Gustave Xavier Lacroix de Ravignan
French Jesuit, pulpit orator, and author, b. at Bayonne (Basses-Pyrenees), Dec. 1, 1795; d. at Paris, Feb. 26, 1858
Ravignan, GUSTAVE XAVIER LACROIX DE, French Jesuit, pulpit orator, and author, b. at Bayonne (Basses-Pyrenees), December 1, 1795; d. at Paris, February 26, 1858. Sent quite young to Paris, he studied in private boarding-schools, and for some time attended lectures at the Lycee Bonaparte. He first thought of entering the diplomatic service but decided in 1813 for the law. On Napoleon’s return from Elba, de Ravignan joined the Duc d’Angouleme’s Royal Volunteers and made the unsuccessful Spanish campaign, distinguishing himself under fire at Helette. He soon resigned his commission of lieutenant of cavalry and resumed his law studies. Called to the bar he was elected in 1817 a king’s counsel in the Paris circuit and in 1821 deputy attorney general. He was becoming famous when in May, 1822 he entered the Sulpician seminary at Issy. This made a sensation, heightened when on November 2; he was received into the Jesuit novitiate at Mont rouge. Here he laid the foundations of that lofty but practical spirituality, spirit of mortification and prayer, mastery over self, generosity, and zeal which ever marked him. After his noviceship, he studied theology and was ordained priest July 25, 1828. Like Bourdaloue, de Ravignan prepared for the pulpit in a professor’s chair. For two years at St. Acheul near Amiens, for three more at Brieg, Switzerland, he taught dogmatic theology. While at Brieg and at Estavayer on the Lake of Neufchatel, he gave missions and retreats in the neighboring country. His stir-ring Lenten course in the Cathedral of Amiens (1835), his success at Paris in St. Thomas d’Aquin (1836), pointed him to Msgr. de Quelen as the logical successor of Lacordaire at Notre Dame.
On the Notre Dame conferences de Ravignan’s oratorical fame mainly rests (“Conferences du R. P. de Ravignan de la Compagnie de Jesus” (Paris, 1860, 4 vols., 5th ed., Paris, 1897); “Conferences of Revd. Fr. de Ravignan” (Lent of 1846), tr. Fetherston (London, 1847), cf. also, “The Catholic Pulpit” (London, 1849)]. The subjects treated were the end-less conflict of truth and error, God, man, the Divinity, Person, and Doctrine of Christ, the Church and its dogmas. Here the orator introduced a course of moral conferences, but returned to apologetics in a study of the relations between reason and faith. Reading these conferences now, we find little color, imagination, or dramatic movement; we miss the compelling magnetism of the speaker. De Ravignan was “Virtue preaching Truth“. His logic, the serene authority of his affirmation, his unction, his power in repose, his noble presence, his priestly zeal captivated, dominated his hearers. The men’s retreats begun by him, and in which he excelled, completed the work. Superior of his brethren at Bordeaux (1837-42), at Paris (1848-51), then, as afterwards, he was preaching in almost every important city in France. He was heard also in Rome, in Belgium, and in London (1851) where he assisted Manning at his first Mass. Everywhere he was winning souls.
In 1843-45, public opinion led by Thiers, Cousin, Michelet, Libri, Quinet, Beranger, had set against the Jesuits. Some said they were working for the Bourbons, others, that they were too loyal to the House of Orleans. Montalembert, Dupanloup, Vatimesnil, Beugnot, Barthelemy defended them. De Ravignan, the foremost Jesuit in France, was accused of having left the order; at another time, of having made unworthy concessions to the Government. He easily cleared himself with his superior-general, Fr. Roothaan, and vindicated his order, its asceticism, its constitutions, its doctrines, its work, in a calm, logical, but serenely eloquent book, “De (‘Existence et de l’Institut des Jesuites” (Paris, 1844; 9th ed., Paris, 1879); tr. Seager (London, 1844) and Atchison (London, 1844). The book created a sensation, Royer Collard enthusiastically praising it. Twenty-five thousand copies were sold in one year, but the fight continued. Through its agent, Pellegrino Rossi, the Government of Louis-Philippe asked Gregory XVI to secularize the French Jesuits. The pope replied that to do so would be a violation of the concordat and the constitution, that no crime was imputed to the order, that the French episcopate spoke well of it. He refused, although the Government and its agent tried to create a contrary impression. De Ravignan advised a firm constitutional resistance, but Fr. Roothaan, to spare further embarrassment to the Holy See, without commanding, suggested that the French Jesuits might temporarily and partially disband. They did so, and for a few years, as a corporate body, ceased to exist in France. A painful controversy with Msgr. Affre, the future martyr Archbishop of Paris, whose measures against the order in 1844 Gregory XVI was obliged to stop, was a sore trial to de Ravignan. Throughout he remained loyal to the Society, respectful but firm with the archbishop. Another trial awaited him. In the campaign for the Falloux Law (1850) for the liberty of education, though recognizing the shortcomings of the measure and trying to eliminate them, he urged the Catholics to unite and to use their opportunities. He was accused of disrupting their ranks, of being a blind follower of de Falloux, Montalembert, and Dupanloup. He was again triumphantly vindicated.
Twice again de Ravignan came prominently before the public. In 1855 he preached the Lenten sermons at the Tuileries, before Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie. Sickness had undermined his strength, but he spoke with much of his old vigor, and with the same authority and unction. In 1847 Cretineau-Joly had published his “Clement XIV et lee Jesuites”. His strictures on Clement XIV were severe and unfair. In 1852 the learned Augustine Theiner had written his “Geschichte des Pontificats Clemens XIV”. In it Clement XIII the defender of the Jesuits was attacked, Clement XIV, who suppressed them, wronged by injudicious flatteries. At the request of Fr. Roothaan, de Ravignan wrote: “Clement XIII et Clement XIV” (Paris, 1854, 2 vols). He endeavored to put the facts in their true light. The literary merit of the work is not of the highest, but the author writes with impartiality and candor. The work of de Ravignan’s last years if not prominent or striking was fertile in results. The confessional, direction of souls, retreats and conferences for noble ladies, familiar talks to the poor, employed his zeal. Many thought him careless of his reputation, but though anxious to do well, he preferred to do good. Honors sought him. Several times his name was mentioned for the Archiepiscopal See of Paris, but faithful to his vows, he refused the honor. He preferred to work as a simple religious in every good cause. He championed the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, supported Petetot and Gratry in the reorganization of the French Oratory, and Muard in the formation of the Benedictine monastery of la Pierre-qui-Vire. After a two months’ sickness, tenderly watched by his friend, superior, and future biographer, de Ponlevoy, he died a saintly death. Berryer had knelt in tears at his bedside; Msgr. Dupanloup preached his funeral oration; thousands followed the remains of the “Apostle of Paris” to the grave.
Besides the volumes mentioned, de Ravignan did not publish anything of great importance. The following works have been gathered and edited since: “Entretiens Spirituels” etc. (Paris, 1859; 7th ed., Paris, 1881); “Suite des entretiens spirituels,” etc. (Paris, 1863, 2nd ed., 1871), tr. Ram, “Conferences on the Spiritual Life” (London, 1873; 5th ed., New York, 1895); “La vie chretienne d’une dame dans le monde” (Paris, 1861, 5th ed., 1895); “Fr. de Ravignan on Prayer” (Dublin, 189-); “Pensees et Maximes (Paris, 1911); cf. also articles in “L’Ami de la Religion“, CXVI, CXXXIX to CLI, passim.
JOHN C. REVILLE