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Pope Francis meets ‘Red Cleric’ who was exiled by Pope John Paul II

French bishop Jacques Gaillot, center, speaks with people from associations who occupy the rue de Solferino Socialist Party headquarters in Paris on January 3, 2013 in solidarity with illegal immigrants workers who are on hunger strike in Lille, northern France, since 63 days. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
French bishop Jacques Gaillot, center, speaks with people from associations who occupy the rue de Solferino Socialist Party headquarters in Paris on January 3, 2013 in solidarity with illegal immigrants workers who are on hunger strike in Lille, northern France, since 63 days. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

French bishop Jacques Gaillot, center, speaks with people from associations who occupy the rue de Solferino Socialist Party headquarters in Paris on January 3, 2013 in solidarity with illegal immigrants workers who are on hunger strike in Lille, northern France, since 63 days. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

(RNS) Anyone looking to understand the decades-long struggle between Catholic progressives and the late Pope John Paul II – who was aided in his conservative renewal by his theological wingman, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – could do no better than reviewing the tale of French Bishop Jacques Gaillot.

Gaillot was named bishop of the Diocese of Evreux, west of Paris, in 1982, in the early years of John Paul’s pontificate, and Gaillot quickly came to stand as a symbol of the sort of social activist bishop – and theological liberal – that the Polish pope sought to sideline, or censure.

After years of tensions with the Vatican, and with his fellow bishops in France, John Paul in 1995 removed Gaillot – nicknamed the Red Cleric – from Evreux and, in a near parody of exile, named him titular head of Partenia, a defunct diocese in the desert of modern-day Algeria that has not existed as an actual Catholic community since the fifth century.

Paradoxically, that exile freed Gaillot to continue his activism – and irk Rome – as he moved in with squatters in Paris and advocated for a host of reform causes in politics and the church.

Now, in yet another remarkable turn of events under the current pontificate, Pope Francis on Tuesday (Sept. 1) met privately with Gaillot at his Vatican residence.

“I don’t want to ask anything of you, I told the pope, but a whole people of the poor are happy that you are receiving me, and feel acknowledged too,” Gaillot told the news service Agence France-Presse.

“I spoke to him about … the sick, the divorced, gay people. These people are counting on you,” Gaillot told AFP.

Gaillot, who at 79 is just a year older than the pope, said he told Francis how he had recently blessed a divorced couple as well as a homosexual couple.

”I am in civil cloth(ing) and I just bless them. This is not a marriage, it is a blessing,” Gaillot said he told the pope, according to another French media report (translated by New Ways, a ministry of LGBT Catholics). “We have the right to give the blessing of God, after all we also bless houses!”

“The pope listened,” Gaillot said, “he seemed open to all that. At that particular moment, he specifically said that to bless people also involves to speak well of God to those people.”

Gaillot said Francis told him to “continue, what you do (for the downtrodden) is good.”

Francis certainly seemed to understand the import of this meeting.

Gaillot said Francis left two messages on his answering machine this summer before writing to formally invite him to the Vatican.

“The pope told me with a smile: ‘I speak to the bishop of Partenia,’ ” Gaillot said. He said it was all very informal.

“I was in one of the common room of St Martha’s House (the residence in the Vatican where Francis lives), a door opened and the pope simply came in. The meeting was carried out as if I was family, without any protocol. He truly is a free man. At one point, he stood up and said: Do you have a photographer? As I had none and there was none around who was available, we took (a photo) with a cell phone.”

The Vatican released no details about the meeting between Gaillot and Francis, and it was not included on the official list of papal audiences.

But the encounter is sure to spark another round of heated speculation about what it signals about Francis’ intentions – a change in church policy or doctrine, or nothing more than an act of kindness toward an aging rebel.

As much as anything, it would seem to point toward Francis’ desire for a “big tent” church that can accommodate both ends and the middle. That in itself, however, is often seen as a grave peril to doctrinal purists who flourished under John Paul and Benedict.

Still, it’s interesting to see a number of convergences between Gaillot and Francis, especially in terms of reaching out to those on the margins rather than playing defense and trying to preserve the church’s status quo and privileges:

  • In his first Easter message Gaillot wrote: “Christ died outside the walls as he was born outside the walls. If we are to see the light, the sun, of Easter, we ourselves must go outside the walls.”
  • In his address to his fellow cardinals before the 2013 conclave that elected him Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires denounced the “theological narcissism” of a church locked up inside herself instead of going “to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.”
  • Gaillot also said: “I’m not here to convince the convinced or take care of the well. I’m here to support the ill and offer a hand to the lost. Does a bishop remain in his cathedral or does he go into the street?”
  • Likewise, Francis has written: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security … More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, ‘Give them something to eat.'”

Gaillot has also focused on ministering to the homeless, welcoming gays and the divorced, and urged lenience for women who have had abortions — echoing the merciful stance Francis advocated earlier this week.

Francis has also made visiting inmates in prison a centerpiece of his ministry, and reports say that by the time Gaillot left the Diocese of Evreux he had visited more prisons than any bishop in French history.

END GIBSON

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

20 Comments

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  • Yes; this is what Jesus preached! Thanks for the article; it makes me hopeful.
    “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security … More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, ‘Give them something to eat.’”

  • Gibson doesn’t report that yesterday Francis said that anyone who confesses to a priest of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX, in temporary schism) “shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center, in its June 2012 report European Extremist Movements named SSPX as influential within the French far-right, anti-Semitic party. In January 2012, it was noted that British fascism posed a “real danger” and “might draw strength from the assiduous networking” of the SSPX. According to a Spiegel article in 2010, SSPX priests held signs at a gay pride parade: “Save Children from Perversion,” and one of them condemned the event as “moral pollution.” In 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center kept SSPX on their “Hatewatch” list because of the virulent anti-Semitism of its leaders.

  • Pope Francis acts in a manner Jesus would. I admire all the Popes of the 20th Century, but Francis is uniquely original in his approach to the duty of Vicar of Christ.
    Without compromising Catholic Truth, he reaches out to the marginalized “rebels” to listen openly and warmly recognizes their opinions as valid to them. Only then can he guide them back to Church Teachings which are unalterable. Francis reprimands the “Pharositical” lifestyles of prominent bishops and cardinals, as Jesus did, and turns his merciful attention to convicts, sinners of all stripes, and the duties all of us have in the world and to each other.
    Like the Jews expecting a. Messiah King, they rejected a carpenter from Nazareth. Francis is like a king acting like a simple carpenter. Simple, truthful, and true follower of Christ.

  • Apostasy. No other word for these two men, and their efforts to undermine settled Roman Catholic doctrine on human sexuality, marriage and reception of the Eucharist. Francis will lead those who follow him into perdition.

  • No mercy or compassion shown in the post by “Duffy Fighting 69th”. His post reminds me of the Pharisees from last weekend’s Gospel.

  • Although, Bergoglio has the right idea of helping those in the street and feeding the poor or as he put it “bruised, hurting and dirty”, he is doing nothing but washing them in dirty water. Instead of teaching them the truth and cleaning their souls, he is leading them astray and letting them believe that it is ok to do the bad things against God’s commands which they are doing, just so that they feel “loved”. I would rather them have a life in heaven with God than to feel convicted on earth for the sins that they are committing. Bergoglio needs to teach them repentance. He needs to clean them with clean water.

  • Fr. Duffy fighting 69th has plenty of mercy and compassion. He just knows the difference between right and wrong. Bergoglio and “Red Cleric” are so wrong. They are leading so many people to hell in a handbag. He isn’t even following God’s laws. As a man of God he should know the bible and know it well. He is going against so many things that Go taught us. As a “pope” which I do question, many people are relying on him for the truth and he isn’t giving it to them. He can not change what God has given us.

  • Except, Jesus would tell them to go and sin no more. He would not let them continue their homosexual behaviors or let them divorce and remarry and then go to communion without blinking an eye. I don’t think so. This is why He set down laws. This is why we have the 10 commandments. This doesn’t mean that we don’t love those who sin. They need to be taught that it is WRONG and that they need to repent and sin no more. I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus would have done. AND, He would have done it with love.

  • Article correction: New Ways Ministey is not a LGBT Catholic ministry. They are not reconized by the Catholic Church. New Ways is considered Protestant. The Vatican recognizes only Courage as the official ministry of the Catholic Church, as Pope Francis stated in the Phillippines.

  • Horrible and judgemental comment. Who do you think you are to make a comment like this? Would Jesus like to be in the company of a person who speaks like this?????

  • Mercy and Compassion? Hilarious. If that comment is the kind of ‘mercy and ‘compassion’ that you agree with, all I can do is throw up my hands in despair.

  • I am from India and being a catholic often try to see the catholic world on the internet. When Jesus told a woman Go, and sin no more, He showed his mercy and love for we human beings. I noticed and followed two bishops one is Bishop of Lugo of Paraguay who left bishopric, fought election of President for the sake of poor but could do nothing much. Another is Bishop Jacques of Partenia though expelled from active ministry of bishop continued his ministry for poor and marginalized. Bishops Jacques support married priests but in many countries, the system of married deacon has not been introduced. In India only two diocese have married deacon. We always say ” The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” Of course there are many many married women and men ready to serve as workers but our church authority do not allow them. Let us hope Pope Francis doors for workers.

  • Many say that the Pope should be teaching people that their actions are wrong. The truth is that most know that what they are doing is immoral or not acceptable. However, they need the gift of unconditional love to empower them to be able to make changes in their life. Remember – Christ loved us and died for us while we were still sinners.

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