It all began at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where several French students were studying with a Dominican Father, Father Marie Dominique Philippe, a professor of philosophy. Some of these students, wanting to totally consecrate their lives to Christ, had asked Fr. Philippe to be their spiritual director.
During the summer of 1975, five of these students decided to meet regularly together with a priest from the diocese of Versailles (France). He was one of Fr. Philippe's former students and had been authorized by his bishop to return to Fribourg to undertake studies toward a doctorate in theology. We 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, then Mass.... It was a good start to the day!During that time Fr. Philippe continued living with his Dominican confreres. He was very busy with his teaching responsibilities and he only came to see us once a week for spiritual direction. He was also a bit hesitant to become associated with the "brothers". He did not consider himself to be mandated by the Church to take responsibility for a nascent religious community. His official duty was limited to teaching philosophy, which explains the care he had taken thus far in sending the young people who came to him back to their bishops or various religious congregations.
He couldn't refuse their request...
The intervention of Marthe Robin was a decisive factor in his changing his mind. Fr. Philippe had known her 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 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 accepted us, but there was no question as yet of founding a new religious community. Fr. Philippe initiated inquiries as to what religious order could accept us so that we might find a place in the Church. Thus began a year-long search. Fortunately, everything was given over to God's Providence....
And in order to make this desire for surrender concrete, we consecrated ourselves to Mary on December 8, 1975 at the end of a retreat preached by Fr. Philippe at the abbey of Lérins. This is the date of our birth, you might say.
The date was quite significant for the brothers for later on they were to discover that 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 what they wanted to live (to the extent that they drew a short rule of life from it). Thus in the beginning the brothers lived with the monks of lerins, which was to form them in the monastic life.
Congregation of St. John
The case was subsequently referred to Rome - that is, the Congregation for Religious – (as early as 1976-77). First official recognition dates from April 27, 1978, when the Congregation for Religious allowed the Abbot of Lérins 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". We also had to present a rule of life -this 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 able to be 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".
Finnally if were to ask why the community of St. John was founded we 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.
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).
Coming to France
When Fr. Philippe reached retirement age (70) for university teaching in 1982, the Community decided to settle in France. Most of the brothers were French and living conditions in Fribourg were becoming impractical : the Community was scattered among four houses, none of which was large enough to accommodate 80 brothers.
And the Bishop of Autun generously gave his consent to our establishment in his diocese. Then we still had to be able to move in. The building that the brothers discovered at Rimont required a lot of repairs, and everyone had to get down to work. Little by little, we were able to establish a true communal life which brought all the brothers of the Community together for the first time. However, in May of 1983, we had to open 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--in the department of the Loire, near Roanne--where there was a former minor seminary (this was becoming a habit...). Since the beginning of the century, it had been owned by the goverment and had served, after various allocations, as a juvenile detention center.... The Community novitiate thus opened its doors in October, 1983.
The shortest route from Rimont to Saint-Jodard passes....through the heart of Christ: the city of the Sacred Heart, Paray-le-Monial, is actually halfway between the two houses.When he discovered this, 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".