Monday, January 22, 2007

The most popular man in France

Beyond the frontiers of France (in Australia, for instance), if one were to ask the question "Who is the most popular person in France?", I imagine that typical replies would range from sportsmen (maybe Zinadine Zidane) through to singers (Mireille Mathieu or Johnny Halliday), with a few movie celebrities or even politicians thrown in for good measure. In any case, I suspect that few outsiders would even recognize the name of Abbé Pierre, who was often designated by citizen votes as the most popular individual in France. He died this morning at the age of 94, after a lifetime devoted to taking care of his fellow men and women.

The honorific title "Abbé", often used to address distinguished churchmen, might be translated as "Abbot". It is a fact that Abbé Pierre spent seven years of his early life as a Franciscan monk. In 1942, during the Nazi occupation of France, Abbé Pierre—whose real name was Henri Grouès—was attached to a maquisard unit near Grenoble. In 1949, he created the Emmaus Foundation [named after the village near Jerusalem mentioned in Luke 24, 13-32, where two disciples encountered Jesus after the Resurrection], whose mission consists of employing impecunious individuals to collect surplus household goods of all kinds, repair them if necessary, and then sell them as second-hand merchandise, often in spacious bazaar-style premises. These so-called "rag-gatherers of Emmaus" live and work together in a communal fashion. Today, in France, there are some four thousand members of this organization, which is now present in forty countries throughout the world.

In the harsh winter of 1954, Abbé Pierre was shocked by the misery of homeless people, and he made a radio broadcast that led to a huge surge of charity and positive operations. Fifteen years ago, this story was made into a film, with the French actor Lambert Wilson playing the role of Abbé Pierre.

In France today, the media repercussions of the death of Abbé Pierre are enormous, and the admiration expressed for this saintly man (who recently revealed that his vows of celibacy ran aground from time to time) is universal. Beyond his status as a slightly unorthodox member of the Church (in favor of married priests, female ordinations and contraception), Abbé Pierre was truly a modern French hero.

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