So it was bracing to read in the obituaries of Abbé Pierre, the French priest who aided the homeless, worked in the French resistance and helped draft the country’s new constitution after the Second World War, that he was recently voted third in a poll of the greatest French person of all timeafter Charles de Gaulle and Louis Pasteur.
Born Henri Antoine Grouès in 1912, the man who would style himself Abbé Pierre was the scion of a wealthy family and the product of Jesuit schools. After eight years in a Capuchin monastery, he left because of illness and was eventually ordained a diocesan priest. During the war he helped save thousands of lives by enabling Jews and those suffering from political persecution to escape to Switzerland. For his efforts he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance. In 1954, after a woman froze to death on a Parisian street, he pleaded on a national radio broadcast, Friends! Help! His lifelong ministry to the poor had begun.
Abbé Pierre was not perfect, but neither were any of the saints. Foolishly, he once defended a friend who had authored a book questioning the Holocaust. (He later admitted that he had never read his friend’s book.) And late in life Monsieur l’Abbé faced criticism from some Catholic leaders for his outspoken comments on sexuality. But for over 50 years he was an admired figure in a country where most are suspicious of the church. A saint? Maybe. A hero? Bien sûr.Cheers for Catholic SchoolsNowadays the mood in Congress is so partisan that a unanimous action, even on a minor matter, is hardly more likely than the appearance of a whooping crane in the chambers. All the same, on Jan. 23 the House by a vote of 428 to 0 passed a resolution praising Catholic schools for the key role they play in promoting and ensuring a brighter, stronger future for this nation. The resolution also noted that more than a quarter of the students in Catholic schools are from minority backgrounds and 14 percent are non-Catholics.
This tribute was prompted by the annual observance of Catholic Schools Week, which was celebrated this year from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3. Representative Daniel Lipinski, a Democrat representing Illinois’s Third Congressional District, which includes large portions of Chicago, was the principal sponsor of the resolution. When the 40-year-old congressman, who was first elected to the House in 2004, was growing up in Chicago, he gained firsthand knowledge of Catholic schools. He attended St. Symphorosa’s parish school and St. Ignatius College Prep. He then went on to acquire bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Northwestern and Stanford, respectively, as well as a doctorate in political science from Duke. He also taught American politics at the University of Tennessee and served on the staffs of five congressmen. Looking back on his school days last month, Mr. Lipinski said, My 12 years of Catholic education in the Chicago Archdiocese provided me with the knowledge, discipline, desire to serve and love of learning that enabled me to become a teacher before I was elected to Congress.A Click AwayIndependent booksellers are a dwindling breed. In December The New York Times reported that Micawber Books in Princeton, N.J., would close after 26 years in business. Named after a character from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Micawber was one of those places where you could spend hours perusing the shelves without a salesperson trailing at your elbow. Like many independent bookstores, Micawber saw its sales plummet with the advent of megadistributors like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. According to the American Booksellers Association, more than 2,000 independent bookstores have gone out of business since 1993. In literary circles, it has become a commonplace to bemoan the death of small booksellers at the hands of corporate giants.
Yet it seems important to note that their demise has been attended by a kind of cultural birth. Thanks to the Internet, books are more accessible, and more affordable, than ever. Where once buyers had to be content with the selection of the neighborhood store, they can now roam freely online, selecting an out-of-print novel here, a hard-to-find theological text there. The Internet has also been a boon to small publishers, who can sell their books directly to the consumer. Of course, shopping online can be a lonely experience, a far cry from the pleasures offered at places like Micawber’s, where the staff knows you and your literary tastes. Yet online shopping offers its own rewards.