Tributes to French rebel who challenged the church

By staff writers
January 29, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams are among those from all traditions and backgrounds, including secularists, who have paid tribute to Abbe Pierre, the French Roman Catholic priest and iconic campaigner for the homeless who died recently.

His funeral took place on 26 January at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and was attended by President Chirac and members of the government.

Abbe Pierre's famous radio appeal in 1954 for the homeless and destitute stirred the conscience of his nation. He also actively supported resistance to the Nazis, spoke in favour of Palestinian rights, gave his backing to homosexuals, and challenged Vatican teaching on issues like contraception - issues which the church authoriries politely sidestepped in their responses to his demise.

"The Holy Father gives thanks for his activity in favour of the poorest, by which he bore witness to the charity that comes from Christ," Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said in a recent message to Archbishop Jean-Pierre Ricard, president of the French Bishops' Conference.

Archbishop Williams said that his prophetic voice had reminded the Church of its own particular calling to serve those at the margins of society.

He declared: "Abbe Pierre was one of the great witnesses of our day to the Church's commitment to the poorest and most excluded. Always a controversial figure, at his best he challenged the Church to be more courageous and faithful to its calling. We thank God for this and pray for him and all who shared, and still share, his calling."

In the midst of a highly secularised country, Abbe Pierre was frequently voted France's most popular person - ahead even of personalities like global soccer star Zinedine Zidane. He used his fame to challenge political leaders about homelessness and supported until the end of his life, associations which campaigned for the destitute.

Politicians of all hues praised the cleric, a familiar figure to many French people with his black beret and white beard. "France has lost an immense figure, a conscience, an incarnation of kindness," said conservative French President Jacques Chirac, who announced a day of 'national homage' to the cleric. "In all of France, everyone's hearts have been touched."

Segolene Royal, the Socialist Party candidate for the 2007 presidential election, added that, "the long cry of anger of Abbe Pierre must not die."

Abbe Pierre was born Henri Auguste Grou?®s in 1912 to a middle class family in Lyon. He took his adopted name - Abb?© is a traditional French title for a priest - while in the Resistance against Nazi occupation during the Second World War. At the end of the war he briefly served as a member of the French parliament.

He used his official salary to buy a house for homeless people and launched the first Emmaus community, named after the place in the Bible where the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples and shared a meal with them.

The Rev Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the Protestant Federation of France, said the Catholic cleric was "not only a prophet", but someone who knew how to organize for the long term, because "justice is a long term task".

Abbe Pierre's appeal during a fierce winter in 1954 for an "insurrection of kindness" mobilised public opinion to offer support to homeless people. "He was a champion of charity," said Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Catholic Archbishop of Lyon.

Still, Abbe Pierre sometimes went against the official policies of his church. He gave support to the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS, to the ordination of women and for priests to be able to marry.

In 2005, he created a stir with his book, 'Mon Dieu ... Pourquoi' ('My God ... Why'), in which he acknowledged he had, "on rare occasions", broken the priestly rule of celibacy.

Some years ago Abbe Pierre caused a string of controversy by apparently supporting his friend Roger Garaudy, a Christian-Marxist philosopher who turned to Islam, in a book which questioned the Holocaust. He firmly denied that this was his opinion, and admitted that his comment that an author of this pedigree would not say something without careful research had been based on personal affinity. He had not read the book.

The incident does not seem to have ruined Abbe Pierre's overall reputation, though his defiance of some Church teachings on moral questions has clearly ruled him out for beatification. Friends say he shared Dorothy Day's distaste for ecclesiastical sainthood.

Abbe Pierre has been buried, as he wished, in a private ceremony at the cemetery of Esteville in Normandy in northern France.

[Additional reporting derived from ENI with thanks:]

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