I have been rather intrigued by the variety of comments that have been published upon the death of “Abbe Pierre”.
Abbe Pierre did not really come into the orbit of Australian consciousness, but apparently to the French he was a figure can parable to Mother Teresa. Reading his life story (as related by John Allen), it is easy to understand this.
Normally, upon the death of someone who was so popular and who displayed such heroic virtue we would be hearing shouts of “Santo Subito”/”Sainthood Now”.
Instead, we hear people shouting that this man was not a saint. For instance, here is one reaction to John Allen’s column:
Calling him France’s version of Mother Teresa is a slander against Mother Teresa who was totally faithful to the Church. Preferential love of the poor is an important part of Catholic teaching, but faithfulness means you don’t pick and choose what you are faithful for. Blessed Mother Teresa never liked being categorized as just a social worker and a disobedient Catholic who did praiseworthy work, but is otherwise a dissident becomes just a social worker.
Why this ambiguity? Perhaps because Abbe Pierre was identified with the “liberal” or “left” agenda in the Catholic Church. Shortly before his death he published a book in which he confessed that he had several times broken his vow of priestly celibacy:
It happened that every now and then, I fell. …I never had regular relationships, because I never allowed sexual desire to put down roots. I’ve known the experience of sexual desire and its occasional fulfillment, but this fulfillment was in truth a source of dissatisfaction, because I never felt sincere. … I’ve understood that in order to be fully satisfied, sexual desire needs to express itself in a sentimental relationship, tender, trusting. That kind of relationship was denied to me by my choice of life. I would have only made both the woman and myself unhappy, tormented between two irreconcilable options for my life,” Groues wrote.
He was also a supporter of married priesthood, the ordination of women, and the legalisation of same-sex couples (though distinguished from marriage).
Which leads me simply to reflect on the question of what it means to be a saint. I’m not talking here about that “sainthood” that is given to us as a gift in baptism, although in terms of our innermost identity and eventual salvation, this is surely the most important. No, I mean that working out of our baptismal gift-identity until it becomes synonymous with our lived-identity, that gradual (or in some rare cases, sudden) development by which we are weaned by God’s grace from attatchment to sin and drawn toward the Holiness of God. For many of us, this is a process which is not complete at the time of death, and must therefore be completed in Purgatory. But we know from the church’s history, that there are some in whose hearts God’s grace has been so fruitful that at the time of their death, they’re no longer living the double life which Lutherans call “simul justus et peccator”, but are solely “justus” (by Christ alone, grace alone, and faith-active-in-love alone, of course!).
Was Abbe Pierre one of these? It would appear not, since obedience to Christ in his Church is surely one of these “perfections” required for a declaration of sainthood. There still appears to have been inner contradictions between his baptismal and lived identity–certainly between his priestly identity and public opinions. Nevertheless, I am certain that at the time of his death Abbe Pierre had progressed a very long way along the road to sainthood indeed, and much further, I think, than I could ever possibly hope to in my life.
Perhaps the last word should be left to the Holy Father:
“Informed of the death of Abbe Pierre, the Holy Father gives thanks for his activity in favor of the poorest, by which he bore witness to the charity that comes from Christ. Entrusting to divine mercy this priest whose whole life was dedicated to fighting poverty, he asks the Lord to welcome him into the peace of His kingdom. By way of comfort and hope, His Holiness sends you a heartfelt apostolic blessing, which he extends to the family of the departed, to members of the communities of Emmaus, and to everyone gathering for the funeral.”
On second thoughts, surely it is more correct to say that the last word is left to our “Heavenly Father”. Thanks be to God for his infinite mercy!