I had seen photos of the founder of my Oblate Community -- the Community of St. John -- but I had never met him in person. When I journeyed to Rome on pilgrimage, I met this inspired man of God for the first time and realized how blessed how I am to be a part of the congregation which he founded 30 years ago.
Born in 1912 in northern France, Father Marie - Dominique Philippe, was eighth in a family of twelve children. Seven children within his immediate family chose to enter the religious life.
Encouraged by his uncle, Dominican Father Pierre Thomas Dehau, he entered the Order of Preachers in 1930 at the age of 18. He studied philosophy and theology at Saulchoir in Kain, Belgium, and was ordained to the priesthood on July 14, 1936, at the age of 24.
Father Philippe was appointed Professor of theology at the Saulchoir at Etiolles, Paris, then later served as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Fribourg from 1945 - 1982.
Several of Fr. Philippe's (French) students who desired to consecrate their lives totally to Christ asked him to be their spiritual director. During the summer of 1975, five of these students decided to meet regularly with a priest from the diocese of Versailles, France. The priest was one of Fr. Philippe's former students who had been authorized by his bishop to undertake studies leading toward a doctorate in theology. A communal life was initiated with the students, which included rising at 5:30 a.m., one hour of silent parent, Morning prayer, and then Mass.
Fr. Philippe did not live with the group, but continued living with his fellow Dominicans. He came to see the brothers weekly for spiritual direction. At this time, he did not consider himself to be mandated to assist in the birth of a new religious community. His official duty was teaching philosophy and he sent the young people who came to him back to their bishops or religious congregations.
Then what happened to change his mind?
Fr. Philippe took the advice of Marthe Robin, a French mystic ,(1902 - 1981) who has been compared to St. Catherine of Siena and St. Therese of Lisieux. Marthe was born a normal, healthy intelligent girl who, as a young woman, became mysteriously stricken with paralysis of her legs, then her arms, and was finally forced to remain in bed. She ceased eating, drinking, and sleeping. In 1930, she received the stigmata and began to relive the Passion of Christ in her body each week. Having consecrated herself totally to God, Marthe was struck blind in 1940, and offered her eyes for France.
Until 1981, Marthe welcomed into her room thousands of visitors who came seeking spiritual advice and encouragement. During her lifetime, she served as spiritual director to many clergy.
Fr. Philippe had known Marthe since 1946. 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 began a year long search for a community coomunity for the group. On December 8, 1975, at the end of a retreat preached at the abbey of Lerins, the group consecrated themselves to Mary.
The first official recognition dates from Rome took place on April 27, 1978, when the Congregation for Religious allowed the Abbot of Lerins 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. A rule of life 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 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".
Why was the Community of St. John founded?
From the very beginning, the community insisted on the search for 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" (John 17:19).
For further information:
Marthe Robin: A Modern Day Mystic, by Jean M. Heimann, Canticle Magazine, Fall 2005.
St. Jean.Com -- International website