Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Abbé Pierre, 1912-2007.

One of the most admired and beloved churchmen of his time, the French Catholic priest and social activist Henri Antoine Grouès, better known as Abbé Pierre, died yesterday at the age of 94. Born into wealth, the man who would become Abbé Pierre decided at an early age that he wanted to live and work among the poor. Inspired by the example of St. Francis of Assisi, he joined the Capuchins at 19 and was ordained to the priesthood at 26. After ill health forced his departure from the Capuchins, the young Father Grouès was incardinated into the Diocese of Grenoble and spent several years as a parish priest and hospital chaplain. Active in the French Resistance during World War II, he acquired the nom de guerre "Abbé Pierre," a moniker he kept for the rest of his life. After the war, Abbé Pierre turned his attention to the problem of homelessness, founding the Emmaus Movement in 1949 to provide housing and work for homeless people in Paris. As Emmaus grew, Abbé Pierre also became a highly visible and increasingly outspoken housing-rights activist. Regarded by many as a kind of national conscience, Abbé Pierre used the media to pressure the French government to do more to fight poverty and inspired many by his example. At times controversial, Abbé Pierre nonetheless won widespread admiration for his sincere and wholehearted dedication to the poor whom he served in emulation of St. Francis.

Befitting a man who was regularly voted France's most popular public figure in annual polls, the Paris dailies Le Figaro, Le Monde and Libération all give Abbé Pierre prominent treatment in today's editions. Abbé Pierre's death also attracted notice in today's New York Times and Washington Post, but the French priest unsurprisingly receives a lot more attention in today's Guardian and Independent as well as a full obituary in The Times of London. Pope Benedict XVI paid tribute to Abbé Pierre today, as did the Bishop of Grenoble. (Abbé Pierre remained a priest of the Grenoble Diocese until his death, even though he spent most of his priestly life elsewhere.) In the Independent obituary cited above, John Lichfield explains the appeal of Abbé Pierre in these terms: "Why was he so popular? Only just more than half of the French now say they are Catholic. Only one in 12 of those goes to church. The French church is, mostly, conservative and unadventurous. And yet, Abbé Pierre managed to be popular with traditional Catholics and militant non-Catholics alike. The French love a passionate rebel. To non-Catholics, he made the censorious mainstream church seem hypocritical. To Catholics, he gave flesh and blood to their faith." As I pray today for the eternal repose of Abbé Pierre, I pray also that many others will continue to be inspired by his example of service. Requiescat in Pace. AMDG.


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