Thursday, January 25, 2007

Abbé Pierre

France is mourning the passing of one of it’s most well loved, if not sometimes controversial, figures. L’Abbé Pierre est mort… Abbé Pierre, a Catholic priest who devoted much of his life to the care of the homeless poor, died on Monday, Jan. 22. He was 94.

France is probably neck and neck with Italy in the saints department. Despite France’s secularized society it has continued to produce saintly icon to this day. The much-loved Brother Roger of Taize, also in his 90s, died last year in the hands of a knife-wielding deranged devotee. These modern-day saintly Frenchmen died really old while some of France’s popular saintly women died very young, like Therese of Lisieux and Joan of Arc.

French President Jacques Chirac himself announced Abbé Pierre’s death and called him “an immense figure, a conscience, a man who personified goodness.” What a tribute. Abbé Pierre, Chirac said, “represented the spirit of rebellion against misery, suffering, injustice and the strength of solidarity.” Abbé Pierre raged against the dying of the light in the hearts of men and women.

In popular polls over the years, Abbé Pierre topped the list more than 17 times as France’s favorite personality. At one time, he even edged out football superstar Zinedine Zidane. Would such “an immense figure” make it to the bottom of a list in perpetually star-struck Philippines? France, producer of great classic films and movie and fashion icons, just had to give way to a non-star. Sure, Abbé Pierre was an icon in his own right, a star in a way, but in a different firmament.

Born in 1912, Abbé Pierre was christened Henri-Antoine Groues. As a young man he gave up his inherited wealth and joined the Franciscan Order (the Capuchins). Because of lung problems, he left the order but he was ordained a priest in 1938 when the dark clouds of war were threatening Europe.

“Abbé Pierre” was a pseudonym, a nom de guerre that he used in the French resistance in World War II. The priest saved thousands of lives, mainly Jews as well as the politically persecuted, and helped them escape to Switzerland or Algeria.

After the war, Abbé Pierre, upon the persuasion of Charles de Gaulle, became a member of parliament. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly as an independent candidate. He used his position to help the cause of the dispossessed of his constituency and of the whole country.

In 1949, Abbé Pierre founded the Emmaus movement. His encounter with a despairing man who wanted to end his own life started it all. Other men in various states of despair and seeking shelter continued to come to him.

The first Emmaus communities were in Paris. Emmaus aimed to help the homeless, including refugees many of whom were rag pickers. Abbé Pierre provided not only homes but financial assistance as well so that the poor could begin to use their skills to make a living. The rag pickers earned income by recycling peoples garbage. They soon earned the name Les Chiffoneirs d’Emmaus or the rag pickers of Emmaus.

In 1951, Abbé Pierre resigned from parliament in order to fully concentrate on helping the poor, the refugees especially, who where flocking to Paris. The priest saw the power of the media, particularly TV to campaign on behalf of the poor and raising public consciousness. Not long after, a film on his life was produced, thus spreading the cause he espoused.

I don’t know if that film is the same as the film “Hiver ’54: L’abbé Pierre” (Winter of ’54: Abbe Pierre).

Emmaus is now an international organization with 327 member groups that convene every four years. An executive committee runs the operations. Emmaus maintains homes in different parts of the world. The movement got its name from Emmaus, a place in Palestine where the resurrected Jesus appeared to his apostles, broke bread with them and, uh, caused burning in their hearts.

In spite of his popularity Abbé Pierre had his share of controversy. He maintained friendship with philosopher and convicted “Holocaust denier” Roger Garaudy as well the ultra-progressive French Bishop Jacques Gaillot.

In his own memoirs, Abbé Pierre admitted to have had casual sex with women when he was a young priest, something that he regretted because, he said “it made me feel untrue.”

Okay, the curious would surely want to know more. So here are some entries from his memoirs, his thoughts on what the experience taught him.

“I understand that sexual desire, in order to be completely fulfilled has to be expressed in a living relationship, tender and trustful. I had chosen a life that could not allow such a relationship. I could have only made a woman unhappy and I would find myself being divided between two irreconcilable choices of life.

“Truth can only exist in simplicity, not duplicity. We (priests) have to reject any hypocrisy so omnipresent (in our church). Sex is a powerful vital force; it is possible for anyone to yield to sexual temptation. But it is completely different for a priest or religious to be sexually active. He can cause his victim decades of suffering.

“As for me, if had married or become involved in a love relationship, I could never have accomplished what I have. My vocation required unlimited flexibility. But I am convinced that in the church there is need for both married priests and those who practice celibacy who can dedicate themselves totally to prayer and the service of others.”

Having revealed so much in his memoirs, Abbé Pierre may not make it to the pantheon of the canonized but so what. In 2005 he made it to third in a TV poll for “The Greatest Frenchman”. Of all time, I suppose. He had given hope.