Priest of the Immediate

Abbé Pierre
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We now have the words of Abbé Pierre in print, but he himself did not write a book. The Rag Pickers of Emmaus, which Kenedy published early last year, was written by someone else, and Abbé Pierre Speaks, which was published last month by Sheed and Ward, is a collection of his talks. There was a tape recorder or a very good stenographer catching everything he said in sermons and over the radio, or in the intimacy of his own group, and the result is that you cannot read this book without feeling its immediacy and being stirred to the marrow of your bones. Here is a man of compassion, a priest of great heart who holds out his arms to all suffering ones. "Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaketh," and thanks to all these translated notes, we know what is in Abbé Pierre's heart.

It was customary in an earlier age for priests to wander around Europe, as St. Francis did, as St. Ignatius and his band of twelve priests and laymen did, but we don't hear much of such adventures these days. There is not only more organization in the Church, there is more discipline. But World War II brought about many changes in Europe, and one of those changes meant great freedom in the life of many of France's priests. They still are conscripted, serve in the armies; ordained priests go to the front not only as chaplains but also as soldiers. Only last week a Sulpician told me that the seminaries in France were half empty because of the war in Africa. And after France was occupied and many of the priests taken prisoner, we had such accounts as Father Perrin's Priest Workman in Germany, the story of the priest in factory and in prison.

Abbé Pierre was one of these priests who "was hunted like a bandit for two years" when he served as a maqui. He was two years a chaplain in the navy and he also served in Africa. He was ordained a Capuchin but left the order to work as a parish priest. Later he served in the Chamber of Deputies in Paris, and it was thanks to his salary as a Deputy that he was able to start his first hospice, or rather very informally take in some of the needy men he encountered in the slums in Paris.

Besides being something of a politician, Abbé Pierre is something of an actor, wearing still, it would seem, the garb of chaplain, a beret, a string of service stripes and decorations across the front of his clerical garb, and regular clodhopper shoes. But if this makes him the more striking, if it calls attention to his role of prophet today, crying out for the poor, we may be only too happy that he has this flair, this streak of the romantic in him, to light up his role.

"You can live alongside people whose lives are horrible and absolutely hellish and not have the faintest idea of this because they have the decency and self-respect not to go shouting the fact from the roof top or whining about it in the streets. They are ashamed and degraded," he says.

He goes on to tell of a young man of twenty-five who came to tell him that his wife has just been taken away to a mental hospital. In the three years of their married life, they had been forced to share one room with two other families. He had two babies and another one on the way. The young man sat and wept like a child.

Another time he saw an eighteen-year-old girl who had been fished out of the Seine. She had been living with eleven other people in a hole dug for the foundations of a house which had never been finished, and in the winter rains had become a mudhole.

A priest in a neighboring parish called on him to come and try to help a family in his parish, living under a tarpaulin out in a field. They had been living there for eight months although the man was working. There simply was no housing for these poor workers. Two children had already died, and one little boy remained. Another child was on the way.

"It was then that I realized some terrible things," Abbé Pierre went on to say. "I realized that so long as people who were supposed to be apostles, as long as a priest like me was incapable of saying to that poor woman, 'Come on, get your things, pick up your child and come along with me and your husband and sleep in my room: I'll take your place in the tent and to­ morrow we'll find some way of solving this,'—until then, well, fundamentally I was simply a humbug.

"In point of fact if I had talked to that poor woman, who had seen two of her children die, who was possibly expecting the one that was to be born to go the same way, and might even have been tempted to do away with it herself, if I had started talking to her about heaven and hell and the law of God, and told her that she had no right to do it, that it would be a crime—I was in the process of discovering that if I told her all that and then, having had my little say, left her in her tent in her field, to her misery and distress, whilst I, the priest, went back to my room, a poor room, no doubt, but even so a real room, where I could put an electric fire on when it turned cold, and could sleep peacefully in my bed, and be alone—if, after my little sermon, I failed to take her to some more cheerful place than her own, well, then, she was bound to think to herself, 'No doubt! It's all very fine what he says! Very true! But of course he is just a humbug like all the rest, for he's left me here in these dreadful conditions. . .'

"That's what I realized!

"Oh, we all ought to come to realize that! So long as we are incapable of behaving like Our Lord, that is to say, becoming incarnate, that is to say, going down and sharing the pain and suffering of the people we are supposed to be leading into the way of truth—well in point of fact we are simply humbugs."

 

IT IS WELL known, of course, what Abbé Pierre found to do. He had already gathered a crew of seventeen men. With his Deputy's salary and by their own work as ragpickers, these men somehow built shacks for one hundred and forty-one families. They put up tents; they bought land; they argued with the Minister of Reconstruction; they went out to the streets at night and with a truck full of bread, wine, soup and blankets tried to serve the destitute. Every night until three o'clock in the morning, Abbé Pierre was out with his rag-picking friends, gathering up those who were sleeping in the doorways, lying like bundles of rags near warm ventilators. They found one old woman dying on the pavement after being evicted from her room for non-payment of rent. A child died of cold and exposure. Abbé Pierre requested the Minister of Reconstruction to come to the funeral, and he did.

Then came his now-famous radio appeal on behalf of the homeless of Paris. In the broadcast he announced that he had set up two emergency stations, and he begged his listeners to bring what they could spare of blankets, food, funds. At the doors of the relief centers which were set up were the simple words:

"Whoever you are, if you are suffering,

Come in, sleep, eat and take heart.

This is where you are loved."

And he begged his radio audience, "I beseech you, let us have enough love here and now to do this much! Let it be seen that so much suffering has at least given us back one wonderful thing: the soul of France!" And the people came with their gifts.

 

YES, ABBÉ PIERRE is a priest who sees the immediacy of the problem around him. Although he had been involved in political action, he recognized the need to do the immediate thing. He broke the law again and again, and because he had public opinion with him, and because all Paris could see the problem, he got away with it.

We visited with Abbé Pierre when he was in New York, and were happy to have him come to lunch at our House of Hospitality. It was St. Joseph's day, and our house is called St. Joseph's house, so we always celebrate his feast. A butcher had given us enough chicken to feed the house, and the meal was a good one. It was lunch time, and in addition to the sixty people who live in the house there was a line of a few hundred men waiting outside. When Abbé Pierre arrived, scores of adulatory people came with him, and a dozen photographers, French and American. The place was a bedlam, but the house and the line enjoyed it mightily. Something was happening in their midst, and it was because of this man's love for them. When he left us he talked to the men on the line, and though he spoke in French he was understood, I know.

A branch of Abbé Pierre's "Companions of Emmaus" has been started in Montreal to build cooperative housing for the poor. We only wish that there were here in New York men with the ability to plan and build houses of hospitality for families instead of for single people as we have them now; to plan and build the farming communes which Peter Maurin, another Frenchman, a peasant, wrote and appealed for twenty-five   years ago.

How Peter would have loved this other Peter! with his call for communities living in the midst of the poor, with their same poverty, begging for them, building for them. Abbé Pierre told how he stood before a vast basilica “for which they are collecting fantastic sums of money and how he cried out, 'Of course we need places of worship, but for mercy's sake, as long as you have slums in your town, as soon as you have built the four walls and put on a roof, stop decorating your sanctuary and understand this (and let us all understand it, for we all need to examine our consciences in this matter): it is not in the Eucharist that Jesus is cold; it is not in piling gold and marble and sumptuous stuffs round Jesus in the Eucharist that we shall honor Him; it is coming to His aid in the hands and feet of children throughout the world who are dying of cold and hunger because we have no care for them.”

While I read this book and wrote these pages, I read too in the pages of a diocesan paper of a new convent being built to house sixteen nuns which was going to cost $85,000 and of a new foundling hospital for infants and children which was to cost ten million. Meanwhile, Mary Lisi lives around the corner on First Street in a cold little hole which costs her twelve dollars a week, and next to her are two more families paying even more rent for one room. Today our tenements are more congested than ever as they pull down more of the old.

It is time again to read the 25th Chapter of St. Matthew and to realize that it is by our treatment of the poor that we will be judged; and to pray for more priests of the vision and courage of Abbé Pierre, who realizes, as almost no one else seems to, that the family is the unit of society, and we must begin there.

[For more of Dorothy Day's writings from Commonweal, see our full collection.]

Dorothy Day is a cofounder of the Catholic Worker, the author of The Long Loneliness and hundreds of newspaper articles and essays. Her cause is currently being considered for beatification.

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