Mystic and reformer

Alphonse Gratry, the 19th century French priest, mystic and philosopher, was a major source of inspiration for the young Joseph Cardijn.

Born in 1805, Gratry became a leading figure of the first generation of Christian social action in the period before and after the Workers Revolution of 1848. He was close to Frédéric Ozanam, who he brought in as a lecturer at the Stanislas College in Paris of which Gratry was director in the 1840s. After the death in 1854 of the excommunicated priest, Félicité de Lamennais, it was Gratry who celebrated a mass in his memory. He also knew Frédéric Le Play, the pioneering social researcher, whose methods were later adapted first by the Sillon and later by the YCW in its see-judge-act method. As John Henry Newman had done in England, so too in France did Gratry restore the Oratory, an association of priests founded by St Philip Neri. In short, Alphonse Gratry was a towering personality but whose influence always remained somewhat in the background.

He wrote a number of books, including a manual of social action published during the 1848 revolutionary period. Later his works took a more philosophicala and theological bent. His book, Les Sources, became an important reference for spiritual direction. His last book, La Paix, which was published in 1869, just before the outbreak of the Franco-German war of 1870, caused a storm in the militaristic ruling circles who dominated French political life.

Gratry opposed the definition of papal infallibility at the first Vatican Council. He was perhaps a major influence in the prevention of a broader definition from being adopted at the Council. After a period of reflection, he finally adhered to the teaching of Vatican I shortly before his death, preferring not to isolate himself or cut himself off from the Church as Lamennais had done.

His writings would later become an important source for the second generation of modern lay apostolate leaders and thinkers. The philosopher, Léon Ollé-Laprune, himself a disciple of Ozanam, nevertheless placed Gratry on a pedestal even higher than that of the founder of the Society of St Vincent de Paul. Gratry's writings, together with those of Ozanam and Ollé-Laprune, would also be greatly influential with Marc Sangnier and his collaborators in the foundation of the Sillon in the Crypt of Stanislas College in the 1890s.

Gratry exercised a wide influence at the end of the 19th century. The philosopher, William James, who wrote extensively on the philosophy of religious experience, and whose writings were also read by the young Cardijn, was one of many who were influenced by Gratry.

Like his predecessors, Cardijn also drew heavily on the writings of Alphonse Gratry, who thus became a vital source for the development of the third generation of the modern lay apostolate.

Alphonse Gratry's thought would also become an important source for the recently canonised philosopher, St Edith Stein. Other social movements also drew on his thinking, e.g. the Moral Rearmament movement begun at Oxford in the 1930s.

Another to be influenced by Gratry was the English mathematician and philosopher, George Boole in whose honour we today speak of boolean logic.

In recent times, Gratry's work has been been largely forgotten.

However, the late Spanish philosopher, Julian Marias, published a book, La Filosofía del padre Gratry.,

And in 2006, the French Oratorians and the Cercle du Sillon hosted a colloquium at the French Senate, where Gratry had been chaplain, to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth;

Other recent references to Gratry can be found by searching by a (Boolean!) search on altavista or another search engine.

Stefan Gigacz

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