Apostle to the lepers

Kazimierz Szalata

Follereau understood very quickly that the existence of leprosy in the poorest regions of the world was conditioned by other kinds of leprosy that afflicted rich countries.

Raoul Follereau
He was born in Nevers in 1903, in a traditional Catholic French family. He lost his father in the World War I. In order to help his mother, brothers and sisters, Raoul Follereau took a job and at the same time he learnt in the evening under the supervision of his family’s friend who was a priest. Then he began school, run by the School Brothers, where his extraordinary talents were revealed at once. He became one of the best pupils. Because his graduate examination fell on the period of an intense anti-church campaign, he had to take it twice and he failed twice due to his uncompromising character and radical beliefs. His case was publicised and the Ministry of Education had to intervene. After having examined the matter the Minister of Education allowed Raoul Follereau to enrol at the Sorbonne at the Faculty of Humanities. At the age of 20 he received two Bachelor’s degrees: in philosophy and law. After he had arrived in Paris he created a literary paper ‘Young Academia’. Then he delivered his first speech in public. It was entitled ‘God is love!’ and it became the motto of his whole life. At the age of 17 he published his first book ‘The Book of Love’, which was translated into several languages.
All the events of the life of Raoul Follereau formed a consistent beautiful story of a man who seeking the kingdom of God and following the young rich man, depicted in the Gospel, would consequently realize his chosen ideal. His life confirmed the motto that only an atheist plans, counts and calculates. And an atheist is always sad because something is missing in his life whereas a Christian dreams and fulfils his dreams. He is always full of optimism, always young, always remembers what the most important thing is: God loves us.

Epidemic of love

When he met his first leprosy affected people he dreamt of healing them all. He was neither terrified nor paralysed by the mathematics, which calculated that there were over twenty million lepers. It was more important to him that they waited for help and that it was Christ himself that gave them to us to cure us of our egoism and heartlessness. Perhaps that is the reason why the story of Raoul Follereau is so beautiful since his life was a simple and consistent fulfilment of the dream of the universal epidemic of love that could only save the world. His wife Madeleine helped him in his charity works. They did not have children but they were welcomed as ‘maman et papa Follereau’ in orphanages and leprosy centres on all continents. After the wedding in 1924 the young couple settled in Paris next door to the pioneer of the French aviation Jean Mermoz who was the first to fly over the peaks of the Andes (height: 7,000 m). Soon they became close friends. Thanks to that Raoul and Madeleine could go to Argentina. One can read in the history of aviation the story of Mermoz who had to land on a shelf-shaped glacier in a high range of mountains. When his plane could not brake Mermoz threw himself under the wheels. He was scared and had some ribs broken but he managed to brake the plane. Very few people know that Madeleine and Raoul Follereau were inside the plane.

Turning point

Follereau published many articles and reports. After one of his journeys to South America he wrote a very critical text concerning the anti-clerical French politics. However, his literary works: plays for Paris theatres, are most known. He wrote more and more plays: ‘Notre Merveilleux Amour’, ‘Pauvre Punchinelle”, „Petites Poupees”, staged in Comédie Française, Théâtre du Journal, Théâtre du Partenon. The last play was staged over one thousand times. Journalism, poetry, theatre were only some forms of the fulfilment of Follereau’s ideas. His true calling was born while writing a report about the life of Charles de Foucauld. Travelling through the deserts and visiting the places where the French missionary and hermit had lived, Raoul Follereau met his first leprosy affected people. It was a turning point for him, an encounter with suffering Christ himself. From that moment the life of Raoul Follereau became one struggle for the cause of those whom the civilized world forgot. Follereau understood very quickly that the existence of leprosy in the poorest regions of the world was conditioned by other kinds of leprosy that afflicted rich countries. If we want to fight against leprosy in Africa we must begin fighting against leprosy of heartlessness, moral relativism and egoism.

Lepers’ village

When the war became a horrible total conflict in 1942, Follereau – reacting to the all-present poverty – organised a Christmas of Fr de Foucauld under the German occupation. ‘On this very evening no one has the right to be happy alone’, Follereau said. Several months later, in the March of 1943, he pronounced Good Friday as the Hour of the Poor, ‘Give this hour your love, the hour when love was born.’ The action proposed for Good Friday was to be a true lesson of mercy. The thing is not to give to others what you do not want but to prepare some place in your heart. To work for one hour thinking that I do that for someone who suffers from poverty means to connect my humble sacrifice with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The real battle, which became the work of Follereau’s life, began in the November of 1942, after he had met Mother General of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Apostles who returned from a missionary trip to The Ivory Coast where she found a lepers’ village on one of the islands in Abidjan lagoon. Follereau presented the nun a project of a lepers’ village he dreamt of, in which leprosy affected people were not only treated and nursed but where they could work and live like others. Every family was to have a little house with a garden. In order to find money to build his first lepers’ village and then continue the project Follereau, accompanied by the nuns, began winning people’s hearts, travelling all over France, and then Belgium, Switzerland, Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Canada, speaking about mercy. He delivered his first talk in the City Theatre in Annecy on 15 April 1943. Within the following ten years Follereau gave 1,296 talks in 35 countries on all continents. Follereau visited his charges who found shelter in the leprosaria and in all parts of the world. On 20 September 1952, Follereau sent a message to the UN, turning the attention of the powerful people to the forgotten problem of those who suffered from the oldest and most horrible disease known in the world. In 1953 he announced the World Leprosy Day to be held on the last Sunday of January each year as a joyful feast in the missionary countries and a mobilization day in affluent countries, especially the Catholic countries where annual collections for lepers are taken in front of churches.

The Day of Peace for a bomber

At the same time Raoul Follereau organised a great campaign for the cause of peace. It was already in 1944 that he wrote to President Roosevelt and proposed the allied forces that after the war they should not close their war budgets but should continue their activities for one more day not for the cause of destruction but building, not for killing but rescuing life. His open letter to President Eisenhower and the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR Malenkov, written in 1954, was of similar character. He suggested that each of them gave him a bomber, which would allow him to cure all lepers in the world. But that appeal could not be accepted. In 1964 Follereau appealed to Pope Paul VI to take the initiative of establishing 1 January World Peace Day. Raoul Follereau was an optimist throughout his life. He believed that in spite of all evil love would win in the end. The testimony of Raoul Follereau is for us a great lesson of anthropology of mercy, showing the greatness of man who believes that God loves us.

"Niedziela" 4/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl