Last week, France mourned the death of a priest and thousands gathered at Notre Dame Cathedral to attend his funeral. Among the mourners were the president of France, Jacques Chirac, cabinet ministers and several cardinals. The priest whose death they gathered to mourn was the beloved Abbe Pierre. Pope Benedict XVI hailed him as a "priest whose whole life was dedicated to fighting poverty."
Although his real name was Henri Groues, he gained international recognition as Abbe Pierre, the code name he adopted while serving in the French Resistance during World War II. He was born into a wealthy family but renounced his riches to become a priest and serve the poor. He became known in France for his bravery in saving Jewish families from the Nazis and for his short stint in the French Parliament following the war. However, his primary and lifelong work was helping the homeless.
In 1949, Abbe Pierre formed the first of many Emmaus communities that took shape within his own Paris home which he opened to shelter 18 homeless men. The community soon expanded as more shelters were built and the residents began to support themselves by recycling, refurbishing and re-circulating other people's trash. They soon became known as les chiffonniers d'Emmaus ("the rag pickers of Emmaus"). Abbe Pierre's model of a self-sustaining community that provided shelter, comfort and dignity to the homeless soon spread throughout all of France, and today, the Emmaus community can be found throughout the world.
In an apparent paradox, the increasingly secular French public voted Abbe Pierre the most popular man in France year after year until 2004, when he asked to be taken off the list "to make space for others."
Once known as the "eldest daughter of the church," France has rigorously separated church and state during the last century. Hostility toward religion in public life has become largely accepted. A recent survey suggested that only 51 percent of the French still call themselves Catholic, and only eight percent attended Sunday Mass on a regular basis.
Yet, this modern day St. Francis of Assisi who served the poor his entire 94 years, was a prophetic voice in France that challenged church and state to make the poor a priority. Hailed by many as a living saint, Abbe Pierre preached the Gospel by his example. His was a life dedicated to Christian charity, social justice and enabling the poorest of the poor to lead a life of dignity.
We join Pope Benedict XVI in giving thanks for this remarkable priest and "for his activity in favor of the poorest, by which he bore witness to the charity that comes from Christ."
(This editorial originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)