Obituary: Fr Michel Quoist
Monday 05 January 1998
Michel Quoist was an inspirational figure to many Catholics and other Christians around the world seeking to relate their faith more directly to everyday life than had been the case with pre-Second Vatican Council spirituality. A French Catholic priest of working-class origin, Quoist seemed to revel in presenting Christianity as part of gritty daily reality, rather than in the forms of traditional piety.
Quoist appeared frequently on French television and radio, but it was through his many books that he reached a wider audience throughout the world. His most famous was Prayers of Life, first published in French in 1954 (he completed the text on his 33rd birthday) and in English nine years later. The subjects of the prayers - a man whose wife had just left him, a pornographic magazine, a drunk in the street - were a far cry from the usual inspiration for devotional literature at that time. The book immediately became a bestseller.
Quoist insisted that all the scenes were authentic and had been lived and prayed before they had been written. "These pages can hardly be used as set prayers in the usual sense," he warned his readers, encouraging them to use them as an aid to meditation but not as a substitute for attending the liturgy.
Quoist's childhood was cut short by the death of his father, obliging him to go out to work from the age of 14. Although the family was of Catholic origin, it was through his involvement in the Jeunesse Ouvriere Chretienne, a movement aimed at the young working class, that his faith became real and he soon decided to train for the priesthood, entering the seminary at St Jean in 1938. In 1942 he went on to the major seminary of Rouen and was ordained priest in July 1947 in the abbey at St Oeun.
As a promising young priest he was sent to pursue sociology studies in Paris, gaining a master's degree in social and political science at the Institut Catholique, followed by a doctorate at the Sorbonne studying a working-class district of Rouen, which was published as a book, La Ville et l'homme, in 1952.
From 1949 to 1953 Quoist was a parish priest in Le Havre before being appointed youth chaplain for the town, a job he relished as it left him outside the narrow confines of the traditional parish with more direct contact with young people. He also became close to Abbe Pierre, a monk who had launched his famous appeal for the homeless in 1954.
Quoist's mission to young people was to remain with him, even when he returned to parish work in 1970. In the late 1970s he launched regular youth meetings for participants from Le Havre and neighbouring dioceses and was closely involved in devising teaching materials for religious education classes in schools and for young adults.
A second interest that took up much of his energy was the Church in Latin America, the continent with the highest number of Catholics and a severe shortage of clergy. For seven years in the 1960s Quoist was secretary general of the French bishops' committee for the region and was involved in preparing the priests who had heeded the call of Pope Paul VI to volunteer for several years' pastoral work there. He travelled frequently to Latin America to visit these priests and to support them and the "base communities" in their work for social justice. He also founded Echange Amerique Latine, which sought to give moral and financial support to Latin American lay Catholics who had volunteered for pastoral work in their dioceses in the absence of priests.
Quoist maintained his interest in Latin America, remaining president of the organisation to his death and devoting the royalties from his growing number of books to this work.
The books had followed at regular intervals (including Christ is Alive in 1970, Living Words in 1979), but Quoist always denied that he was a writer. The books are simple and direct (theologians might dismiss them as superficial) and they reached a wide audience, although none achieved the popularity of Prayers of Life. In 1988 Quoist published a further collection of 40 prayers (translated as New Prayers in 1990). He also encouraged the publication of testimonies of faith written by young people.
In December 1996 doctors discovered Quoist had cancer of the pancreas. He was given a choice of chemotherapy, which they believed would give him another two years, or letting the disease take its course. He chose the latter option, fearing that chemotherapy would leave him too weak to work. Doctors gave him two months. He threw himself into finishing a book he had long been writing on man's relation to God and fellow human beings. He completed the text just before his death.
Prayers of Life, written while Quoist was still a young priest, will remain his monument. Perhaps the most intense and personal (though he did not say so) was his prayer of a young priest on a Sunday night, coming home alone after the last Mass, seeing people leaving the cinema or flocking home after a day out, passing children on the street knowing he will never have any. "Lord, tonight, while all is still and I feel sharply the sting of solitude . . . I repeat to you my `yes' - not in a burst of laughter, but slowly, clearly, humbly."
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