A French priest I knew long ago
What individuals can do?
Every one of us can make a difference to the quality of life around us!
Yes, I have often wondered how individuals have done so much good. Yet, we often forget the do-gooders or under-rate their power of influence for long-term impact.Yet, we are often carried away by the individuals who are capable of doing much evil and underminse society’s values, value systems by systematic evil!
I am not thinking of the great evil doers like Hitler in history. I am thinking of evil doers, those who have so much impulse to suppress fellow citizens, in modern societies. Even in our own democracy, we encounter this phenomenon of evil doers, don’t we?
Yet, we as a nation and people mostly submit and suffer without protest these evil doers, to rule over us, to bamboozle us with their lies and much of the brainwashing, don’t us?
Anyway, such thoughts flashed through my mind when I read with much sorrow the death of a famous French priest, Abe Pierre, who died at the ripe old age of 94 in Paris in January last.
Abbie Pierre, I know from the year 1971 when I was invited by a kindly priest, a Protestant one in a largely Catholic country of France. He invited me after he sought to establish friendship with India; he sought the help of the French Quaker group in Paris. They referred to their contacts in India, in Bangalore, the year was 1966 and when I was running the International School in Michener village where I had already gathered a group of foreign volunteers, two Peace Corps and one Quaker from the American Friends Service Society.
So, when Father Monteil, this was the name of the priest who wrote to me first, wrote to the Indian contacts they wrote back to say:” Pichanur and the International School under the leadership of an Oxford educated Indian was”the bright light in that part of India”. I was lucky to have such a contact. The contact blossomed into a deep and enduring friendship and when the invitation came for me to visit France, see the schools, interact with the civil society groups and simply stay in France and imbibe the French spirit and culture! What a chance!
Yes, I have been through life, seen its bad and worst sides and yet at the end of it all I often stand up and wonder: life has been lucky to each one us in its own way, isnt it so?
So, I was in France in the year 1971, in a cold October month, me and my wife and we were having the best of our time only then, I often look back and say that. Many time over!
Now, Father Montréal was a serious-minded French pastor and he made it a point to drive us around in his Renault small car, that was the first small car we were told and it was a devil of a car, it never tired and it never failed us even once. So, in one of such drive out, one evening Father Montreal took us to attend a meeting, in a large hall in Paris and it was then I attended and listened to the famed Abbe Pierre. He was the founder of the Emmaus communities of homeless and at the height of its peak; it had 350 of them at end 2006 in 40 countries, 110 in France itself. His story reads like an angry Youngman turning into an angry old man whom every French government feared and acted upon his promptings.
Charles de Gaulle summoned him in 1945 and decorated him with a famous medal, Croix de Guerre for a brave war record, to have an appreciate word; Abbe Pierre lectured the grave General! On what? On the lack of milk for babies! Almost 50 years later, the elderly priest refused to wear another famous medal, his Legion d’honneur until a crowd of 300 African families, sleeping rough in the open space in Paris. When Jacques Chirac, hoping to score electoral points, offered to open up empty buildings for the homeless, Abbe Pierre berated him for hypocrisy!
With “measured insolence” he scolded John Paul II for not allowing married priests and for refusing to retire!
He could raise the conscience of the common people, as if by a magic, he did this several times to rouse the conscience for acts of negligence by the high and mighty governments.
We were invited by many friends and civil society groups. One was the Catalan de Monde, citizens of the world. We attended a conference in Paris in which Nobel Prize winners to other leading intellectuals and activists participated, we enrolled ourselves as citizens of the world. Our visits to Bourges, to the youth clubs, Culture Houses, as conceived by Andre Marx were other highlights. We often traveled to Paris, from Montages where we stayed; I learnt to read French enough to glance through the famous newspaper, Le Monde. We also met Guy Mollet, the Socialist Prime Minister under the Fourth Republic.
Though I was schooled in the Anglo-Saxon culture, thanks to our French hosts, hostesses (hotkey were all so many, so wonderful, so many names still linger ,our relationships still endure), I should confess I learnt to imbibe the special French culture and the ethos.
A fine taste for the correct usage of word and phrase, a feel for logical and coherent argument, the touch of the Voltaire and Rousseauvian sense of the skepticism and irony, a fierce love for freedom and independent of mind. Democracy, freedom and human rights and a sense of the equality are all unique French contributions to the world. So too the aesthetic taste that informs everyday French life, their arts, painting, sclupture, cuisine and fashions, dress, perfume etc.The very Parisian air makes you walk a cloud like style!
In this culture of so much independence of spirit, Abbe Pierre brought a new wave of moral anger! That worked! When he appealed for help, for blankets, food and stoves and money to save the homeless from cold and hunger once from his Paris office, the nearby disused Gare d’Orsay was filled to the roof with donations! And the National Assembly (Parliament) voted 10 billion francs for housing the poor. Such was his moral power and authority.
He could move the masses by the very biting moral scorn and voice! To his organisation, the rich brought their jewellery, the ordinary people, and the packets of rice, jars of jam and what have you. He ran his homes for the homeless from an ordinary headquarters outside Paris and he became the voice of the voiceless.
Such was the remarkable personality of Abbe Pierre. I considered myself lucky to have attended his meeting heard his voice. It was a day of destiny to me. I had travelled all across Europe and enjoyed the hospitality and kindness of many families and friends, stayed with priets, both Protestants and Catholic and I had come to understand and appreciate what the Jesuits had done for the world. In Rome we particularly came closer to the Catholic priests and wondered at their dedications and their many sacrifices. Without staying in Rome and studying the work of the Roman Catholic church, all through their long and tortured history, you cant appreciate what the history of religion is and what it has done, what wrongs it had also contributed too. All this is now part of human history. No religion is without its faults.
Today too we live in a difficult world.
What we need to know is the role of individuals. Remarkable individuals are those who take up larger causes. Unfortunately, we witness today, more so inside India, the growth of regional chauvinism, the narrow minds, the many silly disputes and artificial barriers created by politics that people in the new century live or made to live without reaping the most benefits offered by the new technologies and opportunities. For a happy and fulfilling life that is now within the reach of all, everyone.Thanks to Internet, the mobile phones and access to latest information, the Google search engine and more, we can all have a free and fulfilling life.
To this we as individuals at much level, every one of us, must contribute. We have to identify such individuals who can make a difference to our lives. That is also one of the larger tasks of education and culture.