Abbé Pierre, the French Roman Catholic priest whose radio appeal in 1954 for the homeless and destitute stirred the conscience of his nation has died at age 94. Pope Benedict XVI expressed "thanks for his activity in favor of the poorest." Using his fame to challenge political leaders about homelessness and campaigning for the destitute until the end of his life, he was frequently voted France’s most popular man, ahead of even personalities like football star Zinedine Zidane…
Politicians of all hues praised the cleric, a familiar figure to many French people with his black beret and white beard. "France has lost an immense figure, a conscience, an incarnation of kindness," said French President Jacques Chirac, who announced a day of "national homage" to the cleric. "In all of France, everyone’s hearts have been touched."
Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party candidate for the 2007 presidential election, said: "The long cry of anger of Abbé Pierre must not die."
Abbé Pierre was born Henri Auguste Grouès in 1912 to a middle class family in Lyon. He took his adopted name – Abbé is a traditional French title for a priest – while in the Resistance against Nazi occupation during the Second World War. At the end of the war he briefly served as a member of the French parliament.
He used his official salary to buy a house for homeless people and launched the first Emmaus community, named after the place in the Bible where the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples and shared a meal with them.
The Rev. Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the Protestant Federation of France, said the Catholic cleric was "not only a prophet," but someone who knew how to organize for the long term, because "justice is a long term task."
Abbé Pierre’s appeal during a fierce winter in 1954 for an "insurrection of kindness" mobilised public opinion to offer support to homeless people. "He was a champion of charity," said Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon.
Still, Abbé Pierre sometimes went against the official policies of his church. He gave support to the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS, to the ordination of women and for priests to be able to marry. And, in 2005, he created a stir with his book, ‘Mon Dieu … Pourquoi’ (‘My God … Why’), in which he acknowledged he had, "on rare occasions," broken the priestly rule of celibacy.
The funeral for Abbé Pierre is planned for 26 January at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris to be attended by President Chirac and members of the government. His body will be buried, as he wished, in a private ceremony at the cemetery of Esteville in Normandy in northern France.
Ecumenical News International (ENI.ch)