From: Pilgrim Road
My friend Bernard and his wife, Colette, and I are heading across the flat green farmland of Normandy toward an obscure village by the name of Esteville. Little pointed church steeples play hide-and-seek behind the distant rows of trees as we drive.
We are about to drop in unannounced on one of the best known and most venerated people in all of France, l’Abbé Pierre. Although this Roman Catholic priest is famous in France and Europe, he’s practically unknown in America, so Bernard has to spend the time filling me in as he drives.
In the early 1950s, Father Pierre Grouès, a young diocesan priest, opened his house to several homeless men. He called his group the “Emmaüs Community.” In order to support themselves, they began picking over Paris’s city dumps and selling what they found to junk dealers. They used their surplus income to buy large vacant lots and build simple houses on them for families of the working poor.
In January 1954, Abbé Pierre was deeply touched by the plight of the homeless men and women he saw sleeping on the sidewalks of Paris in the sub-freezing cold. When he realized that no one was doing anything for these people, he, poor as he himself was, began driving into Paris every night with food for the cold and hungry and forgotten. As the weeks of unusual cold continued, he put up huge tents in vacant lots in the center of Paris to serve as shelters.
We’re passing through a farming village. The sturdy silent farm folk look like characters from Guy de Maupassant’s short stories. A road sign points to the town of Totes – this is the land of Madame Bovary.
In that same January of 1954, a woman froze to death on a Paris sidewalk, still clutching in her hand the eviction notice that had put her out of her little apartment and into the winter night to die. When Abbé Pierre told this story in church the next morning, the parishioners insisted that the rest of the country needed to hear about the horrible plight of France’s homeless. So he prepared an address for broadcast on the radio and, with his incredible powers of persuasion, actually got a courageous radio official to preempt regular programming and allow him to deliver his plea. Up until that time, Abbé Pierre and his Emmaüs brothers had been almost alone in the fight to help the homeless. This obscure priest had been living with the poor, encouraging them, bringing them a sense of dignity and of being loved, and had been building houses for homeless families.
That night on the radio, his straightforward statement of the problem and his impassioned appeal for everyone’s immediate help pricked France’s conscience. Some say it actually gave France back her soul. The plea, broadcast nationally, caused an immediate outpouring of good will from old and young, rich and poor, in every part of the country, but especially in Paris. As an afterthought, the young priest added a request to Parisians to bring their gifts and their help to a certain hotel just off the Champs-Élysées. Within half an hour there was a traffic jam for blocks on every side of the hotel, as good-hearted Parisians brought hundreds of warm coats, sweaters, and blankets, and thousands of francs in cash.
Abbé Pierre started delivering more radio addresses and talks that roused the nation’s sense of social responsibility and, in fact, changed France’s attitude toward the problems of the poor and the homeless. Over the next forty years, he would become the voice of the voiceless in France, acting as the country’s conscience in debates on social legislation. To this day, polls show that Frenchmen still consider him the most trustworthy public figure in the nation. This is the man I’m about to meet.
Bernard pulls to the side of the road and stops to consult the map. Ulysse, the family poodle, sticks his nose into the map, too, and, tilting his head to one side, seems to study the route carefully. The car windows remain closed against the brisk autumn air. Through them, I see a couple of rugged stone farmhouses squatting nearby.
Although retired now because of age and failing health, Abbé Pierre has hardly been silent. In fact, a few weeks ago in the midst of the French presidential campaign and the debate over the economic implications of the new European Economic Union he posed a question to France’s conscience. “Et les autres?” he asked publicly – “And what about the others?” Once again, the Abbé was speaking up on behalf of the poor and the forgotten.
We drive a few kilometers farther and then stop to ask a young woman for Abbé Pierre’s house. She points us to a nondescript, rambling collection of old brick farm buildings loafing, as if tired, beside the road. A tiny hand-painted “Emmaüs” sign marks the driveway. As we pull into the bumpy parking area in back, I decide that the simple place seems just right for Abbé Pierre and his rag pickers.
The next thing I know, I’m standing in an enclosed courtyard shaking hands with a pleasant old man with a white beard and a navy blue beret. Abbé Pierre’s slow gait hardly matches his bright, alert eyes and his quick, kindly smile.
Bernard, who is also meeting him for the first time, introduces himself and his wife. He then presents me as an American Benedictine whose monastery in the center of Newark, New Jersey, runs a school that welcomes poor children. The old priest nods in understanding and asks if I know a certain friend of his who works with the homeless in Harlem. We chat easily for a minute or two. Instead of radiating a sense of energy or strength, Abbé Pierre is surrounded by an aura of serenity – he is a man at peace with himself.
Then, not wanting to wear out our welcome, I kneel down and ask him for his blessing. After he finishes blessing me and I’ve stood up again, he quietly asks me, “And now, Father, your blessing, please.”
A moment later we’re back in the car driving away. Bernard is so overwhelmed he can’t even speak, so we just ride in silence for some time, thinking about what we’ve just experienced.
I start to ask myself, what is the secret of this little man’s great success? Part of it, certainly, is his effective use of mass media and his flair for the dramatic word or gesture. But lots of people have that. There must be something else. I think of a recent political cartoon in a French newspaper that concerned Abbé Pierre’s forcing the French presidential candidates to take a stand on such social issues as poverty and low-cost housing: it shows the two major candidates wearing false beards and berets, each masquerading as Abbé Pierre, while the real Abbé looks on. The caption says simply, “Beware of imitations!” This suggests the most important reason for his success: Abbé Pierre is clearly the real thing. He opened his house to homeless derelicts and misfits, gathering them into a community where they could find love and self-respect. He then set them to work putting up rudimentary housing for working people who couldn’t afford a place to live. So when, in the winter of 1954, he spoke up spontaneously and sincerely on behalf of the homeless, his voice had a compelling ring of truth and authority about it because he had been living with the poor and devoting his whole life to them.
And now, his fifty years of living and working with the indigent have given him a license to speak up whenever the state or its citizens start forgetting their duty toward the homeless. And people pay attention. Abbé Pierre has moral authority – a priceless thing for anyone who wants to preach the gospel. It doesn’t seem all that complicated: he simply lives what he teaches. By being an actual flesh-and-blood example of Christ’s love for the poor, he challenges a whole nation of Christians to live out their own call to gospel holiness and justice.
As we drive back through the lush green countryside, I wonder about myself: how much moral authority do I have when I call others to respond to the gospel? Does my way of treating my students give me the authority to challenge them to lives of selfless love? Does my way of responding to my brother monks give a ring of truth to my sermons at our community Mass when I summon them to endless, Christ-like patience?
Abbé Pierre has just given me more than his blessing, he’s given me a challenge: to make my preaching of the gospel believable by living it better myself.
Conversion includes being a good example to others, perhaps people we don’t even know are watching us. In what circumstances might the Lord be counting on you to teach others by your good example? How might you improve in this regard?
Think of some relationships where you need to have moral authority, e.g., as a parent, a boss, or an advisor. Is there one of these where your moral authority could be strengthened if you improved your own behavior?
Sacred Scripture (Matthew 23:1-3)
Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’s seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.”
Rule of Benedict (Chapter 2, “Qualities of the Abbot,” v. 12)
The abbot must point out to them all that is good and holy more by example than by words.