Born in 1912 in Cysoing (northern France), Marie Dominique Philippe came from a large family, eighth in a family of twelve children, whose prayerfulness played an important role for him, and his siblings. Indeed, seven of whom entered religious life. His passion as a youngster was mathematics. Nevertheless, he entered the Dominican Order in 1930, in the footsteps of his older brother, Father Thomas, and largely influenced by his Dominican uncle, Father Peter Thomas Dehau. He made his religious profession in 1931, and was ordained to the ministerial priesthood on July 14, 1936. Fr. Philippe was sent as a professor to the (Pontifical, Dominican) University of Fribourg (Switzerland) in 1945, where he taught full time until 1982. Although preoccupied with what he believed God was asking of him through his religious community, his teaching/preaching “career” provided him a variety of enriching encounters with the likes of persons such as theologians Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P. and Henri De Lubac, S.J., artists George Rouault and Paul Claudel, thinkers Etienne Gilson and Jean Guitton, and scientists, politicians, religious leaders and psychoanalysts.
Search for Truth
Impassioned by the search for truth at all levels, Fr. Philippe labored incessantly for the acquisition of wisdom. Recognizing the great autonomy of the human intellect (which he saw as an expression of the respect the Creator has for his creature), he developed, with as much precision as possible, the three wisdoms of which man is capable: philosophical, theological, and spiritual (or mystical), a distinction found in Thomas Aquinas, and more recently reiterated in Fides et Ratio, published by John Paul II in 1998. Fr. Philippe was indeed an original thinker. His tremendous love for Thomas Aquinas does not, as one discovers upon closer reading, inscribe him in the “good old Scholastic Tradition.” As his confrere, Aidan Nichols, O.P., from Great Britain suggest, Fr. Philippe is unclassifiable. “Fr. Philippe,” he says “extends the tradition of the ‘vision’ of Thomas Aquinas by creatively transforming it. I think he will one day come to be regarded as a major inspiration in late twentieth, early 21st century Francophone Catholicism.” Fr. Philippe was a man interested in anyone who seeks truth, no matter how different his or her background may be. “All seekers of truth are friends,” as he liked to say.
A New Religious Order
Fr. Philippe professional role was that of a philosopher, having held a chair in Metaphysics. That would seem to make him an unlikely candidate for the foundation of a new religious order, the Congregation of Saint John (founded in 1975). The foundation of the Brothers of Saint John (and later, two branches of nuns – contemplative in 1982, and apostolic in 1984) was not something Fr. Philippe had intended, and for which, consequently, he was not preparing. As he said, “I had never thought of it, ever. It’s very simple, in fact: the Congregation of Saint John was asked of me. It was not something I had willed. It was a small group of my students who approached me.” Fr. Philippe’s initial reaction was understandably one of hesitancy. It was clear to him that nothing new was necessary. Or so he thought. The new foundation, in retrospect, was indeed an unusual thing: a new community, founded by a Dominican, in a Dominican setting, that was not Dominican. There is, of course, an inevitable kinship. When asked of the connection, Fr. Philippe responded, “I absolutely do not wish the Congregation of Saint John to be a rival of the Order of Saint Dominic.
They are different. Seen from without, in a sociological fashion, the difference may seem subtle, and therefore difficult to detect. Indeed, agens agit simile sibi: can a Dominican found anything that is not a certain prolongation, or extension, of the Dominican Order? And yet, if one is truly a founder, that is, if it is God who is asking, and it is not a personal decision (as would be the case with someone who always dreamed of founding an order that would correspond to what he dreams), then one is, above all, an instrument of the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit can have spring, from a Dominican, a Brother of Saint John! The Congregation of Saint John is not a reform of the Order of Saint Dominic. I never thought along those lines. I never positioned myself as a reformer. But, in my life, I have been careful to try to highlight the sources, the deep intention of Saint Dominic: his concern to ‘speak only with God and of God’ and his great thirst for truth. His thirst for truth, for light, and a very penetrating gaze upon the mystery of Jesus crucified, always seemed to me to be the deep secret of Saint John. And the way in which Saint Thomas Aquinas speaks of the holiness of Saint John always seemed to me to be what characterizes his own holiness, that of a Son of Dominic.”
Striving to be a Son of Mary
As a son of Saint Dominic himself, Fr. Philippe was an intimate son of Mary, the love for whom he shared with his sons, the Brothers of Saint John, and anyone else willing to listen. His philosophical inquiry and research, interestingly enough, served this communication. From the age of six, Fr. Philippe read for his uncle, Fr. Dehau, who was going blind. As a novice, on a visit to his uncle, a visit during which he continued a reading of Aristotle, he was given wise counsel: “You must enter deeply into metaphysics, for metaphysics enables us to speak of Mary. You must study metaphysics to be able to speak of Mary, and to communicate her to others.”
Indeed, who is Mary? She is a mystery, a mystery of mercy, for she has been enveloped by God…and given to us. “Mary is the masterpiece of God at the Cross. She is the masterpiece of God, of the Father, and the Holy Spirit, for us. The one who is given to us is the Woman, who is one with Jesus crucified. And she who is entirely turned towards Jesus is entirely turned towards us, and is given to each one of us in a unique way. We must receive her. We must ask the Holy Spirit to grant us a divine experience of the heart of Mary, who is our desert.”