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Deposed bishop speaks of the marginalized

Special Report Writer

When Jacques Gaillot, the deposed bishop of Evreux, France, met with the pope in Rome last December, John Paul II asked him if he needed any help. "No, not at all," said Gaillot. "I'm just happy to be bishop of Partenia."

"But your diocese doesn't exist," said the pope.

"So much the better," responded Gaillot. "Then everyone can be part of it."

With anecdotes like this, Gaillot, aided by an interpreter, delighted crowds during three sessions at the Call to Action Conference. He said he holds no grudge against the pope. On the contrary, he is grateful for the opportunity to be "a bishop in a different way."

But he does believe his removal in January 1995 was an "injustice to the people" of his diocese, a rural area some 90 miles north of Paris. He was given instead the titular diocese of Partenia, a desert region in Algeria uninhabited since the third century.

Gaillot said he lays the blame primarily on French government officials who resented his criticism of immigration restrictions and on Cardinal Bernard Gantin, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, whom he found "grim and uncompromising" in a meeting following his audience with John Paul.

No one in authority seems to know how to react to the friendly, smiling, 61-year-old bishop who has become a media celebrity in France through his work with the poor and the underclass. There is unmistakable irony in the fact that he was ousted from his diocese, according to the Vatican, because "he has not shown himself suitable to exercise the ministry of unity, which is the first duty of a bishop." Since then he has become a beacon of unity for those opposing the conservative social movement in France.

During the summer he was among some 300 persons, mostly immigrants from Africa, who occupied a church in Paris to protest new, restrictive immigration laws. "These were people who had lived in France for years," he told NCR. "They had families, homes, jobs. And suddenly they are told to get out of the country."

His presence in the church helped curb police abuse, he said. "They think twice about doing violence when a bishop is present. I use my episcopal identity as a kind of shield." The occupiers left the church in August after lawyers found loopholes in the laws allowing legal appeals.

Gaillot insisted he does not wish to be the spokesperson for the marginalized. "No, no," he said, "the people must take the leadership and be their own voices."

During a general strike in France earlier this year, Gaillot said, union and government leaders agreed to meet but allowed no voice to the rank and file and the unemployed. In protest, he encouraged the occupation of a convention center, which led to participation by representatives of the outsiders in the talks.

"Society today marginalizes people as never before," he said. "Youth have no jobs, no rights. The rich don't need the lower classes anymore, not even to exploit them. So we have millions in Europe who are idle and without hope."

As bishop of Evreux, Gaillot openly supported women priests, a married clergy, the acceptance of homosexuals, and greater voice for the laity in church decisions. Church reform is still part of his agenda, he said, but he is far more invested in "the greater problems of society, which make internal church disputes seem smaller." At the same time, he added, the church appears incredible for spending so much energy shoring up its defense against change. "The church does not exist for itself," he said, "but for the greater society."

Gaillot has turned his nonexistent diocese into a global computer Web site on which he produces a monthly newsletter and schedule of his activities. He has traveled widely in the past year, arousing attention everywhere. During Pope John Paul's visit to France last September, he spoke briefly with Gaillot. "He told me I was too much present in the media," said Gaillot.

"I replied, 'I am only following in your footsteps.'

"It made the pope laugh."

Robert McClory is a member of the board of Call to Action.

National Catholic Reporter, December 6, 1996