Abbe Pierre and Sainthood

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!

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3 Responses to Abbe Pierre and Sainthood

  1. Peregrinus says:

    All have sinned, and all have fallen short of the glory of God. The (canonised) saints, therefore, are sinners, and my understanding has always been that they are canonised because they offer us an example of heroic virtue in [i]some[/i] respect, not in [i]every[/i] respect. So the revelation that, for instance, such-and-such a popular saint shared in the widely held antisemitism of his time does not particularly shock me. I condemn anti-semitism in saints as well as in everyone else, but he wasn’t canonised for being an anti-semite.

    As far as I can see from the blogosphere, the strong reaction that some have to the suggestion of Abbe Pierre’s sanctity has nothing to do with his being on “the left” – his views on Catholic social teaching are not discussed at all – and everything to do with his criticss’ obsession with sex and sexuality as an issue which eclipses all others.

    You mention the objections most often raised against him – his failure to observe chastity, his support for the ordination of married men and of women, and his support for legal status for same-sex marriages. All of these issues are related in one way or another to sex. And, when we look at them dispassionately, there is less in these objections than meets the eye.

    On the first matter, he offers no defence or justification of his sexual lapses; he simply confesses them. And, in fact, he offers a very orthodox explanation of why his sexual encounters were, basically, wrong because they were against the natural order (as well as being a breach of his vows). What is wrong with any of this? Is a saint supposed to deny, conceal or minimse his own sins?

    Advocating the wider ordination of married men is of course a perfectly orthodox position, and support for a legal status for gay relationships, not equated with marriage, is also a widely-held position in the church. Neither of these views could, by the remotest stretch of the imagination, be described as ‘dissent’, still less as an indication of sinfulness.

    .We are left with his support for the ordination of women. This does conflict with the strongly-stated view of Pope John Paul II, but I do not know when, or in what terms, Abbe Pierre expressed that support. But, however seriously you view this, I feel sure that many who have committed far worse sins have been canonised. If Abbe Pierre is ever canonised, it will not be for his views on same-sex marriage or the ordination of women, but for his Christlike, life-giving, selfless love of others. It is that, and not his theological opinions, which suggests to us how close he had drawn to Christ.

  2. Schütz says:

    Much of what you say is quite right, Peregrinus, but I believe you are incorrect when you say that a saint is canonised for a particular heroic virtue and that it does not really matter if they still had other sinful attachments at the time of death. As I understand it, the judgement that an individual was a “saint” means that at the time of death they had no attachment to sin remaining in them and thus can definitely be said to be in heaven and not in purgatory (where they would be if they did still have attachment to sin). Of course, every saint was once a sinner, but the emphasis here is on “was”.

    Also, I think there perhaps the real error committed by Abbe Pierre, if I may be so bold, was not any of those suggested in this blog, but the sin of scandal which was caused by the open publication of those views and confessions. Yes, you can justify them in all manner of ways, but they are still rather scandalous.

    Despite the fact that I have been forgiven all my own sins, I don’t think it would be particularly edifying were I to put them all in a book and publish it.

  3. Peregrinus says:

    Hi David

    Despite the fact that I have been forgiven all my own sins, I don’t think it would be particularly edifying were I to put them all in a book and publish it.

    it might be very edifying. At any rate, quite a number of saints have described their own past sins with varying degrees of detail, so it’s clearly no bar to canonisation.

    I don’t go so far as to say that “it doesn’t really matter” if a candidate for sainthood still had some attachment to sin. Attachment to sin always matters. And certainly, in the modern (i.e. post-Trent) practice, if the examination revealed any significant attachment to sin, that would probably be a bar to canonisation, no matter how heroic the virtues.

    But the subsequent discovery of an attachment to sin, or a later reevaluation as sinful of something that was not seen in such a serious light at the time of the canonisation, would not ‘invalidate’ the canonisation. While attachment to sin is important, in the end what is signficant about the saints is not their sinfulness, but their sanctity. That is why the church offers them to us as examplars.

    I hadn’t thought about Abbe Pierre’s acts in the light of the scandal they might cause. I have to say, though, that there is a fine line between disturbing complacency, challenging assumptions and the sin of scandal. If Abbe Pierre had admitted to sexual liaisons and had sought to justify them, or to deny their wrongness, that would be the sin of scandal (a word or action, wrong in itself, which leads another to sin). Admitting to his sexual liaisons and to their wrongness, though shocking, is not scandalous, because the admission is not wrong in itself.

    The same certainly goes for his views on married priests and on gay unions. To my mind these are not shocking but, even if they are shocking to some, they are not scandalous.

    You can, as before, make a case that the publication of his views on women priests was scandalous, since he was dissenting from something taught with a considerable degree of authority. I wonder, however, whether if he had dissented from some other teaching, taught with a similar degee of authority but not related to sex, it would be quite such a problem in the minds of some.

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