Your life is punctuated by journeys. What was it that got you started?
At 17, my heart was full of desires… and fears. Which life to choose? The God who gave it to me must have had an idea! I went to question him, while walking, through the mediation of the saints and the angels. I took the road to Lisieux to ask him for the grace of trust through the intercession of Saint Thérèse; then that of Mont-Saint-Michel to implore the Archangel to guide me among the pitfalls. It was then that I caught “acute pilgrimitis”. I never recovered from this virus.
You have also walked towards Compostela, Lourdes, Lalouvesc, Chartres, or even, in Brittany, on the paths of Saint Yves or Tro Breiz: what are you looking for on these paths… and what have you found there?
An adventure of my own – I’m not Mike Horn! An adventure that involves my whole body, while also responding to my spiritual aspirations. These pilgrimage paths in the footsteps of the saints not only have direction, they have meaning – and a wisdom to be received along the steps, an invisible fruitfulness, a “weight of eternity”.
Two years ago, you published a collection of Little pilgrim prayers (see references in box). Is prayer a good walking companion?
“The pilgrim prays with his feet,” they say. That’s right. I also believe that the pilgrim prays like a foot, particularly because of fatigue. And God, whose Son was THE Pilgrim since he became incarnate to walk to meet us, is touched by this desire for prayer which finds no words. I wanted to offer a small anthology of texts that can help stammer when the walker is too exhausted, too overwhelmed… or too amazed!
On these paths, you made another friend: Francis of Assisi, whom you define as “one of the greatest itinerant saints”. What touches you about him?
His tears! Francis weeps with joy before the power of God which manifests itself in the beauty of the starry sky as in the labor of the ant or the song of the lark; he cries with gratitude before this Most High who makes himself “Very Low”; he cries in affliction before Christ rejected by men; he cries with compassion with the humiliated and the destitute.
You have just devoted a biography to him (see references in box). Among the abundant Franciscan literature, what is its originality?
I wanted to scratch the golden legend of the “kind” Saint Francis, a little disembodied, to try to get closer – as much as possible – to his human heart, his wounded flesh, his emotions, his doubts, of one’s desires, of one’s inner struggles… in order to show, particularly to young people who may be frightened by the future and the state of the world, how liberating the message of the Beatitudes can be. It is not a path without thorns, but it is a path of joy.
Francis was searching for the secret of “perfect joy”. How does he define it and did he find it?
I believe he found it when he agreed to dispossess himself of everything, to receive everything from God, placing his trust completely in Him. François first disappropriates his possessions, then his work, then what remains of his ego or pride. So, “God alone is enough!”, he repeats, full of joy, to his brothers.
How does the Poverello Is he, in your opinion, a model for pilgrims?
The pilgrim feels a very “Franciscan” call to detach himself from his habits, his comfort, his security, etc. Whether the pilgrim is a believer or not, he enjoys the joy of a certain selflessness, of fraternal sharing, of true encounter – without a “business card” or external sign of wealth – a foretaste of the joy of the Kingdom . The motto of the pilgrim, like the Franciscan, could be: “Liberty, equality, fraternity.”
In our world ravaged by interreligious conflicts, is the meeting of Francis, a man of dialogue, with Sultan Malik-al-Kâmil not prophetic – or at least inspiring?
I believe him. Francis, with no other weapon than a wooden cross, goes to meet the Sultan of Damietta (Egypt) to convert him. This fine scholar is touched by this Christian who lives what he says, ready to be martyred to bear witness to it. He recognizes in his ambassador a peaceful man, inhabited by a truth and a love that do not come from him. Despite their antagonisms, these two men meet and respect each other. It is in this spirit that John Paul II invited representatives of the great religions to pray together in Assisi in October 1986. When we cannot convince each other, we can at least try to pray together!
A few weeks before Christmas, Saint Francis also finds us on our Advent journeys, because it is to him that we attribute the first living nativity scene. Can you remind us of this episode whose 800th anniversary we are celebrating this year?
Francis is going through a difficult period when the Christmas celebration of the year 1223 looms. He suffers from tuberculosis and glaucoma gradually makes him blind; his mission in Egypt was, from human point of view, a failure; his brotherhood is divided; finally, Francis struggles to trust his superior, and fears that Rome wants to “put its hands” on the Fraternity. His brothers no longer recognize their founder: he seems to have lost his joy. He is dark, he doubts, isolates himself, ruminates…
It is in this heavy context that he asks his friend Jean Vitela to organize this crèche with the inhabitants of Greccio, in the mountains?
In order, he told him, “to represent to myself as perfectly as possible the sufferings and inconveniences that our Savior endured from childhood to save us.” This Christmas vigil and mass will be, for Francis, the source of inexpressible joy but also of inexpressible compassion for “the Love that is not loved”. And at the nursery, François receives, I believe, the most beautiful gift of all: the joy that newfound confidence gives.
The end of this book, you set off, with your wife, on the road to Assisi, leaving your home in Saint-Cloud. Your impressions when you arrived in Turin?
We remain in thanksgiving for these six weeks of walking. For this harsh, wild and magnificent path, initiated around twenty years ago by lay people enamored of Franciscan spirituality; for the meetings it allows – all the more expensive because they are rare – and the generosity of the hospital workers who open their doors and their hearts to the itinerant; for the feelings of peace and reconciliation that this path inspires… As if the Poverello, invisibly present, irrigated it with its blessings!
A new path on the horizon?
First, complete this Assisi path, in spring 2024: the 850 kilometers of the Italian part are not the easiest, with spicy elevation changes. Then we would like to push our shoes to Rome… But these dreams of leaving must not make us forget that the pilgrimage is a germination which must sow and sanctify “ordinary life”. It is the soul that must remain alert and pilgrim, when the legs can no longer be. If the virtues exercised during these walks do not infuse the daily life found, do these escapades not risk being nothing more than beautiful hikes or disguised escapes?