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,
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
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
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. 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
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
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
This article was taken from the April 1996 issue of "Inside the
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