Worker Bishop in the Vatican II Style
Jesus said “Blessed are the poor” and since Vatican II, the People of God and the institutional church have both shown an increasing awareness of the importance of serving the poor in the world, whatever their religious, or non-religious, affiliation. One bishop in Europe has recently come to represent the western world’s commitment to what is now known as ‘the option for the poor’ --- his name is Jacques Gaillot, former bishop of Evreux in France. ‘Former’ betrays that ‘the option for the poor’ was no more than another token phrase on the lips of Pope John Paul II, who sacked this bishop for taking seriously the demand of Jesus to help our more unfortunate neighbours. Behind this event lies a problem which plagues the Church: is a bishop of Jesus and his local people, or is he a branch manager under the Pope?
Background to the Scandal of Bishop Jacques Gaillot
Born at Saint-Dizier of France’s Haute-Marne in 1935 and ordained priest in 1961, Father Jacques Gaillot completed his theological studies in Rome, then taught in seminaries in Châlons-sur-Marne and Rheims. In 1973, he took charge of the ’Training Institute for Educators of the Clergy’ in Paris. Until 1977 he was also Secretary of the Episcopal Commission for the Clergy and Seminaries. From then until 1982, he was Vicar General of Langres. In 1982, he became Bishop of Evreux.
He soon established a reputation as a bishop, who was more interested in the poor and the marginalised than in the institutional Church - and this was partly the reason why he was sacked by the Pope on 12th January 1995. Another aspect of the bishop’s activities which earned him the displeasure of the Vatican was that he took great interest in ministering to people very distant from the Church or even opposed to it. In trying to justify the sacking, the Vatican Congregation for Bishops stated that Gaillot often questioned the official line of the Church, sometimes even opposing it. Yet the Congregation failed to explain why no action was taken against Gaillot long before his sacking by the Pope. Nor did the Pope consult the French bishops before dismissing Bishop Gaillot and giving him the titular diocese of Parthenia, in what is now modern Morocco
In 1986 Jacques Gaillot published an article in Concilium (no. 188) in which he set out his basic stance for all to read. He began by stating that at the recent Synod, the bishops had spoken about the Church’s bias towards the poor and human development. He also stressed that his article was not just another statement about the poor, but “the simple testimony of a pastor who is trying to be the Church with the poor, and who knows that in this area above all, actions are indispensable. People look for action from the Church.”
Bishop Gaillot went on to consider some of the difficulties of talking about the poor and the marginalised. First, there is the sheer annoyance caused by the very use of the word itself. He relates that at a meeting to prepare for a Christmas vigil for the most deprived people of a certain town, the priest objected to the use of the word ‘poor’! Next, Jacques Gaillot noted that the marginalised are not regular clients of the Church, nor part of the institution. Those who try to help the marginalised, soon find that they themselves become marginalised in relation to the institution.
Who are the Poor? --- "Les Exclus"!
Another problem he identifies is that wherever the Church sets itself up, it develops a ‘rich’ mentality. Also, the Church tends to produce Christians who settle down and become conservative. At that time in 1986, it was also the case that anyone who took the side of the poor was likely to be accused of being a Communist. (Since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, this is now much less likely.) Bishop Gaillot goes on to recall the commitment of the Latin American Church to liberate the poor and marginalised, and that it is much more difficult to promote liberation in France, now that the population is coming under the influence of information technology.
In his own diocese of Evreux, the bishop identifies the poor as the young unemployed,, immigrants, plus prisoners and patients in the local psychiatric hospital. In addition, he includes those families in rented accommodation who have their electricity cut off because they cannot pay for it. There are other groups, he says, who could be added to the list.
Action --- The Start of his Problems
The one thing that upsets right-wing conservative Catholics is action in favour of the poor. Bishop Gaillot tells us of some of the actions he has taken, to put flesh on the bones of his commitment to the poor. In 1944 he took several homeless families into his house --- not just providing rooms, but living with them as part of his household. He denounced racism as an insult to people’s dignity and their rights and spoke on television in favour of votes for immigrants in municipal elections. By taking such a high-profile stance, Gaillot was ensuring that he became a well-known bishop, enough to make him unpopular with the Vatican --- only the Bishop of Rome at that time was permitted to be well known. Full stop. Another black mark against him was his acknowledgement of his own homosexuality and his support for lesbian and gay groups.
Another fact he put his finger on, is that the population generally believes that the Church in France is rich. Gaillot says quite specifically that it is not, but that it is living beyond its means and only appears to be rich. You can imagine how many people would be upset by this --- and how many would keep it in mind when they later denounced him to the Vatican, not of course mentioning this point, but other matters in which the Vatican would take far more interest.
Bishop Gaillot also identifies another feature of Church finances in France and one that probably applies in many other countries as well, rich and poor parishes live side by side without pooling their resources - to him sheer injustice.
To end on an optimistic note --- Bishop Gaillot says that he has received letters of support from everywhere, even from unbelievers, and so feels that, although he is no longer Bishop of Evreux, he is bishop of a huge worldwide diocese.
To discover what he is saying today, visit his website at www.partenia.org --the message is as radical as you can get from a bishop anywhere.