Message of radical French priest still challenges church

By Ecumenical News International
3 May 2007

The thoughts of Abbé Pierre, a French Roman Catholic priest who championed the homeless and the destitute and was revered in his home country, will now be available in English, following his death in January 2007 - writes Stephen Brown of ENI.

"Abbé Pierre is well-known in the French, Spanish and Italian speaking worlds, but he is much less well-known in the English speaking world," said the Rev. William McComish, the former dean of the Protestant St Pierre Cathedral in Geneva. McComish translated Abbé Pierre's final book, "Why, oh why, my God?", from French with his wife, Carolyn.

The French priest was born Henri Grouès in 1912 to a middle class family in Lyon. During the Second World War he was a resistance fighter and took the name Abbé Pierre - Abbé is a traditional French title for a priest. After the war, he set up his Companions of Emmaus movement for the homeless, and the group now works in more than 50 countries.

"Sadly, I think the Emmaus community has a future in this society, divided as it is between rich and poor," said McComish, at the launch of the book in Geneva on 30 April.

Abbé Pierre became a household name to many French people with his black beret and white beard, and was frequently voted France's most popular man ahead even of personalities like football star Zinedine Zidane. He used his fame to challenge political leaders about homelessness.

The book, whose French title is "Mon Dieu ... Pourquoi?", is a series of meditations by the priest on Christian faith recorded by French journalist Frédéric Lenoir.

It shows Abbé Pierre to have been out of step with several positions of the Catholic Church. In the book the priest says he supports the abolition of obligatory celibacy for priests and sees no theological obstacle to the ordination of women. He also confessed that he had "given in ... occasionally" to sexual desire.

Still, noted McComish, "This is the book of someone who was a devout member of the Roman Catholic Church."

McComish recalled that he invited the French priest to take part in a service at St Pierre Cathedral, when Abbé Pierre already used a wheelchair. The priest was held upright by a rabbi and a leader in the local mosque as he addressed the congregation.

"He was so practical. He had this attitude totally stripped of any pretension," said McComish, who first met Abbé Pierre about 15 years ago and is now active in the work of the Emmaus community foundation in Geneva.

The book has been published by the World Council of Churches in its "Risk" book series.

"We are very proud to bringing out this book," said the Rev. Theodore Gill, senior editor of WCC Publications. "We tend to get bogged down in all kinds of institutions. The 'Risk' book series tries to look beyond that to discover the Gospel."

"Why, oh why, my God? Meditations on Christian faith and the meaning of life", Abbé Pierre/Frédéric Lenoir, WCC Publications, 2007.

[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]

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