by Elisabeth Hellenbroich
“The audacity to do the impossible,” was the theme of a homily which Charles Abbé Mérand, a pioneer of French-German youth exchange, gave June 3rd, 2017, during a mass in the Rotonde parish hall of the Flers Cathedral. Almost 90 guests gathered that day for the celebration of his 90th birthday in Flers (department of Orne), a small idyllic town, located in the middle of the beautiful Normandy region. Not too far from there, in the year 1944 the Allied troops began the D-Day Normandy invasion in order to liberate Nazi occupied Northwestern Europe.
The town of Flers, like Caen and many other cities of the Normandy region, had to suffer terribly during the war, as a French family met at the Flers Cathedral told this author and her two sisters, who participated in the youth exchange programs in the past. After so many years, we see a different landscape today. Things have profoundly changed in this region. But unfortunately, as a result of the economic crisis and unemployment, this region has seen over the last years the drain of many young people, who had to move away while industry (mainly textile and food industry) has been stagnating.
Yet there is also a spirit of “solidarity” and “fraternity”, which is surviving up to this day, as one of the key organizers of the celebration, Monique Gauvry, told the audience in a short speech before the beginning of the church ceremony. Over more than 60 years of exchange among young people from France and Germany, and later also from other nations, a deep friendship based on the common sharing of humanist Christian principles evolved, that “made us stronger during our lives,” Gauvry stated. She underlined the importance of leading a “fraternal life” which is filled with the idea of sharing, friendship, love, faith, the mutual respect for the rights of man and the love for peace. “In our world which is threatened by hatred, based on the philosophy that each just mind his own business, a meeting like this celebration of Abbé Mérand’s birthday, helps to strengthen our confidence to be able to fight for a world where each and everybody finds his dignified place. The world needs those kind of people.”
An idea is born
Long before Adenauer and de Gaulle signed the Elysée treaty in 1963, Abbé Mérand initiated on his own a fascinating French-German youth exchange program, which gave a fundamental contribution in laying the basis for a rapprochement and reconciliation between France and Germany after the Second World War. In the words of a concelebrating French priest at the church ceremony, Abbé Mérand was one of the first pioneers who “built bridges in a period where many people today erect walls. He was able to combine humor and rigor, wisdom and the gospel, fragility and strength.”
The life of Abbé Mérand, who was born in 1927 in the Bretagne and ordained as catholic priest in 1954, was marked by a traumatic experience during the Second World War. In April 1945 he lost his elder brother Jean, who in 1943 had become active in the resistance against the Nazis. Jean Mérand was arrested in Lyon 1943 and deported to the concentration camp Buchenwald; from here he was transferred to the concentration camp Dora-Mittelbau and during his death march in April 1945, he was burnt alive by the Nazis together with 1016 other prisoners in a barn near Gardelegen. “This totally barbaric event opened the eyes of Charles Mérand. Rather than looking in bitterness for revenge, he paved the way for reconciliation, being one of the first pioneers to start a youth exchange project between France and Germany,” the French newspaper “Ouest-France” commented in an article in 2014.
The idea for this initiative came to him in 1946, during a pilgrimage to Lourdes, where he saw trains arriving with young German women who had been wounded and traumatized by the Dresden bombings. He recognized that the suffering of people doesn’t know any “borders.” This became the spark for setting into motion a fascinating youth exchange project. He did this with the help of some French and German families, among them Lilly Grosser – the mother of the well-known French Jewish writer and political scientist Alfred Grosser – who together with his family had to emigrate, in 1933, from Frankfurt to Paris. After the war, Lilly Grosser became president of the “Comité d’échanges avec l’Allemagne nouvelle,” being over several years in correspondence with the catholic priest Abbé Mérand.
Almost 10 years after the war, at the former Abbey Cérisy Belle-Etoile, which is today a pretty much run down place, weed-infested and covered with moss, located near Flers, the young chaplain Abbé Mérand started the first Franco-German youth exchange meeting during summer vacation. It involved German teenagers from Cologne, Bonn, Münster and Celle (among them the elder sister of this author) who, after having met in 1957 in Bad Honnef, travelled to Cérisy Belle-Etoile in order to meet other French teenagers from Flers. The conditions of life were quite simple, as Abbe Mérand recalled. The task of these teenagers, aged 11, 12 or 13, was to help, together with the French teenagers, participants as “animatrices” in the youth vacation camp, taking responsibility to accompany French children that went there from poor social background.
During the following years, these youth exchange camps, partly taking place in Germany and partly in France, laid the ground for spreading the concept of a Europe which is rebuilt on the basis of humanist Christian values. In the Sixties, Abbe Mérand was assisted in his work by some female members of a religious order as well as by the just ordained young Chaplain Gilbert Louis, who concelebrated the mass and attended the event in Flers, June 3rd 2017. From 1999 till 2015 Monsignor Gilbert Louis served as Bishop in Châlons-en-Champagne; he also was President of the Commission of Art, Culture and Faith within the French Episcopate.
How to “break the ice” between Germany and France after the war
What turned the youth exchange into such a profound experience, was that aside the summer relaxation and the spiritual exchange, there was one day during that time dedicated to small social projects; for example working with the “Frères Emmaus” a social assistance group, which was founded by the famous Abbé Pierre, with whom Abbé Mérand corresponded. It also involved a visit to Lourdes where the young people assisted many sick and handicapped who were visiting the place in wheel chairs. It included visits to Taizé, the famous meeting place for interreligious dialogue, at that time directed by Roger Schütz, who over the years was able to transmit to thousands of young people the need for interreligious dialogue. It also involved the engagement for the “poor”, as this author personally got to know in Paris, when she had one day the chance to accompany a French nurse in order to visit some poor and abandoned old people, living in Montmartre. What many young German teenagers also vividly recall was the chance to be invited for a meal in some of the French families. As Abbé Mérand recalled on June 3rd during the afternoon celebration, there was the story of the German girl Heidrun from Celle. One day she was invited to have a meal in a French family. The grand-father, who had been war prisoner in Celle, not knowing yet Heidrun, originally refused to have a young German girl coming for a meal. However during the meal the ice broke, there was an exchange of memories and a long friendship followed.
In the decades following the Sixties, Abbé Mérand continued his work at the Benedictine Abbey de Lonlay, inviting people from England, Japan, and Africa. He engaged with the organization SOS Détresse, helping refugees and migrants from different parts of the world. In May 2007 he received an award from Robert Loquet, then General Secretary of the Franco-German Youth Office (OFAJ) in Paris. “In the darkest hours of European history,” the General Secretary stated then, “Abbé Mérand did not hesitate to engage in the work for peace in Europe,” so as to make sure that the war tragedies would not be repeated in Europe again. Even more significant was the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Order of merit of the Federal Republic of Germany), the highest award given to a foreigner by the German President, which he received in June 2009 from the German Ambassador Schäfers at the German Embassy in Paris (Palais Beauharnais). At that occasion Ambassador Schäfers particularly pointed to the character of Mérand, mentioning his capacity “to fight evil with the force of the Good.” “The destiny of your brother, who had been killed in the cruelest way by the Nazis, could have been reason for a life-long hatred towards the nation that had been responsible for this,” the Ambassador stated. “But you didn’t choose the easy way.” Shaped by a deep religious thinking and trying to find a comprehensive answer, after having been confronted with the atrocities of the Second World War and the horrendous war crimes perpetrated by the peoples, “Abbé Charles Mérand tried to heal the wounds that had been inflicted upon the French-German relations, by initiating on his own, in the beginning 50ies, a French-German youth exchange program.”
The audacity to do the impossible
During his homily in the Church, preceding the birthday celebration, Abbé Mérand emphasized that during the life of everybody, happy events occur which “relativize” the experiences of what has happened. Happiness – Mérand said – is like “a red thread” and “God gives us the audacity to do things which we think are impossible.” Even if he only made a brief hint to the St. Paul letter to Timothy, it is worthwhile to have a look again at this letter, written in form of a pastoral letter in the year 66 AD, while being in prison and facing his death. In the letter Paul gives Timothy the advice that on the basis of the inner spiritual strength, love and prudence, which God gave him, he should watch out for the challenges surrounding him. This includes man becoming selfish, ungrateful, disrespectful, and gluttonous. Paul described himself at the end of the letter, as a “good soldier of Jesus Christ” and advised Timothy that he should stick to the truth and live as a messenger of the Gospel. “I fought the good fight, completed the course, and kept faith.”
The jubilee shed light on some of the happy moments during Abbé Mérand’s life: During his youth he had to face health problems (pancreatitis), yet he discovered the “value of patience.” Not to forget those moments of agony and pain he had to live through during war: “We had a lot of pain. People were deported. Being students, we were for a moment underground, threatened to be punished. My brother risked his life and sacrificed himself. When I saw this, I told myself that this is worth the pain.” Several decades later, Mérand recalled, in the year 1991, he was in Sao Paolo celebrating the mass: “There were 5 youngsters form the Favelas, asking me to explain what Eucharist is. I told them, that you can eat together. As Christ had said: Make this in the memory of myself, actualizing my life for you that is Eucharist.”
Birthday celebration and the actuality of the youth exchange
During the common meal after the Church celebration, which lasted many hours, several birthday greetings were given from people, who had come from different regions in France – the L’Orne department, Vendée, the Beaujolais region, L’île de France (Paris), as well as from Germany, England, Bruges (Belgium),and Africa. The meal was organized in such a way that each participant would bring some food that would be then shared by all. During the meal, one German participant reported how the spirit of the Franco- German Youth exchange in the Sixties had shaped her life up to this day. She reported about a project, she is engaged in today, called the “Children village of peace” in the North-Rhine-Westphalian city Oberhausen. It was initiated in 1967 and brings together children that are suffering from wounds and traumas inflicted upon them in war regions, such as Afghanistan, Angola, etc., in order to medically treat them in the village. These children, who are often distributed to different hospitals in Germany, are treated by doctors who do their service for free. They spread a lot of joy and understand themselves as “Ambassadors of peace.”
There is also the engagement of another former German participant from the Sixties, who today works with the organization Caritas in the city of Bensberg (near Cologne), being actively engaged in the refugee work. In a written report for the event, she reported about a 7 member Afghan family that was forced to flee from Afghanistan looking for asylum in Germany in 2015. The family had been persecuted and suffered cruelties from the Taliban. It found refuge in Bensberg, that has received 200 refugees (from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Central Africa), and is not far from Cologne, that since 2015 hosts 13.000 refugees. In the course of the last 2 years, that organization gave the refugees the chance to live in apartments, while several families on a volunteer basis gave the refugees a cordial reception, helping the children to be better integrated into the school life and to better learn the German language.
The “audacity to do the impossible” is not just a historic fact. It is an on-going engagement for peace, human understanding and solidarity.
June 2017, Wiesbaden