Fr Kevin Hegarty
The first poem I remember learning at school was ‘An Old Woman of the Roads’. Pádraic Colum dramatises the plight of a homeless woman in 19th century Ireland. She is ‘weary of mist and dark, and roads where there’s never a house or bush’. She is ‘tired of bog and road, and the crying wind and the lonesome hush’. She longs for a ‘little house, to own the hearth, and stool and all!, The heaped-up sods upon the fire, The pile of turf against the wall’.
The poem particularises a universal yearning. Home is one of the most beautiful four-letter words in the English language. There are dysfunctional homes, where people suffer much pain, but, for most of us, the word represents a place of security, love and joy. Robert Frost, the American poet, puts it well: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
The death occurred, last month, of a man who understood deeply the human desire for home. He was Abbé Pierre, a prophetic priest, chosen as the most popular man in France on several occasions, for his work for the homeless for over half a century.
He started in 1949 by opening his house in Paris to the homeless. Soon he was sharing with 18 homeless men on whom he spent his salary buying materials so that they could put up temporary homes, first in his own large garden. Among them were a failed suicide, a young man who had escaped from a reformatory school, a mentally unstable ex-policeman and a boxer who had come out of prison.
After a short time the people he brought together became known as ‘Les Chiffaniers of Emmaus’ or the rag pickers of Emmaus. They showed they could support themselves by using skills they had learned while roaming the streets. There was an implicit environmental dimension to the movement. By recycling and repairing other people’s rubbish they were eventually able to make enough money to support themselves.
His work soon achieved national recognition. In the hard winter of 1954, when many homeless people died on the streets of Paris, Abbé Pierre forced the Government to renew its social housing programme. Under his influence, Parliament passed a law forbidding landlords to evict tenants during the winter months. Housing ministers of successive governments sought his advice. By his death, the Emmaus Movement had 350 communities in France and member associations in 39 countries throughout the world.
Abbé Pierre was born in Lyons in 1912, the child of a prosperous family involved in the silk trade. Graham Greene, the novelist, has written of the door that opens in childhood and lets the future in. His father’s involvement in charitable works helped Pierre develop a social conscience. At the age of 19 he gave up his worldly possessions and decided to become a priest. Ordained in 1938, he played his part in the French Resistance Movement during World War II. He was arrested by the Gestapo but managed to escape. He helped Jews cross the Alps into safety in Switzerland.
Within the Catholic Church Abbé Pierre was outspoken. He did not meekly follow the party line. He opposed the ban on artificial contraception and the compulsory celibacy rule for priests. At 19 he told a young woman with whom he was dancing that it was his last dance as ‘I am joining the Capuchins tomorrow’.
Later he regretted this enthusiastic renunciation of female contact. He admitted that the lack of intimacy caused him ‘constant suffering’ every day of his life. “If I was 18 again, given how much the deprivation of tenderness would cost and not knowing, I certainly wouldn’t have the strength to pronounce joyously the vow of chastity.”
In 1995 he wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II in which he criticised him for his constant travelling; for the dubious state of the Vatican finances; for his obsession with the problems of sexuality; for his refusal to allow married priests and for his failure to retire from the papacy at the age of 75. Rarely did that formidable pontiff receive such uncongenial advice from a mere cleric.
By the way, he also had a forthright view on the lobbying of politicians: “We have no ambitions other than being a flea that bites a politician or a bureaucrat, shouting ‘Wake up’, so they will finally hear the silent voice of the people.”
Politicians in the Republic may expect a plague of ‘fleas’ as our general election approaches!