France's Abbe Pierre and his public "confession"
[C]I confess I never heard of 93-year-old Abbe Pierre - a French icon, it appears - until he made headlines (not for the first time, obviously) earlier this month that has sent ripples through the Catholic Church. Following is a translation of an article that tells us what the flap is all about. It is followed by Panorama's interview with 91-year-old Cardinal Ersilio Tonini of Ravenna(the cardinal who was photographed last July receiving all those heartwarming caresses from the Pope) who comments on Abbe Pierre's confessions and on the question of pristly celibacy in general.[/C]
[G]"My God, why?"[/G]
[C]By Alberto Toscano[/C]
“I am 93 years old, and my faith keeps making new demands!” , so says Abbe Pierre, a living symbol of French Catholicism, in an autobiographical book entitled “My God- why?”, which came out in Paris recently and which is destined to provoke a lot of discussion.
Abbe Pierre has been very well-known in France for over half a century, starting from that severe winter of 1954 when he fought on the side of homeless people and defied authority in the name of generosity.
This time, he has chosen to lay his prestige on the line to promote public discussion of problems that may affect the future of the Catholic Church. Including the delicate matter of priestly chastity.
Here we have one of the most respected religious figures in the world admitting to having had sexual relations as a priest. The 93-year-old priest has chosen to review his life in public with the evident intention of pushing the Church to discuss the issues which are dear to him.
The book is actually a series of reflections – or perhaps better, meditations – by him that have been rewritten into journalistic style by Frederic Lenoir, an expert on religious issues and religion editor for Le Monde magazine.
At the same time, France’s Channel 2, the country’s main TV outlet, is rushing to finish a scheduled Christmas telecast about the Abbe Pierre, based on a fiction by Claude Pinoteau.
The old priest says it is his right and obligation to throw stones into the pond of Catholic doctrine. And since he has never been known to act subtly, he actually throws in quite a boulder!
Here is what he says: “ Personally, I had chosen very early to dedicate my life to God and to my neighbor, for which purpose I took a vow of chastity. In a certain sense, my life (since then) has been like that of a prisoner. When you know that you cannot allow yourself to have something which you really want, then you must learn to do without. I knew that my life as a priest, totally dedicated to helping the poor, was irreconcilable with having a love life. I had to keep desire from taking root in me. I would define my status as being one of consensual slavery. But this does not diminish in any way the force of desire, to which I have yielded temporarily on a number of occasions. I never had regular relations because I wanted to prevent sexual desire from taking root in me, as that would have pushed me to a lasting relationship with a woman, which would have been contrary to the life choice I had made.”
He adds: “I have therefore known the experience of sexual desire and its rare satisfaction, which beame transformed in turn into a source of dissatisfaction because I did not feel authentic in my behavior.”
And here is the conclusion he draws on the problem of priestly chastity: “I realized that sexual desire, in order to be fully satisfied, must be expressed in a relationship of love that is based on trust. Such a relationship was not possible for me. So I could only make women unhappy, as I was a prisoner of the contradiction between two life choices that are irreconcilable.”
And now, what to do? “I know priests who live in concubinage with women they have loved for years and who accept their situation and continue to be good priests. So the question of married priests and the ordination of married men is crucial for the Church. I am convinced that the Church needs both – married priests as well as priests who have chosen to consecrate themselves totally to prayer and to helping their neighbor. Jesus chose married apostles like Peter, and bachelors, who doubtless remained so, like John.”
In effect, even at age 93, Abbe Pierre is more combative than ever.
[G]Cardinal Tonini's response[/G]
Cardinal Ersilio Tonini, archbishop emeritus of Ravenna, is quite upset. He has just read the intimate revelations of the Abbe Pierre, who has been called the Saint Francis of our day, a Capuchin friar who left everything to be on the side of the “least among men.” At 93 years, he has now confessed to having sinned several times by having occasional sexual encounters, told in an interview-book with Frederic Lenoir.
For the 91-year-old Cardinal Tonini, it is the collapse of a myth. “I felt bad reading his words. The Abbe Pierre was one of the better symbols of France – he bore witness to a commitment that did not stop with making social demands but expressed itself in concrete acts of solidarity and was able to mobilize thousands of persons to his cause all over the world. Now this symbol has crumbled to dust, and for many of us, it is a day of great sorrow.”
Abbe Pierre’s biography has its share of dramatic episodes. Born Henri-Antoine Groues into a well-to-do family, he donated his inheritance to the poor when he was 19 years old to enter a Capuchin monastery in Lyon. He came out years later and became a diocesan priest.
He aided the victims of Nazism, fought with the partisans, became elected deputy to Parliament. In protest [the article does not say to what], he resigned from Parliament and with an ex-convict, he founded the Emmaus Movement to set up communities for poor people, ex-drug addicts and ex-prostitutes who wished to have a new life. The movement is now found in 50 countries.
[G]Eminence, what did Abbe Pierre mean to your generation?[/G]
He was a model of altruism and generosity not only for my generation for so many people, believers and non-believers alike. For instance, I think of Annamaria Tonelli who, as an adolescent saw the Abbe Pierre hen he visited Forli. She started to collect contributions and donations for Africa, until she finally decided to leave evrything her and go to Somalia. What would she say if she read these revelations now?
[G]Maybe Abbe Pierre only needed to unburden his conscience…[/G]
But why do it publicly, especially in a book, I ask. It would have been enough to say it to his confessor. I feel like we are back in the 70s when there were priests who announced to their flock during Mass: “Tomorrow I am getting married.” This does not do the Church good in any way.
[G]Did you ever desire a woman?[/G]
I entered the seminary when I was 11 years old. When I was 20, I dreamed of having a family with two or three children. But soon I understood that I would realize myself even better with a family far more vast and numerous, like the Church.
[G]You have not answered me.[/G]
I sought to protect myself. I never read a book that would have made me blush. I avoided giving way to curiosity. I devoted myself fully to studying philosophy, history, foreign languages. I prayed very faithfully. And I counsel young priests to do the same in order to safeguard their chastity.
[G]Which was more difficult for you – the lack of a woman or failure to become a father?[/G]
Celibacy is not a price you pay to become a priest. On the contrary, it is the extraordinary opportunity to have an even wider paternity. I have had so many children and continue to have more, even at my age the young priests when I taught in the seminary; the university students when I was an assistant Professor with the Italian federation of Catholic universities; the faithful here in my diocese of Ravenna; and all those who come to me daily to seek a word of comfort, or sometimes,simply to be with someone who is willing to listen.
[G]Would it resolve the problem of vocations in the Church if it did away with priestly chastity, as Abbe-Pierre proposes?[/G]I don’t think so. The crisis in vocations also affects the Protestant churches and the oriental churches where they allow married priests. We have a priest shortage because it is difficult for young people to make a definitive choice for the priesthood.
[G]Abbe Pierre also recommends female priests and homosexual marriage.[/G]
I ask myself what entitles him to play the teacher in these matters and to treat issues that are outside his competence. Let us leave the discussion of such delicate issues to the theologians and the experts.
[G]After all this, what would you advise Abbe Pierre?[/G]
I would advise him to reread Socrates’s prayer: “Dear Pan, and all of you who are the gods of this place, grant that I may be beautiful inside, and that everything I have outside be in accord with what I am inside."