The Abbe Pierre, who died on Monday, was so loved by the French that from 1992 to 2003 he was voted the nation's favourite man, more popular even than the evergreen pop lord Johnny Hallyday. The priest only lost the title three years ago because he asked to be withdrawn from consideration.
French politicians have been eager to praise the dead man for his work helping the homeless and the Abbe, whose original name was Henry Groues, deserves the tributes.
He was a hero in war and peace. Under Nazi occupation, he played a brave and important role, smuggling out resistants including Charles de Gaulle's paralysed brother Jacques — and editing an anti-German newspaper.
As the war reached its conclusion, the priest turned his energies towards assisting the poor and dispossessed. In October 1945, he challenged General de Gaulle over the lack of nourishment for children. "The French army is crossing the Rhine," replied the new President of France. "And you speak to me of babies without milk."
A powerful prophet, the Abbe Pierre spoke and wrote eloquently against the inequities of French society. From the freezing winter of 1954 onwards, he became the public voice for France's suffering poor. He reprimanded the political establishment for its indifference towards les sans-abris . "I prefer to see men live illegally," he told them, "than die legally." Today, Emmaus, the organisation he founded, is a world leader for rescuing down-and-outs.
Sadly, Abbe Pierre's final years were tainted with controversy. His judgment seemed to lose its sharpness. His support for the Holocaust-denier Roger Garaudy certainly lost him many admirers, and he became cantankerous too. In an unpleasant letter to John Paul II in 1995 he vented his bile against the papacy and the Church. In 2005, he further disappointed Catholics by admitting to having had casual sexual liaisons.
So despite the adoration he inspires among the French, the Abbe Pierre will probably not be canonised. But he should nevertheless be recognised as a wonderful priest and a great Christian. "It is only by saving others," he once said, "that one can be saved oneself." If that is the case, we can be confident that Henry Groues is now basking in the Beatific Vision.