by Inside the Vatican Staff
In the wake of Pope John Paul II's call for a New Evangelization for the Third Millennium, several religious communities have recently emerged. Among these, a rapidly-growing contemplative community, the strives, according to its Rule, to be a "congregation of God's children and friends of Jesus Christ, joined by the Holy Spirit, and inspired by the example of the Virgin Mary."
The Order's founder, the French Dominican Marie Dominique Philippe, never envisioned creating a religious order. As he says in when questioned about the origins of the Community of Saint John, it happened almost in spite of himself.
Who then are these Brothers (or friars) of Saint John? Their beginnings can be traced back to the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where Father Philippe had been teaching since 1945 and holding a Chair of Philosophy. Father Philippe's teachings inspired unusual enthusiasm and dedication, and soon a small group of French students approached him and pleaded with him to form and direct them in the religious life.
Father Philippe's initial reaction was one of hesitancy; his training and mission had been that of a philosopher- for the Church and for humanity. He directed his young disciples towards their own bishops or other religious congregations. With the multiplicity of existing religious orders, It was clear to him that nothing new was necessary. Or so he thought at the time.
Perhaps the most decisive voice in indicating Father Philippe's path was that of Marthe Robin, (died 1981) a French peasant, stigmatist, and foundress of the Father Philippe had known Marthe since 1946, often preaching in her native town Chatteauneuf-de-Galaure. "Father, the calling is indeed of the Holy Spirit," Marthe told him. "You listen to the call of these students. It is Jesus who is asking you. Listen to their request and do what you can for them."
On December 8, 1975, the first five brothers consecrated themselves to Mary during a retreat that Father Philippe was preaching at the Cistercian Abbey of Lerins (on the island of Saint Honorat across from Cannes on the French Riviera). To their surprise, the brothers later discovered that, on that same day, Pope Paul VI's had published his Apostolic Exhortation which ax-pressed many of their founding principles, and upon which they subsequently based their .
To Marthe Robin's prophetic voice was added the approval of four French bishops. Official recognition of the Community by Rome depended upon the community's entrance into an existing Order. Father Philippe first turned to his Dominican confreres, who responded that they could accept the students individually but not as a group. Another negative response, from the Canons of Saint Bernard (who had a monastery at Fribourg), reached Father Philippe while he was in Lerins giving a philosophy seminar.
It was then that the Lerins Prior, after conveying the message, asked, "Why not with us?" Subsequent acceptance was granted by Rome on April 27, 1978. This bond with Lerins enabled the early generations of brothers to participate in the monastic life according to the Rule of Saint Bernard. The Cistercian Prior was responsible for the community's insertion into the religious life of the Church, while Father Philippe took on the tasks of intellectual and spiritual counseling.
In 1981, Father Philippe reached the age of retirement obliged by Swiss law, and so returned to France with some 80 religious. The group was received by the Bishop of Autun and founded what is now the St. John Mother House in the Burgundian countryside in a small hamlet called Rimont. In October 1983, because of the large number of applicants, the Community, with permission from the Archbishop of Lyon, opened a new novitiate in Saint Jodard (Loire region, near Roanne).
In 1982, a community of contemplative nuns was formed, and in 1984 a community of apostolic nuns was also founded. These communities count 80 and 110 sisters, respectively. In 1985, St. John's established its first priory outside France, in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1986, the Brothers expanded to two other continents: North America and Asia.
The new congregation applied three times during 1976 and 1977 for official recognition from the Vatican's Congregation for the Religious. The first recognition, on April 27, 1978, permitted the Order's adhesion to the Lerins Abbey for a period of 7 years. It was at that point that the group took on the name of St. John's Community.
St. John's , inspired by Chapter 17 of the Gospel of St. John, was written by Father Philippe during a single night. The were also drawn up to regulate the community's internal functioning. In 1986 the Community achieved its official statute as an Autonomous Religious Congregation of Diocesan Right, attached to the bishopric of Autun.
Father Philippe sensed that the mystery of Christ's priesthood is under serious attack in our times. He based the Community's Rule on John, Chapter 17, regarding the mystery of the priesthood of Christ. God raises up new communities as explicit aspects of his spirituality, Father Philippe affirmed and as a response to the needs and difficulties of an epoch.
What is the spirituality of the Saint John Brothers? "We find our inspiration in St. John 'the well-loved disciple' (John, 13:23), the faithful disciple," Father Philippe explained. He continued: "St. John, the faithful, was the only disciple at the foot of the cross. There, he experienced the mystery of Mary's compassion, because he was united to both Jesus and Mary. Nevertheless, Jesus desired even more: he gave Mary to John, who took her 'to him' (John 19: 27), that is, into the depth of his heart. Thus John teaches us to live in faithfulness, even to the foot of the cross. He lives this mystery as Mary lived it, in compassion and love."
Father Philippe explained further that each member of St. John's Community wishes to live from Christ's priesthood (hence the focus of the Community's Rule). "This priesthood, the most precious gift given by Christ to his Church, is brought to completion in both the contemplative and ministerial priesthood. Each Brother seeks to follow Jesus to the cross, where he accomplishes his sacerdotal work as Beloved Son. St. John's contemplative priesthood requires accepting everything in a loving attitude of prayer in order, thereafter, to communicate this love to those who thirst for it. In and through this, the Community seeks to glorify the Father and help today's humanity to rediscover a sense of adoration and of brotherly love."
The Brothers of Saint John try to live according to the Evangelical Counsels-as revealed in the three covenants in the Gospel of Saint John: the covenant with Jesus in the Eucharist, the source of unity between silent adoration and the liturgical office; the covenant with Mary, mother and guardian of the growth of faith, hope and love, and, as such, the divine milieu of the contemplative life; and the covenant with Peter, in the person of the Holy Father.
These "vows" necessarily take on a particular modality in the Community. Saint John was divinely educated by the Holy Spirit and by Mary. "The Brothers' primary concern is to be , i.e. disciples who want no separation between the most intimate desires of the heart of Christ and their own heart," we are told in the "They wish to live the union of Christ's heart and John's heart-not just content with carrying out a Rule, but one with the Lamb and his wounded
heart. This requires constant fervor, a fervor of the will, of profound, divine love, which shuns half measures and encourages a person to give as much as possible. As the Brothers come to discover very early on, the vows have meaning only to the degree they allow one to do this."
Father Philippe is a man who believes in fidelity. Though father of a religious family that now counts well over 500 members (not including the lay members of the Community, called ), he still remains a friar preacher. "I made profession in the Order of Saint Dominic and I want to be faithful to the end. I promised until death. My first vocation," says Father Philippe-"if I am faithful to my 'first love', as is asked of the Church of Ephesus- is to be a Dominican."
With a Dominican as head of the Community, there is an inevitable similitude with the Order of Preachers. In 1986, Cardinal Jerome Hamer, then Prefect of the Congregation for Religious, spent three days at Saint Jodard, the Community's novitiate in France, to familiarize himself with this new Order. To Father Philippe he said: "I am finding what I had discovered in the most profound dimension of the Order of Saint Dominic."
Are these young religious new Dominicans? Father Philippe responds: "There is certainly a common patrimony. But in the modalities, in the way the Community lives, there are differences. In the Community of Saint John, there are surely certain aspects that the Holy Spirit is asking be made more explicit, given the Church's current struggles.
"It seems to me that the Holy Spirit is demanding a more explicit search for truth-hence the greater insistence upon philosophical studies. And in order to realize this search, there needs to be a deeper reading of the sources of Saint Thomas. The Community of Saint John is not a reform of the Order of Saint Dominic. The thought has never crossed my mind! I have never thought to establish myself as a reformer. But I have been careful to bring to light the sources, and the deep mention of Saint Dominic: his concern to 'speak only to God and of God' and his great thirst for truth."
Father Philippe thus stresses both Bible studies and philosophical studies in the training of the Saint John Brothers. "The Gospel of John allows us to directly live the mystery of Jesus, while Saint Thomas' helps us to purify our imagination and our intelligence, so that we become 'more intelligent' for Jesus. There is, in fact, a strong doctrinal link between St. John and St. Thomas."
St. John Brothers commence their monastic life upon entering the Novitiate at Saint Jodard. Here they are trained for two years in philosophy, alternating studies, contemplation, community life, retreats of solitude, and manual tasks (kitchen and garden work, cleaning, etc.). The St. John's novitiate lasts 18 months; after a further 6 months the novice takes the grey habit and makes the profession of temporary vows (for three years) of poverty, chastity and obedience. After a further year of studies in philosophy, the Brothers enter the St. John's Mother House at Rimont to undergo a three-year course in theology.
The six-year cycle, three years of philosophy and three years of theology, known as the "School of St. John," is famous for the quality and rigor of instruction. During their vacations, the Brothers are encouraged to devote themselves to apostolic activities, for example, in youth camps, pilgrimages, or schools. At the conclusion of their Rimont studies, the Brothers take their final vows and are sent to various apostolic priories. Some become priests, while others remain deacons, according to individual vocations.
The apostolic priories are created upon the request of a local bishop to respond to specific needs. These usually take the form of a small number of brothers (usually six) led by a prior, who is elected for three years. The priories devote themselves to various activities: parish work, assistance to the poor, education, etc. Outside of France, some of the most active St. John priories are located in Geneva (Switzerland), Maastricht (Holland), Poponguine (Senegal), Berrtoua (Cameroons), Taiwan, and Laredo (Texas, USA).
Today this Johannine life is lived in 41 apostolic priories in 17 countries (two priories in the United States) by over 35 brothers, visible by the grey habit they have chosen to wear everywhere. In France they are affectionately referred to as the "Little Greys."
The Community's novitiate has reached an all-time high in the number of vocations. Last year, at the Community's annual assembly in Paray-le-Monial, France, 44 first-year novices received the habit. Novitiates now come from the four corners of the world, including: China, Lebanon, the United States, Holland, Mexico, Cameroons, and of course, France.
The "Sisters of St. John" were founded by Father Philippe in December, 1982. After solid, rigorous philosophical training in the Saint Jodard Novitiate, the nuns begin their contemplative religious life at one of two priories, Pellevoisin, in France, and Sisteron, in Holland. Another branch of St. John nuns, the "Apostolic Sisters of Saint John," devote themselves to community work. Their priories are located in Rimont, Autun, Beauvais and Le Puy (France).
DAILY SCHEDULE AT RIMONT PRIORY 06:00 . . . Rise 06:15 . . . Communal Prayer I Chapel 07:00 . . . Office of Lauds 07:30 . . . Breakfast 08:00 . . . Lectio Divina 09:30 . . . Class 10:30 . . . Class 11:45 . . . Class 13:00 . . . Lunch 14:00 . . . Recreation 16:30 . . . Class 17:30 . . . Vespers 18:00 . . . Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament 19:15 . . . Dinner 20:15 . . . Chapter Meeting 20:30 . . . Complain Night Silence 01:30 . . . Office of Vigils (Sundays and Feast Days)
FATHER MARIE-DOMINIQUE PHILIPPE
Born in 1912 in Cysoing, in northern France, Philippe came from a large Catholic family. In fact, seven of his 12 family members entered the religious life. Encouraged by his uncle, the Dominican priest, Father Thomas Dehau, Philippe entered the Dominican Order in 1930. He studied philosophy and theology at Saul-Choir de Kain in Belgium and was ordained a priest in July 1936. After a professorship of theology at Saulchoir d'Etoilles, near Paris, Father Philippe took up his post as theology professor at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where he remained from 1945-1982.
This article was taken from the April 1996 issue of "Inside the Vatican."
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