Rebel bishop puts his faith in cyberspace



France's most troublesome priest, Mgr Jacques Gaillot, has marked the first anniversary of his expulsion from the see of Evreux, west of Paris, by establishing a "virtual" bishopric for himself on the Internet. The action was characteristic of Mgr Gaillot, a lively and unconventional figure whose popularity - and awkwardness to the establishment - has only been enhanced by his tribulations.

When he was dismissed on Vatican orders last January, after 13 years at Evreux, it was for openly advocating the rights of homosexuals and minority groups, defending the use of condoms to combat Aids and refusing to condemn abortion unconditionally. Adept at using the media to pursue his causes, Mgr Gaillot had given the Vatican little option but to dismiss him if its authority were to remain intact.

But the bishop turned out to have a huge following, in Evreux and across France. Thousands of people turned out for his last Mass. This support took the French church hierarchy by surprise and prompted a year of worried introspection, as senior churchmen pondered how so large a gap had opened up between them and the laity. The "Gaillot question", as it became known, dominated Catholic gatherings and episcopal meetings through the year, and the see of Evreux is still without a bishop.

Mgr Gaillot's "virtual" bishopric is not quite as heretical as it sounds. Because bishops cannot be dismissed as such, "virtual bishoprics" of a kind - obsolete sees that exist only in the record books - have been used by the Vatican for centuries as places of notional exile for difficult bishops. Mgr Gaillot's dismissal was couched as his "transfer" to the defunct see of Partenia in the Sahara.

Introducing his Internet site at the weekend, Mgr Gaillot said: "Partenia ... has not existed since the sixth century; today, thanks to the new communications technology, it lives again to become the first 'virtual diocese' and gives me the means to continue my work." For the past year, this work has been mainly with the homeless in Paris, assisting the veteran campaigning priest Abbe Pierre.

Just before Christmas, Mgr Gaillot was finally received by the Pope, an audience he had requested since his dismissal and which represented at least a partial reconciliation. In a mild reproof, the Pope reportedly told his "virtual" bishop that, while his social work was commendable, as a consecrated bishop he should work "more within the bosom of the church". While the Bishops' Council of France was puzzling how to do that, Mgr Gaillot found his own solution.

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