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

(RNS) The encounter may 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 who continues to bless divorced and gay couples and others on the church's margins?

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