 12–16.
  7. See Sickinger, 271–290. Sickinger points, for instance, to Ozanam’s influence on Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin and Jacques Maritain.
  8. See Sickinger, 269–290.
Bishop John Barres About Bishop John Barres

The Most Reverend John O. Barres, STD, JCL is the fifth Bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre (Long Island, NY). Previously, he served as the Bishop of the Diocese of Allentown (PA) from 2009 to 2016. He is a graduate of Phillips Academy (Andover), Princeton University and the New York University Graduate School of Business, and holds advanced theological degrees from the Catholic University of America and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. Bishop Barres serves on the Board of Trustees of the Catholic University of America. His episcopal motto “Holiness and Mission” is taken from Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio which emphasizes the universal call to holiness and mission in the Catholic Church. It also expresses Bishop Barres’ commitment to Pope Francis’ emphasis on global Catholic missiology and evangelization and the call for a “missionary transformation” of Catholic parishes and every dimension of Catholic life and witness to the world.