Those who are familiar with the anti-racism movement in France will recognize this title as a variation of the famous slogan "Don't touch my buddy." And this might well be the slogan of a parish in the Pyrenees who banded together in support of their priest and his woman-friend. This lovely story comes to us courtesy of Daniel Velez at Agence France Presse and I have translated it into English. Photo: Fr. Léon Laclau (r) with Fr. Benat Oyhénart who has come to replace him for Mass on April 29, 2007.
"Marga has helped me be a good priest," Father Léon Laclau said defensively on the steps of St. Martin d'Asson church (Atlantic Pyrenees), vindicated and surrounded by hundreds of faithful who had ostensibly come to stage a "Mass strike" on Sunday to protest his dismissal for notorious cohabitation.
About 400 parishioners were grouped on the lawn in front of their church, refusing to attend the Mass being celebrated by the superior of the Bétharram order, a co-signatory with the bishop of Bayonne of the sanction inflicted on Fr. Laclau on Tuesday.
The priest's situation has been known and largely accepted for more than 20 years in this little town of 1,600 inhabitants 30 km. east of Lourdes. The common life of the priest and Marga -- a widowed mother of three grown children -- "didn't bother anyone here," asserts Yves, 59, stressing that "they are well integrated into the social life of the community."
While only about ten people attended Mass, the faithful who remained outside added to the testimonies of support for the sanctioned priest. "Give us back our priest. What has he done except to bring us back to God?" asked one large sign. At the end of Mass, those leaving were met with a disapproving silence.
The decision taken about Father Laclau "has been met with almost unanimous incomprehension and revolt by the residents of this parish," reads a petition signed by the protesters of all ages who have come to show their support, and sometimes their anger.
The diocese has taken "the necessary steps" concerning this priest "whose public and stated behavior does not match his own commitments," Pierre Molières, the bishop of Bayonne, noted when announcing the priest's fall from grace. "The bishop of Bayonne, shut in his ivory tower, has never come here," one of the faithful responded indignantly.
Jean-Claude, 65, who is close to the priest, asserted that "Léon has received messages of support from all over France, from priests who have had to leave, and from women who are living in hiding."
"It's a disgrace. Everyone trusted him. The Church needs to evolve," Aline, a 45 year-old postal employee, opined. "We should not stop with this protest. It must reach national proportions to get some movement," she added.
Pierre Poydessus, a former priest who was "booted out" by the bishop of Bayonne in 1982 because of his marital ties, came to support Father Léon, convinced that "the status of priests must be reviewed. They have a right to worthy, human love."
Father Laclau, serious but smiling, went from group to group. He fully champions the "road" he has taken with his companion. "I am very humbled," he asserts.
He has refused the assignment his order has proposed in the Ivory Coast. "Far from distancing me from my work as a priest, Marga has supported and encouraged me by her enthusiasm, by her vision of the world and the Church, and by her faith," he wrote in a message distributed to the faithful of Asson.
How would he live from now on? "I will stay in this region to which I am attached," Fr. Léon answered, recalling that Marga works as a nurse in Pontac. Without any professional training, he will look for work to compensate for his loss of revenue -- 400 euros a month from the diocese and 15 euros for each Mass he celebrated.
Fr. Léon , we congratulate you for your courage and wish you and Marga a future filled with love and happiness.