Monday, February 12, 2007
Henry Grouès (“Abbé Pierre”), champion of the homeless, died on January 22nd, aged 94. I reproduce below an obituary that appeared in the 3 February 2007 issue of The Economist.
Traditionally most saints are gentle creatures. Those enshrined in French homes, or on prayer-cards stuffed into the missals of elderly churchgoers, are usually St Anthony carrying the child Jesus, or smiling St Thérèse of Lisieux with a bouquet of flesh-tinted roses. Odd, then, that the nearest modern France has come to a saint was a man fuelled and driven by unceasing anger: anger that the poor should suffer and that the rich did not care.
For any man in authority, clerical or lay, a visit from Abbé Pierre was an unsettling experience. First there was the look of him: the coupe zéro haircut under a black beret, the straggling beard, the black cape thrown dramatically across the shoulders, the belted soutane and muddy boots from tramping through slums. Then came the disquieting blue stare, and the surprisingly loud, ringing voice. He was not a large man or a strong one: lung trouble had disrupted his studies as a boy, and he had been advised at 26 to give up the monastic life for his health's sake. His anger surprised even himself; it did not seem in character. But it made him a giant.
Charles de Gaulle summoned him in 1945, after giving him the Croix de Guerre for a brave, clandestine war, to have an appreciative word; Abbé Pierre lectured him on the lack of milk for babies. Almost 50 years later, the elderly priest refused to wear his Légion d'honneur until a crowd of 300 poor African families, sleeping rough on the esplanade de Vincennes in Paris, was given lodging. When Jacques Chirac, hoping to score electoral points, offered to open up empty buildings for the homeless, Abbé Pierre berated him for hypocrisy. With “measured insolence”, he scolded John Paul II for not allowing married priests and for refusing to retire. He would bite people's ears like a flea, he said, and yell, “Wake up!”
France first heard that voice at lunchtime on February 1st 1954. The napkins were tucked in, the spoons poised over the soup, when Abbé Pierre, having seized the microphone at Radio Luxembourg, told his listeners that a woman had frozen to death that night on the boulevard Sebastopol. She had been clutching an eviction notice, served to her the day before. The weather was grim; all over France, thousands more were dying. Abbé Pierre appealed for blankets, food, stoves and money to be brought to his temporary headquarters at the Hotel Rochester. The response was so enormous that not only the hotel lobby, but the disused Gare d'Orsay nearby, were filled to the roof with donations. Army lorries helped distribute them, and the National Assembly voted 10 billion francs for housing for the poor.
The organisation to which the rich brought their jewellery, and ordinary people packets of rice and jars of jam, was still a strangely fluid affair. It was run from a large ramshackle house in Neuilly-Plaisance, a Paris suburb, where Abbé Pierre in 1949 had started taking in the homeless, first in rooms and then, as numbers grew, in shacks in the garden. He had no idea what this project would become. Perhaps it would be no more than a kindly bourgeois gesture, the sort his own wealthy father had made when he went, each Sunday, to wash and shave the poor in the shelters of Lyon.
His colleagues were a strange, quarrelsome band, ex-cons and ex-legionnaires, some of whom had been homeless themselves. To raise funds they picked rags and salvaged furniture, or begged with laundry baskets in the Paris streets. Abbé Pierre called his project “Emmaus”, after the place where two disciples had given shelter to the risen but unrecognised Christ.
Love human, love divine
Emmaus communities caught on and thrived; by 2006 there were 350 of them in nearly 40 countries, 110 in France itself. Abbé Pierre became a thorn in the side of successive French governments, and a year before he died was still lobbying for a law establishing the right to lodging. Yet he did not relish publicity on his own account. After regularly topping the annual poll of best-loved figures in France, in 2004 he asked to be removed from it. Celebrity helped the cause, but it appalled him.
He had little enough to hide: a clutch of Utopian left-wing views, and one dismaying brush with Holocaust denial which seemed the mere misjudgment of old age. In 2005 he also admitted, in a memoir, that chastity was too hard for him. He had decided to become a monk at 15, and had joined the Capuchins at 19; from then on, the pain of living without sexual love was constant. Indeed, he did not always live without it. He occasionally slept with women and would sometimes, wistfully and innocently, fall into discussions of sex with women who scarcely knew him.
Yet those who imagined him deprived of love were wrong. Abbé Pierre was possessed by it. Priest though he was, he rarely preached or mentioned God by name, a fact that only added to his popularity in proudly secular France. The force he invoked was different. “Despite all the evil that men and women suffer”, he said once, “I believe that the Eternal is Love all the same, and we are loved all the same, and we are free all the same.” Love would absorb him in the end, when his “Sister Death” came, as tenderly as any woman, to embrace him. And it was Love, he said, that made him so angry.