It all began at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where several French students were studying with a Dominican Priest and professor of philosophy, Father Marie Dominique Philippe. Some of these students, wanting to totally consecrate their lives to Christ, asked Fr. Philippe to be their spiritual director. During the summer of 1975, five of these students decided to meet regularly with Father Mossu, a priest from the diocese of Versailles (France). He was one of Fr. Philippe’s former students and had been authorised by his bishop to return to Fribourg to undertake studies in view of a doctorate in theology. The students 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, and then mass…. It was a good start to the day! During this period Fr. Philippe continued to live with his Dominican confreres. He was very busy with his teaching responsibilities and he only came to see his students once a week for spiritual direction. He was hesitant to become associated with the students. He did not consider himself to be mandated by the Church to take responsibility for a fledging religious community. His official duty was limited to teaching philosophy, which explains why he took such care in sending the young men who came to him back to their bishops, or their various religious congregations.
He couldn’t refuse their request…
The intervention of Marthe Robin was a decisive factor in changing Fr. Philippe’s mind. He had known Marthe since 1946 and had often preached retreats at Chateauneuf-de-Galaure. He presented the following dilemma to her: some of his students wanted to form a small 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 the students’ request, but there was no question as yet of founding a new religious community. Fr. Philippe initiated inquiries as to what religious order could accept the students so that they might find a place in the Church. Thus began a year-long search. Fortunately, everything was given over to God’s Providence. In order to make this desire for surrender concrete, the students consecrated themselves to Mary on December 8, 1975 at the end of a retreat lead by Fr. Philippe. This occured at the abbey of Lérins where they took residence and were formed in the monastic life by the monks of Lérins.
The date was quite significant for the brothers, for later on they were to discover that Pope Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, had been published in Rome on the exact same day (December 8, 1975). Furthermore it corresponded well to the charism they wanted to live (to such extent that they drew a short rule of life from it).
Congregation of St. John
The fledgeling community was subsequently referred to the Congregation for Religious in Rome (as early as 1976-77). First official recognition dates from April 27, 1978, when the Congregation for Religious allowed the Abbot of Lérins to tie the community 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 the brothers took the name “Community of Saint John”. The brothers also had to present a rule of life, which was drafted by Fr. Philippe, inspired particularly by the prayer of Christ in chapter 17 of Saint John’s Gospel, and the constitutions, which describes the internal affairs of the Community. An essential bond with “Peter” was able to be rapidly established. The Rule of Life explicitly states that the “Brothers of Saint John will obey the Sovereign Pontiff as their highest superior”.
If asked why the Community of Saint John was founded, the brothers might respond: “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
However, without a personal relationship with the Virgin Mary it is impossible to live all these things, and so the brothers receive their Mother in following with the example of St. John (Jn. 19:27): “And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they may also be consecrated in truth” (John 17:19).
Coming to France
When Fr. Philippe reached the retirement age of 70 for university teaching in 1982, the community decided to settle in France because most of the brothers were French and the living conditions in Fribourg became impractical. The community was scattered amongst four houses, none of which were large enough to accommodate the 80 brothers. The Bishop of Autun generously gave his consent to the brothers’ establishing themselves in his diocese. At Rimont all the brothers worked together to repair and restore the building. Bit by bit, they were able to establish a true communal life which brought all the brothers of the community together for the first time.
In May of 1983, the brothers took over 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 – a former minor seminary in the department of the Loire, near Roanne. Since the turn of the century the seminary was under government ownership and served various purposes, including that of a juvenile detention centre. The community novitiate opened its doors in October, 1983.
The shortest route from Rimont to Saint Jodard passes through Paray-le-Monial, the city of the Sacred Heart – “the heart of Christ”, which is halfway between the two houses. 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”.
Born in 1902, Marthe died on February 6, 1981 at Chateauneuf-de-Galaure, France. On October 25, 1925, Marthe consecrated her entire life to God in an act of surrender to His love and will of God: “Lord my God, you have asked everything of your lowly servant; take then and receive everything. On this day, I give myself to you without reserve and without return”. In the years following, Marthe was diagnosed with encephalitis which caused paralysis in her legs, and then later in her arms, so that she forced to remain in bed. In 1930, she received the stigmata and began to relive the Passion of Christ each week. In 1936, Father Finet, after meeting Marthe, founded the Foyer de Charity in Chateauneuf, where he preached the first retreat in September. In 1940, Marthe became blind shortly after ’offering her eyes for France’. Until her death Marthe welcomed thousands and thousands of visitors in her room who came seeking encouragement and advice. The fruits of her life of sacrifice can be measured by the increase in the number of ‘Foyers de Charity’ in the world (60 today).
Early in the 5th century, St. Honorat came to live on an island off the coast of Cannes which would one day be named after him – Island of St. Honorat. He established the Abbey of Lérins which very quickly became a hub for bishops and other religious who contributed significantly to the growth of Christianity in Gaul (St. Césaire, St. Eucher, St. Vincent, etc.). Between the 7th and 11th century the Lérins Abbey was attacked by the Saracens several times and several monks were martyred. It was at the end of this period that the present day fortified monastery was built.
The abbey was prosperous and influential until the 15th century. At the end of the 16th century it entered a period of decadence despite attempted reforms. In 1787 with just four monks remaining it was closed. The island was sold by auction and fell into the hands of several proprietors before it was bought by the bishop of Fréjus in 1859. In 1869, the Cistercian monks of the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception took possession of it. The Cistercian Congregation of the Immaculate Conception, founded at Sénanque in 1854 by Dom M-B Barnouin, is attached to the Cistercian Order of Common Observance (as opposed to the Cistercians of Strict Observance, called Trappists).
As early as the 10th century, a Benedictine monastery was established in the city of Paray-le-Monial, located in the diocese of Autun. The main part of its church was constructed in the 12th century and is considered a valuable example of Cluny art. Paray-le-Monial is known today primarily because of Saint Margaret-Mary Alacoque, a Visitation nun who lived in the 17th century.
On December 26, 1673, Christ revealed the mystery of His heart to her for the first time:
“My heart is so full of love for men… that the flames of its ardent love can no longer be contained, but must be poured out through you”.
Other apparitions followed in 1674, and then in June 1675 when Jesus revealed His heart (“Behold this heart which has so loved men… “) and asked that a feast be instituted in honour of His heart. After many trials, Margaret-Mary died on October 17, 1690. In 1765, Rome authorized the institution of the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and extended it in 1856 to the universal Church. She was canonized in 1920. Today, Paray-le-Monial welcomes a half-million pilgrims each year.