The Community of St John

How did the Community of Saint John come into being ?

It all began at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where several French students were studying with a Dominican Father, Father Marie-Dominique Philippe, a professor of philosophy. Some of these students, wanting to totally consecrate their lives to Christ, had asked Fr. Philippe to be their spiritual director.

During the summer of 1975, five of these students decided to meet regularly together with a priest from the diocese of Versailles (France). He was one of Fr. Philippe’s former students and had been authorized by his bishop to return to Fribourg to undertake studies toward a doctorate in theology. We then began to live a communal life with a rather extraordinary schedule for students: rising at 5:30 a.m., one hour of silent prayer in community, morning prayer, then Mass…. It was a good start to the day!

St. Nicolas Cathedral,

Did Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe reside with you ?

No, he continued living with his Dominican confreres. He was very busy with his teaching responsibilities and he only came to see us once a week for spiritual direction. He was also a bit hesitant to become associated with the “brothers”. He did not consider himself to be mandated by the Church to take responsibility for a nascent religious community. His official duty was limited to teaching philosophy, which explains the care he had taken thus far in sending the young people who came to him back to their bishops or various religious congregations

“Père Girard”, at Fribourg, the brother’s first home

Then why did he change his mind ?

The intervention of Marthe Robin was decisive. Fr. Philippe had known her since 1946 and had often preached retreats at Chateauneuf-de-Galaure. He presented his dilemma to her: some of his students wanted to form a little community and were seeking his help. Marthe replied quite simply that he couldn’t refuse their request; he couldn’t abandon them. Fr. Philippe accepted us, but there was no question as yet of founding a new religious community. Fr. Philippe initiated inquiries as to what religious order could accept us so that we might find a place in the Church. Thus began a year-long search. Fortunately, everything had been entrusted to God’s Providence….
To make this desire for surrender concrete, we consecrated ourselves to Mary on December 8, 1975 at the end of a retreat preached by Fr. Philippe at the abbey of Lérins. This is the date of our birth, you might say.

The date and the place are important…

Yes, because the following year, the brothers were quite impressed to discover that Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, which corresponds so well to what they wanted to live (to the extent that they drew a short rule of life from it), had been published in Rome on December 8,

But how did you arrive in Lérins from Fribourg ?

In his search for an order that would be able to accept the brothers, Fr. Philippe did not immediately think of the Lérins Cistercians. He went first of all to his Dominican confreres, who agreed to accept the young men on an individual basis.

Holy Trinity Chapel in Lérins

However, the small group (which numbered eleven in October, 1976) did not think they should have to be separated. Fr. Philippe then turned to the Canons of St. Bernard, who had a house in Fribourg.
Their response, which was ultimately negative, was conveyed to Fr. Philippe while he was in Lérins teaching a philosophy course.

The abbot, after conveying the message, asked : “Why not with us?” No one had thought of it ! Bishop Barthe, who was bishop of Fréjus-Toulon at that time, gave his consent and his encouragement, adding: “If I were younger, I would request admission to your community…”.


How did the connection with Lérins influence the community ?

We became “quasi-regular oblates” of the Abbey of de l’abbaye Notre-Dame de Lérins, meaning that the abbot was responsible for our entry into religious life and for the development of the community within the Church. He delegated responsibility for our spiritual and intellectual formation to Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe.

But the bond with Lérins especially enabled us to become rooted in monastic life. From this time on, brothers who entered the community would spend several months on the island of Saint-Honorat, where the abbey is located. This constituted their novitiate, supplemented by a period of solitude and prayer in the diocese of Gap with Father Emmanuel, a Benedictine monk from En Calcat.

What was Rome’s attitude concerning the birth of this new community ?

The case was referred to Rome – that is, the Congregation for Religious – as early as 1976-77. First official recognition dates from April 27, 1978, when the Congregation for Religious allowed the Abbot of Lérins to proceed with the brothers’ ties to the abbey “ad experimentum”, that is, as an experiment carried out provisionally (for seven years), with the intention that the Community would eventually obtain its own statute.

It was then that we took the name “Community of Saint John”. We also had to present a rule of life -this was drafted by Fr. Philippe, who was inspired particularly by the prayer of Christ in Chapter 17 of Saint John’s Gospel- and the Constitutions, which describe the internal affairs of the Community. Thus the essential bond with “Peter” was able to be rapidly established. It is found in the Rule of Life, which explicitly states that the “Brothers of Saint John will obey the Sovereign Pontiff as their highest superior”.

Finally, why was this new community founded ?

You would have to ask the Holy Spirit! He is the only One who clearly understands…. But the characteristics of the Community appear quite distinctly: insistence, from the very beginning at Fribourg, on the search for the truth through philosophical and theological work; a life consecrated to God, emphasizing silent prayer in community and the Eucharist; the importance of communal life in intense fraternal charity. Yet it is impossible to live all this without the discovery of a personal bond with the Virgin Mary whom we receive as our Mother, following the example of St. John (Jn. 19:27) : “And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they may also be consecrated in truth” (Jn 17:19).

Why did the Community leave Fribourg ?

When Fr. Philippe reached retirement age (70) for university teaching in 1982, the Community decided to settle in France. Most of the brothers were French and living conditions in Fribourg were becoming impractical : the Community was scattered among four houses, none of which was large enough to accommodate 80 brothers.

Notre-Dame de Rimont

The difficulty lay in finding a place in France.

An order of contemplative Benedictine sisters (whose foundress and prioress was Fr. Philippe’s sister) suggested the former minor seminary of Rimont in Burgundy, near Chalon-sur-Saône

And the bishop of Autun generously gave his consent to our establishment in his diocese. Then we still had to be able to move in. The building that the brothers discovered at Rimont required a lot of repairs, and everyone had to get down to work. Little by little, we were able to establish a true communal life which brought all the brothers of the Community together for the first time. However, in May of 1983, we had to open a new house due to the large number of admissions. With the permission of the Archbishop of Lyon, part of the Community took up residence at Saint-Jodard–in the department of the Loire, near Roanne–where there was a former minor seminary (this was becoming a habit…). Since the beginning of the century, it had been owned by the goverment and had served, after various allocations, as a juvenile detention center…. The Community novitiate thus opened its doors in October, 1983. The shortest route from Rimont to Saint-Jodard passes….through the heart of Christ: the city of the Sacred Heart, Paray-le-Monial, is actually halfway between the two houses.

When he discovered this, Fr. Philippe remembered what Marthe Robin had told him: I don’t know why Paray remains etched in my heart ; Father, never abandon Paray-le-Monial“.