A radical thorn in the Pope's side

He squats in empty buildings and leads demonstrations. The Vatican disapproves, but that won't stop Bishop Gaillot
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Jacques Gaillot's bedsit to the west of Montmartre could hardly be more modest. His computer sits on a desk in one corner, two tan sofas in another and his bed and a television are tucked behind an MFI-style wardrobe. The room is hardly big enough to swing a cat and you could be forgiven for believing that it is the home of a slightly impoverished Parisian student.

When Gaillot himself appears from out of a tiny bathroom, dressed from head-to-toe in black, he looks almost as unassuming as his surroundings. He radiates an almost saint-like calm and serenity, and somehow it is difficult to imagine that this balding 60-year-old man has been called "a harbinger of social unrest" and accused of "unsettling people's consciences". However, many see this former bishop of Evreux not only as the catalyst for December's strike movement in France but also as a symbol of the profound crisis afflicting the Catholic Church.

Earlier this year, French bishops officially accepted that condoms may be necessary to prevent the spread of Aids, in effect rejecting the position of the Vatican. A recent survey showed that 65 per cent of French teenagers have no faith in the Church and Gaillot believes that a revolution is sweeping through the discontented grass roots. As criticism against the ailing Pope John Paul II increases, Gaillot predicts that great changes will rock Rome. "But the change will not come from the top," he believes. "It's a bit like the Berlin Wall. It was not political leaders who brought it down but a new public awareness. Ordinary Christians are beginning to react and walls are going to be torn down."

Changes have, he says, already occurred in France due to the recent strike movement against government proposals to change the laws on social security contributions. "I think that we have moved into a new world," he asserts. "What happened in December is not over and I think that one day people will see December 1995 as a historic date." Demonstrations earlier this week by French unions campaigning for a reduction in working hours would seem to support his claim.

In March, 300 black Africans decided to squat in a Parisian church for the right to have residency permits. When the police heavy-handedly ejected them, the public reaction was one of outrage. In the following weeks, the government sensibly decided to abandon proposals for new immigration laws.

When a demonstration against these proposals was organised, Jacques Gaillot was at its head and, over the past year, he has become the voice of public opinion in France. He spent most of 1995 living in a squat in the centre of Paris with a number of homeless families. They were campaigning for all empty buildings in the capital to be used to house those without a roof over their heads. He flew to the South Pacific to protest against French nuclear testing and, more recently, led a demonstration at the Eiffel Tower against nuclear dumping.

Strangely enough, it was a move meant to silence Gaillot which turned him into one of the most influential men in France. In January 1995, the Pope dismissed him from his position in the Normandy city of Evreux and appointed him to the obsolete diocese of Partenia in Mauritania. Gaillot effectively found himself as a bishop in name only and, without a flock to preach to, the Pope must have thought he had managed to sweep this enfant terrible of the Catholic Church under the carpet.

Ever since his nomination at Evreux in 1982, Gaillot had not hesitated to proclaim his unorthodox views and criticise the Vatican's position on a diverse range of subjects. Whether it be his support for the ordination of married men, his call for the use of condoms or his refusal to denounce Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, Gaillot's opinions made him a serious thorn in Rome's side.

His media appearances also brought him a huge amount of criticism from his superiors, who believe that a bishop's place is firmly in his cathedral. On the prime-time talk show Frou-Frou, he criticised the lack of help the Church offered to immigrants. He told the now-defunct gay magazine Gay Pied that "homosexuals will go to heaven before us" and even granted two interviews to Lui, a French version of Playboy. His response to his outraged colleagues was simply to tell them: "I try to be present where none of us are and to address people whom we never reach. There is no good or bad ground for spreading the Gospel."

Such comments put Gaillot himself on very uneasy ground. The former bishop of Strasbourg, Leon Arthur Elchinger, asked him to show "a little bit more love for the Pope and your fellow bishops". In Rome in 1992, the Pope himself leaned towards Gaillot and told him "you have to sing inside the choir as well as outside it".

When Gaillot continued to sing solo, it came as no surprise when in January 1995 he was dismissed for "not being apt to maintain unity, which is a bishop's primary duty". However, the decision went firmly against the tide of public opinion. As pressure against Gaillot had mounted, he received more than 20,000 letters of support, a thousand of which were from priests. When he pronounced his final sermon in Evreux, thousands came from all over France and also from abroad.

"My revocation woke up many, both Christian and lay people," Gaillot says. "Sociologists say that I brought to the surface questions within society, such as the respect of democracy and the way authority functions. I think that there was a direct link between what happened in January and the strike in December. By the time the government tried to decide what was good for the general population in December, people would no longer stand for it."

He also believes that there is a new awareness within the Church. "The authorities now know that you can't just do anything you like to churchgoers," he says. "The Church is not there for itself. It is there for ordinary people. If the Pope agreed to meet with me in December, it was because public pressure meant that he could not do otherwise."

On that occasion, John Paul II had the opportunity to witness Gaillot's very distinctive sense of humour at first hand. "It's lucky for you that you don't have too many bishops like me," he told the Pope. "That would be difficult for you." "You're often in the media," complained the Pope. "So are you, Holy Father", retorted Gaillot. "But, I don't ever watch myself on television," said an exasperated John Paul II, to which Gaillot quipped, "Neither do I, Holy Father."

Since then, Gaillot has moved into the world of multimedia by becoming the first cyber-bishop in the history of the Catholic Church. On 13 January 13, he opened his own site on the Internet to commemorate the first anniversary of his dismissal. The non-existent Partenia become Partenia the virtual diocese and with one click of a computer key, Gaillot got around the Pope's attempt to cut him off from practising Catholics - something that makes him chuckle. The bilingual site (French and English) includes regular "sermons", a transcript of his final homily at Evreux, a map of Partenia and news of his activities. He also receives more than 50 pieces of e- mail each day from all corners of the globe.

At the same time, he continues to devote his time to fighting for the homeless, the immigrants and the unemployed. Yet, the Vatican refuses to acknowledge his efforts. When it was suggested that he be named "chaplain to the homeless", the answer was a defiant "No". "I think that it would have been more simple to recognise what I do. For months, I have been saying that my actions could be the opportunity for the Church to take a stand in favour of the homeless," says Gaillot. "But the Church doesn't like innovations."

With or without the Vatican's stamp of approval, Jacques Gaillot will continue to squat in buildings, lead demonstrations and reach out to millions on the World Wide Web. His future, he says, will depend on where events lead him. One thing, however, is for sure. He is definitely not going to be silenced.