In the early 1970s, a group of young French men who were attending classes taught by Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe, O.P. at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, felt called to give themselves to God and were seeking a way in which they could respond to His call. They turned to Fr Philippe.
A decisive visit to Marthe Robin
Fr Philippe did not see himself as a ‘founder’. After a long period of hesitation, he went to see the founder of the Foyers de Charité, Marthe Robin, whom he knew well and had regularly visited since 1946. He confided to her his misgivings but Marthe confirmed to him that the call did indeed come from Jesus.
In 1982, Fr Philippe had reached the age of retirement and fulfilled his mandate as Professor at the University of Fribourg. The brothers therefore left Switzerland and set themselves up in France in the small village of Rimont in the diocese of Autun. This is still where the mother house of the community is located today.
First Foundation in Cotignac
The first priory of the community was founded in Cotignac in the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, upon the request of Bishop Mgr Barthe. In response to requests from other bishops, priories began to open all over the world, which quickly led to international vocations.
Saint John Paul II often showed particular goodwill toward the community. For many years, on the Tuesday of Holy Week, the novices of the community joined the Pope for Mass and were presented to him individually afterwards.
A Successor to the founder
Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe served as Prior General from 1975 to 2001. In 2001, the General Chapter elected Brother Jean-Pierre-Marie to succeed him. At the end of Brother Jean-Pierre-Marie’s second term, Brother Thomas was elected Prior General in 2010, and his mandate was renewed in 2016. Since the General Chapter of May 2019, the new Prior General is Brother François-Xavier.
A Time of Trial
A few years after the death of their founder in 2006, the Brothers experienced a difficult period in their history. The Contemplative Sisters, who had been founded in 1982, went through a painful schism; the Prior General of the Brothers was informed of the existence of testimonies of sexual abuse committed by Fr M-D. Philippe, which, during the General Chapter of 2013, he made known to the Brothers, who were understandably very much affected by such news. Furthermore, several judicial proceedings for abuse, notably against minors, were brought against some members of the community. This period was experienced by everyone as a great trial, both humanly and spiritually. We hope that it has placed us on a path of maturity and humility.
A New Stage
In 2016, the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life addressed a letter to the three priors general of the Family of Saint John. Without playing down the difficulties the community has encountered, the authorities in Rome highlighted the beauty of our charism and the opportunities it offers to the world of today, as well as the important work that has taken place within the community to rectify aspects that needed improvement. The letter said: ‘the prospect that young people are being called to religious life in your family is a good thing both for them and for the Church.’
In February 2019, the Prior General sent a letter to all the brothers of Saint John to take the time to once again raise the sad issue of abuse in the community and address how the government of the community has worked on this issue since 2013.
In a new letter sent to the Prior General of the Brothers of Saint John on 18 February, 2019, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life stated that, “acknowledging the work that has been undertaken, [the Congregation of Consecrated Life] wants to encourage the Brothers and Sisters of Saint John to continue along this path, humbly and with courage, confidence and determination”.
Delve a little deeper
How are the different religious communities in the Family of Saint John linked?
Even though all three religious communities are united in one family – the Family of Saint John – each community has its own government, history and way of life. In particular they are distinct both juridically and financially.
The brothers and sisters work together on some of their missions: youth camps, parish work and family weeks, among others. Together they run some of the bigger events such as youth festivals and festivals for families. Although they pray their offices separately they have the same breviary. Three times a year the Conseil de Famillle brings together the three prior generals and those responsible for studies in each of the congregations.
The Contemplative Sisters today
The 80 sisters that currently make up the community of the Contemplative Sisters of Saint John have made the choice to cooperate with the Church authorities and to put in place the reforms asked of them during the crisis their community went through from 2009-2014.
Since this difficult time, the sisters have been putting in place the required reforms (cf. history of the Family of Saint John). To support this important and necessary process, they have for several years now called upon the help of people from outside the community, in particular religious from other congregations.
What is an oblate?
Oblates are laypeople who desire to live their baptismal vocation in the footsteps of Saint John and who feel called to live the same charism of the brothers and sisters in the world by committing to secular oblature.
Oblates make a commitment to pray, to listen to the Word of God and to engage in fraternal charity. They offer an apostolic witness in the context of their respective families, parishes, and social and political responsibilities.
Becoming an oblate?
Anyone married or single, young or old, who wants to live the spirituality of the Family of Saint John is able to become an oblate.
And so, despite living in the world, oblates live out their baptism and bear witness to it in the manner of St John. Before becoming an oblate, a candidate must undergo one to three years of preparation. This allows them to discern their aspirations and to deepen their understanding of the charism of the Family of Saint John. In order to achieve this, the candidate lives according to the rule of the oblates, participates in oblate meetings in their respective priory and follows at least two retreats preached by the brothers or sisters. Preparation for oblature is undertaken under the responsibility of the prior of the priory closest to where the candidate lives. At the end of the period of preparation, the decision belongs to the prior, following consultation with the members of the priory, as to whether the person can become an oblate. If you would like more information, please contact the priory closest to where you live. If you are interested in becoming an oblate, please contact the prior or prioress in the priory closest to where you live. You can then get more information and discern whether this path is for you.
Where are the Brothers of Saint John in the fight against abuse?