Just a few days ago I learned that a man I respected more than just about anyone else I have ever met had passed away on June 20, 2013 at the age of 76. This was Père Etienne Renaud, a man of the cloth I met in Yemen in 1978 and was able to visit in Rome in 1983. Etienne was a remarkable man, a missionary of the White Fathers (Pères blancs) teaching electrical engineering in Sanaa and ministering to the expatriate Christians in the community at the time. He was loved by all, including the many Yemeni Muslims he met, because he loved all.

His interest in Islam had evolved while serving in the French army in Algeria, after which he decided to enter the priesthood. With Arabic training in Damascus in 1968, he went to Tunisia the next year and on to Yemen in 1972. In 1980 he returned to Rome and taught Arabic at the recently formed Pontifico Instituto di Studi Arabi e d’Islamista. In 1986 he became Superior General of the order and served for six years. He visited many African countries where the White Fathers worked and spent the last several years in Marseille encouraging dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

Père Etienne was no ordinary missionary. He saw his mission as one of living his faith rather than trying to convert for conversion’s sake. In a poignant article, which I will post here in a follow-up, he noted that he was a Christian because he was born into Christianity. Although he accepted the Christian message as truth for him, he would not put himself in a position to judge another’s faith. His goal, as laudable as they come, was to be true to himself and allow others to be true to themselves, to see dialogue as an encounter that did not have to result in a zero-sum monologue.

Etienne once visited us in New York when our son was quite young and over the years we kept an active correspondence. In these letters he claimed that he was not a scholar, a humble statement that those who knew him could never agree to. He may not have books in his name, nor a resume of more than a few scholarly articles, but he lived as a scholar, always desiring to learn more and share what he knew. His Arabic was superb, as was his understanding and appreciation of Islam.

I am saddened by his passing and I know that I am not alone. He touched many lives and his life is an example of the very best in Christianity.

With Etienne in Rome in 1983

My tears have dried, but my memories of this great friend remain fresh. Etienne was fond of poetry; he had translated several excerpts from Yemeni poems (which I shall post in a follow-up as well). I was pleased to send him the books I published, but here is my last gift to him…

For Père Etienne Renaud

There are men who live outside themselves,
who live so vividly in others’ lives
that life itself becomes a path paved in love.

There are men who are truly themselves
in their daily life, not for some future fame,
whose blood is a living stream of love.

There are men who devote themselves
body and soul, celebrating celibacy,
yet having many children borne by their love.

There are men who find themselves
in Christ, living a beatitude attitude,
in love with all He loved.

Because there are such men
love survives.
Because of this man,
my faith in love remains.

Daniel Martin Varisco

For more information on the life of Père Etienne, click here.

to be continued …