First Session, 30 April — 10 May, 2019
The first session of the General Chapter of the Congregation of the Brothers of Saint John was held from 30 April to 10 May, 2019, in Saint-Jodard, France. The Chapter was convened with a view to the elections of the Prior General, the Master of Studies and the counselors to the Prior General. It brought together 51 participants from all over the world: Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific.
The General Chapter opened on a serious note, owing to the difficult moment the Community is experiencing. It was marked by genuine fraternity, which enabled constructive and authentic dialogue to be undertaken in a prayerful atmosphere throughout the many days spent together.
The first two days of the Chapter were led by two laypeople. So as to allow the Holy Spirit to bring about an openness of heart and mind among the participating brothers, each brother was able to express and share his observations, fears and expectations. A strong unity emerged in the brothers’ will to continue the work of reform and enable the Community to fully express its charism in the Church, at the service of all.
We recall that the painful realisation of the need for rectification and reform took place in stages, supported and approved by the authorities of the Church. In 2013, the work of reform reached a crucial moment, when the Prior General revealed details of sexual abuse committed by Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe.
At the request of Brother Thomas, Prior General from 2010 to 2019, the Commission SOS Abuse, which was created in 2015, submitted and presented the first report of its proceedings. The report outlines and quantifies the grave evil of abuse committed and indicates the areas that must be addressed during the second session of the General Chapter if we are to continue along the path of purification. Given the challenge at hand, the General Chapter voted in favour of disseminating the report. The Chapter requests that the government of the Community provides special support to the brothers’ in their reception of this document, to facilitate a greater collective awareness of the situation and Community reform.
The entire General Chapter unambiguously condemns the acts of sexual abuse committed by Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe and certain brothers of the Community.
We are dismayed by this part of our history. For several years now we have been engaged in a work of truth concerning these issues, which has primarily centered on our founder and his teachings. The Chapter understands that it must also take into account the channels of influence that may have favored manipulation and abuse in our Community. It must also consider the fact that sexual abuse was often accompanied or preceded by abuses of conscience and power.
The testimonies given by victims that the Commission SOS Abuse has heard have helped us to understand the extent of the victims’ suffering and the gravity of the acts committed. Thanks to the persistence of the victims, we have come to realize that at times we have inadequately dealt with their complaints and that this has added to the harm done to them. We thank them for their courage and perseverance.
Aware of the irremediable harm inflicted by abuse, the General Chapter asks forgiveness from the brothers, sisters and lay people who have been victims of abuse committed by brothers of the Community and by Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe. We also ask forgiveness for the times when, through lack of understanding, we did not listen properly to the victims or receive their testimonies in the way we should have. Lastly, we want to extend this request for forgiveness to all those who are close to our communities, especially the oblates of the community and our families, who feel hurt or betrayed by these revelations.
We are very much aware that asking for forgiveness will not make amends for the evil committed. Beyond the actions the Commission has already undertaken, the General Chapter wishes to further its reflection on how best to accompany victims and bring about reparation, and to do so in accordance with what is being done by the episcopal conferences, in accordance with the instructions of the Holy See and in conformity with civil law. The Chapter is likewise aware that one of the best ways to render justice to victims is to make every effort to combat abuse and the factors that enable it to take place. The General Chapter is fully and determinedly engaged in this effort, in accordance with the motu proprio of Pope Francis, Vos estis lux mundi, published 9 May, 2019.
The report given by the outgoing Prior General left a deep impression on the Chapter, enabling us to proceed with particular lucidity to the election of our new Prior General, Br François-Xavier. The first words he spoke at the end of Mass expressed his desire “to place himself at the service of the Community in a moment in which it has particular need to renew its faith in the mercy of God towards it.” It is in this way that the Community will be able “to bring the truth of the past to light and to courageously and boldly bring about justice.” Mgr. Rivière, who in his capacity as ordinary bishop presided over the election, also spoke words of great significance, encouraging us in our work for truth and reform, highlighting the good we are doing and encouraging us to welcome vocations with confidence.
Following this was the re-election of Br François-Frédéric as Master of Studies. His desire to place a strong accent on human formation and to continue to discern the doctrinal content of the formation given within the Community, with the help of external aids, was very favorably received.
The first session of the Chapter finished with the election of the counselors to the Prior General: Br Benedict (UK), Br Geoffroy-Marie (France), Br Ignaz-Maria (Austria), Br Jean-Philippe D. (Senegal), Be John Michael Paul (USA), Br Justin (Hong Kong, China), Br Luc (France and Germany), Br Marie-Elie (France) and Br Renaud-Marie (France). The Prior General nominated Br Honorat (France) as the tenth counselor.
We are now preparing the second session of the General Chapter, which shall take place from Tuesday 22 October to Friday 1 November 2019. The participating brothers have chosen the principal themes they will address during the second session to be as follows: abuse, the relationship of the Community to Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe, the decentralization of Community governance, the Community’s charism and formation.
We give thanks for the work of the Holy Spirit, who was a source of mutual and benevolent listening and who enveloped the work of our General Chapter. Despite having to face the abuse committed in our Community, we maintain hope. By God’s grace may the evil be uprooted and the good increase, and may the work we are to undertake bear abundant fruit for our religious family at the service of evangelization.