Jesus Caritas Fraternity of Priests


JESUS CARITAS FRATERNTY OF PRIESTS
(By Tony Philpot)

CHAPTER I
HOW IT ALL BEGAN

There was an unusual holy man in the heart of Africa at the start of the last century. His name was Charles de Foucauld, and he was French. He had led a restless life - as soldier, as explorer, as itinerant, and finally as solitary missionary in Algeria. But he was a missionary with a difference. He did not preach to the Arabs and the Touaregs among whom he lived. Instead he tried as literally as he could to be Christ to them, by living humbly alongside them, by being their loving brother.

In a world of dominant military and colonial power, he struck an eccentric note. He was murdered by passing tribesmen in 1916. During his life he achieved very little. But after his death, his friends reflected on his career and put his writings together, and realized that here was a fresh and authentic way of living the Gospel.

Several religious congregations were founded with his life and spirituality as their basis. The two most famous are the Little Brothers and the Little Sisters of Jesus. They stand out from other orders by their philosophy. Yes, they are contemplatives, spending long periods of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. But they also seek work among the poorest and most abandoned members of society, avoiding promotion, earning very little, simply being alongside people who are the bottom of the social pile. Like Charles, they do not preach: they live their conviction and share their love.

In 1951 a group of French priests decided to band together and put these same values into effect in their lives. They turned their back on careerism and prosperity, and opted to live among the simplest people - often people who were a long way from the Church. They decided to live their chaplaincy or their parish life as true brothers to their people, refusing in any way to dominate or manipulate them. It was an apostolate of presence. They made the Eucharist the prayer-centre of their lives, themselves becoming contemplatives in spite of heavy and exhausting duties.

This voluntary association of secular priests became known as the “Jesus Caritas Fraternity”. (“Jesus Caritas” was the emblem chosen by Charles de Foucauld in the Sahara; he put the words above a sketch of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and put it on the wall where it could inspire him). The Fraternity had a particular blend of qualities which attracted priests to it - it was for many an answer to prayer. A large percentage of the French clergy joined; it spread to Italy, to Spain, to the UK and to Ireland, to Germany, and then became worldwide. A group of bishops at the Second Vatican Council, drawn from a variety of countries, were known humorously as the “Little Bishops of Jesus”.

Charles de Foucauld, the footloose holy man of the desert, lives on in his followers. As he tried to put the Gospel into effect as literally as possible, so do they. There is, of course, one difference. He suffered a lot from loneliness, because although he laid plans for a religious congregation, he could persuade no one to join him during his lifetime. In this the Priests’ Fraternity is an answer to his prayers. It is a true brotherhood, giving heart and purpose to our priesthood, fostering friendship. The Catholic Church has changed out of recognition since 1951, but the Fraternity has never become ossified or old-fashioned. It has offered a welcome to secular priests all over the world, from Argentina to the Philippines, from Poland to the United States. Not a few men from religious orders have joined, finding that this kind of ‘belonging’ made them better missionaries. And more recently, deacons too ….

If this model of priesthood attracts you, find your nearest Fraternity, express your interest, and see where the Spirit takes you.

CHAPTER II
HOW THE FRATERNITY WORKS

It usually happens like this. A group of a few priests within easy reach of one another decide to meet once a month. It is for mutual support - yes, of course it is, for the life of a priest can be a lonely one, and some brotherly support is vital. But it’s more than this. As someone “conformed to Christ” I want to live the Gospel more deeply. Without being sanctimonious or parading my efforts at holiness, that is. I want my faith to be strong. I want my prayer to be regular, and sincere. I want to deal with the people in my parish with real charity. I want to be a humble man, not pulling rank because I have a handle to my name, or a uniform.

Alone, I find it hard to live up to these standards. As a member of a group of like-minded men, it is easier. I not only rely on their support, I offer them mine, for what it’s worth. A Chilean member of Jesus Caritas said, years ago, “It is a precious thing, to be allowed to take your brother’s life in your hands.”

Each meeting includes an hour of silent adoration. Our belief in the risen, living Jesus, and in the Eucharist, is non-negotiable. Sometimes we schedule the celebration of Mass as well. Some meetings occupy a whole day, or part of a day; some go overnight, giving the opportunity of a meal together. Each meeting includes study and discussion of scripture - not scripture criticism, not scripture scholarship, but treating the Bible as the Word of God and sharing the insights which this brings.

Each meeting includes what we call a “Review of Life”. This means looking back over the month since the last meeting with a serious eye, and sharing what we discover. (Ideally, this review will have taken shape during a quiet day of private retreat, what we call a “Day in the Desert”.) It isn’t public confession ! It is an attempt to put the texture of our life in the light of God, and draw conclusions. An important element of this is not just telling our own story. It’s listening, attentively and humbly, to that of others. The common experience of Jesus Caritas is that as trust builds within the group - and the men may well have been meeting for years - the level of self-disclosure grows as well. It is a rare privilege to have a number of brothers who will listen to your deepest anxieties and perplexities without for a moment passing judgment on you, instead advising you and supporting you, and above all understanding you and remembering you in their prayers. The prayerful advice which takes place in a Fraternity group is as good as spiritual direction by an expert (which, these days, is hard to come by.)

One of the priests will serve as convener of the meetings, and we call him the “Responsible”. (This rather strange word comes from the French “Responsable” which is used by the Little Brothers and Little Sisters.) From time to time he will go to a meeting on a regional or national basis, where he will meet the responsibles of the other groups, so there will also be a priest who serves for a limited time as “Regional Responsible”. Once or twice a year there may be a similar meeting on a continental level. And once every six years there is a General Assembly on a worldwide level, summoned by the General Responsible and his team of helpers. In the interim, the General Responsible and his assistants travel a lot, visiting all the Regions and offering encouragement to the men. All these “responsibles” are elected, and serve for a limited time: it is true service, and not in any way domination.

The monthly meeting of the priests in a group is unassuming, not advertised or trumpeted abroad. But for those who belong it is valuable beyond words. Years ago, a Latin American bishop travelled nine hundred miles to be with his group, sleeping on the floor of a rectory; and he said, “I will miss any other meeting you like to name; but this meeting I will never miss.”

In parts of the world, lay people join priests’ fraternities, possibly before forming their own. The fraternity is governed by a Directory.

CHAPTER III
UNIVERSAL BROTHER

As a priest I offer the living Christ to the Father. More than anything else, I am ordained for this. But it is not a private luxury, this sacrifice. “My sacrifice and yours” I say, after preparing the bread and wine. It is the gift of all the people, not my private property. And while some of the people will be there in the church, taking part in the action of the Mass, many millions more will be outside the church, not even aware of what is happening. For them, too, I carry out this action, the most meaningful action of my life. I am ordained to stand between heaven and earth, and by “earth” I mean the whole gamut of the human race. I speak on their behalf. That’s what I am for.

So there is a strong link which binds me to the brother and sister I meet, in the store, at the bus stop, in the bar or on the square. They don’t know it, but I have been appointed their ambassador. I must live out this solidarity by my affection, by my charity.

How easy it is to feel alienated from someone because they speak a language we don’t understand, or because they belong to a class which is different from our own, or have received an education which is inferior to our own. How easy it is to jump to conclusions about people because the colour of their skin is not ours, or the police crime statistics are unfavorable.

In the past half-century there has been a monumental shift in populations. Sometimes the ones who travel do so because they are refugees from a war zone. Sometimes they do it because there is no work in the country of their birth. Sometimes it’s a family which had got split up, and now there is a chance of reunion. Governments try to limit immigration, but the force of it is irresistible. And migrants, if they are allowed to remain, often occupy the lowest place in society, laboring at impossible hours for less than the minimum wage, sentenced to live in sub-standard housing, ostracized by the native population. This is where I, as a priest, come in.

Charles de Foucauld used to say, “I wish to be a universal brother”. He wanted to relate to the Arabs and the Touaregs not as a superior officer, not as a member of a colonial power, but as an equal, a brother.

There is something for us to learn here. Whatever my overall political views about immigration, the fact that I am faced, here and now, with a fellow human being in need of friendship and companionship, is inescapable. The Gospel imperative to love my neighbor does not admit of exceptions. And the same is true if I am a migrant myself, and find myself living next to someone of a race I have always found difficult. The duty of charity trumps all other duties.

In practice, this will mean a ready smile, an easy greeting. It may mean making the effort to learn a language which is unfamiliar, and being humble in trying it out and making mistakes. None of us are capable of acts of charity on an industrial scale, especially if we try to live a simple life ourselves. But the occasional helping hand is always possible, and it will be the helping hand of a brother, a neighbor, not an official or a functionary.

It will not depend on the religious performance of the other person, or the prospects for their conversion. God’s intimate love does not depend on my brother’s depth of faith, or practice of it. It stems from the fact that on Christmas night, Jesus became the universal brother. And I must do the same.

CHAPTER IV
THE WORD OF GOD

The philosophers of the Enlightenment, which was really the root of today’s wholesale unbelief, used to talk about the “Heavenly Clockmaker”. If you could bring yourself to believe in a God at all, they said, he would be a Creator who ingeniously assembled the universe, but then sat back with his arms folded and simply watched how it worked, taking no further hand in its development.

We on the contrary believe in the God who comes. We believe in the God who gets involved. We believe in the God who cares about us, who has plans for us, who loves us.

The most powerful evidence of this is the Incarnation. Here the Son of God, who is in fact the Word of God, the Self-Expression of God, takes human form, and comes on to our level. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …. And the Word was made flesh.” That’s how St John begins his Gospel. St Matthew describes the women running away from the tomb after the Resurrection, “and there, coming to meet them, was Jesus”. This is the most important characteristic of our God: that he comes to meet us.

One of the most powerful ways in which he comes to meet us is the Bible. This is the Word of God expanded and diffracted, separated into all its different nuances of colour and sound, made intelligible to ordinary human beings. By inspiring the writers of the books of the Bible, God has found another way of being present to us, making himself accessible to us. The books of the Bible are alive in a way that other books are not. I can read a paragraph from a Gospel today, and return to it tomorrow, and find new depths of meaning in it. The Holy Spirit is not only active in the writing done by the prophets, the psalmists and the evangelists - he is equally present in us, the readers and the listeners, when we expose ourselves to God’s Word.

Charles de Foucauld was an avid reader of Scripture. He immersed himself in it every day. The Gospels, in particular animated and inspired him. His devotion to Jesus in the hidden life of Nazareth, for instance, is wholly built on St Luke. His longing for martyrdom stemmed from his reading of the Passion of Our Lord.

Priests of the Fraternity take on board this living quality of Scripture, and try to make it, so to speak, their daily bread. One day will be more successful than another, and there are times when we are so distracted that our meditation doesn’t seem to get off the ground. But there are other days when the word of God can lead us straight to the heart of God, and a single sentence can underpin deep and lengthy prayer. If we steep ourselves in the Bible, we make ourselves available to the living God.

When Jesus Caritas groups come together, they devote a period to reading the scriptures and reflecting on them together. They might take the readings for the coming Sunday; they might work their way systematically through a Gospel. The important thing is not to make this an exercise in scripture analysis (which we were taught to do as part of our training) but a reaching-out to true meaning, an encounter with the God who comes. “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” said the boy Samuel. That typifies our attitude too.

CHAPTER V
THE DESERT

Jesus used to break away from the crowds and find a lonely place where he could be alone with the Father. Indeed, before launching into his public life, he spent forty days in the desert. This instinct permeates the Church: some of our most venerable teachers of the Faith are the Desert Fathers of Egypt.

There is something about the desert which produces sinewy, durable, courageous apostles. Life in the desert, inevitably, is simple. Distraction is at a minimum. The sun rising overhead and shedding its heat impartially is symbolic of God, who is likewise inescapable, and immensely strong. There is nowhere to hide: we expose ourselves to God in his mercy and his power.

Charles de Foucauld, after his conversion, cast about for an environment where he could be most closely united to Christ. He tried a Cistercian Abbey in the mountains in the south of France, and another one in a shabby corner of Syria; he tried actually going to Nazareth and living in a shed in a convent garden, and he even though of raising the money to buy the Mount of Beatitudes and living on the top of it. But in the end he found his home in the Sahara Desert. It was in this desert that he came to terms with himself, confronted his deepest desires, and made his deepest commitment.

The Little Brothers of Jesus maintained this element of desert spirituality in their training. A novice, at one stage, would spend a month alone in a cave overlooking a valley in Spain.

The Priests’ Fraternity asks each man to factor into his month a “Day in the Desert”. This means finding a place which is quiet - it might be a forest, or a lonely stretch of beach, or a hermitage on a mountainside. The idea is deliberately to separate yourself from the active, planning side of priesthood, and submit to God, welcome God in to your life in a prolonged way. This monthly day of quiet also enables us to think through the way our life is going, to look compassionately but critically at our successes and failures, to thank God for his perpetual presence in our lives, and to prepare what we shall say in the “Review of Life” when next our Fraternity meets.

An expanded version of this is what we call the “Month of Nazareth”. Superficially this might remind you of the Ignatian Thirty Days Retreat. But it is not so much a retreat as an exercise in brotherhood. A number of men find a simple venue … perhaps an abandoned religious house, or a residential school where the students have vanished for the summer. They share their lives for a month, shopping and cooking for one another, praying together, and studying the life and writings of Charles de Foucauld. But also making time to be alone, to be in the desert, to meditate and reflect, to expose themselves to God. There might well be a week’s preached retreat scheduled in the middle of such a month. And there might well be some manual work … rebuilding collapsed walls, clearing up neglected orchards, planting trees. In these ways we accompany Our Blessed Lord in his hidden life at Nazareth ( a particular devotion of Charles de Foucauld), a life of union with the Father but at the same time of hard work in the carpenter’s shop.

This concept of “desert” deserves our attention. So much of our life is spent multi-tasking and coping with an infinite number of distractions. If we are wise, we will make time to abstract ourselves from this mad world. It is not so much a matter of geography. Carlo Carretto, the famous author (who was a Little Brother) wrote a book called “The Desert in the City”. You can be in the desert anywhere. The main thing is not to let the mechanical-technical world, the world of instant communications, take possession of you. You are bigger than that.


CHAPTER VI
ADORATION

At an ordination, the bishop puts his hands on the new priest’s head. This is a prayer-in-action. It is a calling-down of the Holy Spirit. Now, it is true that the Bishop uses exactly the same gesture at the ordination of a deacon. But in the case of a priest it has a special significance attached to it. The Bishop is asking God to equip this man for the celebration of the Mystery of the Eucharist.

And the Eucharist is a mystery. Not in the way we often use the word. We’re not talking here about a puzzle or a conundrum. We are talking about a truth which is so deep, so rich and so important that it takes time to be revealed in its fullness and its beauty. The Eucharist is the truth about God pitching his tent among men. The Eucharist is the incredible self-surrender of Jesus to his Father, because he is impelled by love for us. The Eucharist is Our Lord being the Good Shepherd, who feeds us with the Bread of Life. The Eucharist is God’s way of calling us together to be one Body, the Body of his Church. The Eucharist is all that, and so much more. Far from being a simple “service”, it is the enactment of a mystery.

When, as young priests, we began to celebrate Mass with the people of the parish, it was impossible to keep all these reflections at the top of our mind. It was enough to stick correctly to the rubrics, to say something meaningful to the congregation, to finish on time. But as the years passed, and we settled into the routine of celebration, we began to think more of the implications of what we were doing. In spite of our unworthiness, we were bringing God to earth. After communion we would shut the tabernacle and take away the key. It was as though we were sealing Our Lord into the lives of the faithful, placing him where they could find him at any hour of the day. And then, gradually, it dawned upon us that this had to be the centre of our life. We were not just ‘confecting’ the Blessed Sacrament for the sake of the faithful. We needed this gift ourselves, urgently and constantly. We needed Him, Jesus. Otherwise we could not function in any but the most superficial way.

Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, whether in the monstrance or the tabernacle, gives meaning to our lives as priests. It means we’re living the mystery we enact, not just going through the motions to edify the laity. In the consecrated host, we find the Lord, we recognize him, like St John on the lake after the Resurrection seeing the stranger on the shore and saying “It is the Lord.”

Charles de Foucauld built his whole life around adoration. Wherever he was, he would make space and time to kneel before Our Lord truly present, and to submit lovingly and simply to him.

Priests who belong to the Fraternity do the same. When we meet in a group, we always spend an hour in silence before the Blessed Sacrament. And somewhere into the texture of our daily lives, too, we fit this vital ingredient: being present to him, so that he may be present to us. It does not have to be a wordy prayer. Often it is just a prolonged movement of the heart, as when we long for someone, or realizes how much we have missed them. Sometimes we have a multitude of feelings and experiences to lay before him. Sometimes we can simply “be”, in singleness of heart. Always, this time of adoration colors the rest of the day, for now we know for whom we are living and on whose grace we depend. Jesus is our example. We want to live, like him, with compassion, with patience, with love of the Father, with courage, with wisdom, with self-sacrifice. It looks an impossibly uphill task. But if we spend this time in intimate contact with him, the impossible becomes possible, and our lives are transformed.

CHAPTER VII
SIMPLICITY OF LIFE

If I am appointed to a well-heeled parish, and the people are generous, I may - without actually planning it - slip into a middle-class way of living myself. And the parishioners, bless them, will encourage me. If they have prestigious cars and take expensive holidays, they will be more at ease when they see that their priest lives a similar life to theirs. And in the narrow context of that particular community, this will not seem particularly scandalous.

And yet … “He sent me to bring good news to the poor” and I cannot do that in a way which is patronizing or condescending. To preach the Gospel from a great height is not to preach it at all. Disasters in the Church’s life, like the Reformation and the French Revolution, owed much of their horror to a luxurious clergy. There needs to be a cheerful simplicity in my life-style. The vast majority of Catholics in the current world live simple lives, and they need to know me, their priest, as someone who is alongside them, in terms of possessions. Not poorer, necessarily, but certainly not richer; someone who can share their economic condition and empathize when things get tough.

Charles de Foucauld came from a wealthy family, and he had to school himself in Christian poverty. He did this first of all when he joined the Cistercians, then as a poor vagrant in the Holy Land, and then in his simple hut in the Algerian desert. The hidden life of Jesus was his great spur: he could have called upon resources from his family, but he knew that his mission demanded austerity. Austerity was sign-language to the Arabs and the Touaregs for “I am willing to make any sacrifice for your sake”. Austerity was sign-language for “I’m not pretending, I really believe in the Gospel I preach to you.”

We, as priests in the 21st century, have to make a deliberate choice. Perhaps it is easier now than in the past, because our awakening to global warming and environmental issues generally tells us not to be wasteful. Our people will not be surprised if they see us walking rather than driving, using public transport, using the cheaper supermarkets. It does not have to ostentatious, but it does have to be constant. It refers not so much to the purchase of decent vestments and furnishing for the church, which is fine, as to the way I conduct myself in my personal life.

If I live simply, I can be hospitable without embarrassing anyone, and without myself being anxious. I can offer a meal or a bed without making people nervous. I shall not need to be shifty about my vacation, where I went and what I did. There will be a Gospel cleanness, a Gospel clarity about my way of being.

Members of Jesus Caritas come from a vast variety of different countries. Many of them could never aspire, even if they were inclined that way, to storing money away or dressing richly. In Europe and North America, however, the temptation is sometimes real. So this is part of the mindset of our Fraternity. When we meet once a month, and survey our lives, this is one of the things we survey. “Give me but thy love and thy grace - with these I am rich enough and wish for nothing more” said Ignatius Loyola in his famous prayer. Acquiring property and money muddies the water. It needs to be crystal clear to us, and to our people, that our true riches are in heaven.

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