Emmaus International

Jean-Marie Viennet is a priest and friend of Emmaus Montbéliard. In 1981, he had a chance meeting with Abbé Pierre. Immediately, the two men struck up a great friendship. Jean-Marie became Abbe Pierre’s confidant up until his death.

How and when did you meet and get to know Abbé Pierre?

In 1981, an Emmaus community was set up in Montbéliard. As a priest in the area, I went to introduce myself. Some time later, I had to go to Paris and they asked me to deliver a letter to a council flat in Charenton. I rang the bell and Abbé Pierre, who lived there, opened the door. I was very surprised, as I had though he was dead. He immediately invited me into his 10th floor apartment, from which there was a great view of Paris. He said to me: “Look, this is our world to love”. From that moment until his death in 2007, we were firm friends. We struck up a very strong personal bond even outside of all of the meetings that we both participated in as part of Emmaus. We were both priests, and we had spiritual but, most importantly, human exchanges.

Knowing Abbé Pierre as you did, was he an inspiration to you? Did your discussions with him strengthen your commitment?

Throughout his life, Abbé Pierre’s top priorities were those who were weakest and suffering the most. This was ever since the age of 15 when he travelled to Assisi, in Italy, where he was “burned” by a revelation: “I am the god who will always be there. I have seen the misery of my people. Go forth and deliver them”. For him, each person was unique, each person had their dignity regardless of their path or their history and, at the same time, there was that universal dimension.
When we travelled together, wherever we were, as soon as he saw anyone suffering he would stop to speak to them. Serving those who suffered most was natural to him, and something he considered to be essential. But he always said: “I didn’t create Emmaus. That was done by the companions,” because they’d given him the idea of working as ragmen, for example.
When spend time with someone so respectful, with such an extraordinary faith in God and Man, you can’t help but be affected. For me, that meeting changed the colour of time and faces. For 26 years now, I’ve been travelling between the markets of my region in my truck, not to sell anything, but simply to talk to people. In my own way, I’m following in the footsteps of Abbé Pierre.

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Why did Abbé Pierre choose Emmaus International as his sole legatee? Was there a political dimension to this decision?

Abbé Pierre’s vision was so universal that his legatee could be none other than Emmaus International. It’s what inspired his whole life: he was always interested by the world – it was natural for him. He felt as though he was a citizen of the world. So yes, this decision did have a political dimension, but not in the sense of political parties, rather in the sense of the common good, a universal vision of the world.

What was the secret to his strength of commitment?

For Abbé Pierre, human beings were sacred. He treated men and women who had been beaten down by life with the same sensitivity and the same respect he would show to an important personality. He believed that there were “flecks of gold” to be discovered within each person. It’s this style of charity and love that served as his fuel in his struggle for justice.
He received that revelation in Assisi. He lived his life by what others said, and he had that burning desire to fight for justice, dignity and access to rights for all. At every stage of his life he became committed to a cause after being affected by some sort of distress or unjust situation. He supported the French Resistance through hosting two Jewish fathers. He launched his radio appeal after a woman and a baby died of cold.

In what way was Abbé Pierre a visionary?

Abbé Pierre was, and still is, a visionary. He put humans at the heart of all serious issues and he never stopped saying, across all continents, that the earth belonged to humans. He had this universal vision and conviction from very early on.

What do you think are the key challenges for Emmaus International over the coming years in terms of keeping Abbé Pierre’s memory alive?

Abbé Pierre said: “It doesn’t matter what happens. If one person who is doing well meets and joins forces with a person who struggling, everything balances out”. I think that following on from Abbé Pierre, the role of Emmaus is to be receptive to suffering in the world, and for the Movement to remain made up of people who are sensitive to that suffering. The presidents of Emmaus International have been from Switzerland, Holland, Italy, France and now from Benin. That pays great homage to Abbé Pierre’s vision. He didn’t want us to mourn, he wanted us to act. Abbé Pierre trusted those around him to continue the struggle.