ONE of France's most popular personalities, a 93-year-old Roman Catholic priest who champions the cause of the homeless and poor, has scandalised the Church with a book in which he admits to having broken his vows of celibacy.
Abbe Pierre, who has topped French popularity lists for so long that he withdrew his name last year to make way for others, also says in his book Mon Dieu ... Pourquoi? (My God ... Why?), which was published yesterday, that he could imagine that Jesus Christ had been married to Mary Magdalene.
Abbe Pierre, a former Capuchin monk became a humanitarian icon in France when he founded Emmaus, an international non-profit organisation dedicated to providing food, refuge and hope for the homeless.
His frank explanations of his own sexual experiences are expected to reopen the debate on the question of celibacy and sexuality within the Catholic Church.
"I made the decision very young to dedicate my life to God and to others and thus I made the vow of chastity ... That does not remove in the slightest the force of desire and it has happened to me that I have surrendered to it in a temporary fashion. But I have never had a regular liaison, because I never allowed sexual desire to take root," Abbe Pierre writes.
His confession made headline news across France after extracts from the book were published by Le Point magazine yesterday.
However, Monsignor Herv Giraud, Bishop of Lyon, asked: "Why is society only interested in the lines of the book where Abbe Pierre speaks of his private life when he evokes so many other things? Is it so guilty about its sexuality that it is reassured to see a hero sin?"
The priest also argues in favour of the marriage of Catholic priests and the ordination of women, and says that he is not shocked by the idea that Christ may have had a sexual relationship with the prostitute Mary Magdalene.
"I am convinced that wanting to fully embrace human nature He lived the experience of sexual desire which every man knows. Did He want to satisfy this desire? If so, He must have lived it in the context of shared love and Mary Magdalene seems to have been the closest woman to Him after His mother," Abbe Pierre writes.
Abbe Pierre, who has already confessed to having experienced a long but platonic love affair with a choir singer, also says in his book that he knows several priests who are living with women.
"They continue to be good priests," he wrote, calling for the Church to authorise the marriage of priests and to ordain married men.
Abbe Pierre also questions papal opposition to the ordination of women. "I have never understood why Jean-Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger stated that the Church would never ordain women," he writes. "It is hard to see why, when ideas have evolved so profoundly on the question [of women's equality with men], the Church must remain faithful to this prejudice."
The priest also writes of his sympathy for homosexual couples who wish to see their union consecrated by the Church.
Born Henri Groues in Lyon, Abbe Pierre was ordained in 1938.
His pseudonym dates from the Second World War when he operated under several names as a member of the French resistance.