I met father Philippe in the 1980s when I was only 20 years old, and, unlike many others, I did not meet him first as a teacher, but as a priest who was attentive, unaffected and overflowing with goodness.
In fact I first met him within my own family. Our common origins (Lille), my ties with father Thomas Philippe, his elder brother, through l’Arche, and the different religious vocations among my brothers and sisters (at the time I had two brothers who were in the Community of Saint John), made father Philippe particularly attentive to my family.
As a teacher it was in a mediatised form that I first discovered him. Indeed, my father felt the urge to get to know personally the man who had attracted his two elder sons into the community he was founding. He therefore went to follow the philosophy lectures that father Philippe gave in Paris on Saturdays. The year he went Father was giving a course on ethics and my father came home thrilled to bits. Subsequently I was treated to a regurgitated version every week that followed a lecture. I have to admit that I was enthralled to see the way in which Father’s lectures had captivated my father’s intelligence. The latter was struck by the depth of Father’s analysis of the experience of friendship and the human person and how this gave a new light of hope for today’s world. Moreover he was happy to see how a truly realist and sound perspective on the human person went hand in hand with the teachings of the Gospel and of the Church. It is thanks to these lectures that my father placed an unshakeable trust in father Philippe and in this new Community which had received his two sons, despite the suspicion with which it was already looked upon in France. When some time later I had to announce to my father my desire to join the group of young women who wanted to be close to father Philippe in order to found a religious community, my father made this new sacrifice with full trust in father Philippe.
My religious vocation was born during a holiday spent close to one of my brothers in the Community of Saint John. Therefore it is only after hearing the call to a religious consecration in the spirit of Saint John (through the contact with the Community of the Brothers of Saint John, since the sisters no longer existed) that I met father Philippe in a more personal way. We spoke first of father Thomas Philippe, his brother, then of my family… and of myself who was at first overawed by this meeting and by talking about my religious vocation. This vocation surprised everyone, most of all me, but I immediately felt completely at ease and safe, like a daughter with her father, in a deep respect and discretion. This describes the relationship that always existed between him and me all through the following years, right up to his death. I would add that the more our relationship intensified, and the more I received him as a father, the more the discretion, the respect, the purity and the poverty deepened. Very quickly after this first encounter he became my spiritual director and remained so right to the end with great fidelity (for 24 years therefore).
I was always very struck in his spiritual direction by his discretion, his poverty and his self-effacement before the Holy Spirit. Strictly speaking he accompanied more than he directed. He listened a great deal, asked questions and always referred me to the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit. His spiritual direction was exercised more manifestly and luminously through his teaching. Personal conversations with him left me both with the poverty of not always having a direct answer to the questions or problems that I put to him, and also with the assurance of being enveloped by a fatherly and vigilant presence that accompanied me in the search for the will of God, which I was to discern myself.
His spiritual paternity during these personal encounters formed me deeply over the years and helped me to grow and mature in my spiritual life. By his side I found myself more intelligent in my knowledge of myself and in my way of approaching realities and the events in my life. He led me to love more deeply, sometimes by surpassing myself heroically. His manner with me rendered me poorer and more pure in my emotions by inciting me to offer to God all desire to monopolise him. He taught me to be joyful through thick and through thin, even in the greatest trials. The example he himself gave on this level was striking: it was often when we knew him to be particularly besieged by trials that he manifested the greatest joy! I can affirm that through the fervour of his teaching, our personal conversations and the example of his life I was carried away by the love of Jesus. How many times in my life when I was going through ordeals or had difficult questions that I was unable to ask him did I receive luminous answers through his lectures, and even through recordings of them that reached me long afterwards in the mission countries where I had been sent…. Sometimes they answered my questions almost word for word as if I had been able to ask him directly and in person.
His teaching and spiritual direction marked my life deeply while leaving me a very great inner freedom. They also profoundly affected my way of living my religious vows. I cannot conceive of my consecration in the religious life without this formation in the three wisdoms that he gave us in the footsteps of Saint Thomas. How can one possibly offer one’s life to God in full possession of the power of one’s intelligence and will without seeking to know them better in order to be able to use them responsibly, and orient them better towards their ultimate end, which is God?
His life was a powerful witness in itself. Although he was a preacher, a man of words, he was primarily and deeply a man of silence and prayer. In him it was patently obvious that it was his silence that carried his words! The way in which he moved around from one place to another between lectures or masses, or appointments given for the exercise of “mercy” (confessions or private meetings) was impregnated with silence and contemplation and drew us into silence too, just from watching him. He immersed himself again in this silence as soon as he had an opportunity, still remaining present and welcoming towards each and every person.
This silence was so inhabited by God and the Virgin Mary that it did not render him stuffy, boring or “pious”. On the contrary he was very joyful, open and interested in everything and everyone. How many times we saw him playing with children or spending time with mentally handicapped people or the poor of today’s world! He had a gift for making contact with every person, for he was above all concerned with their persons, and always saw the positive qualities in them. How many times he remained faithful, too, in his fatherly presence towards people who wounded him or were almost unhealthily emotionally demanding and tried to monopolise him, for he was the only one to hear their cry for mercy. He was a great witness to holiness for today’s world, which needs divine light, hope and joy more than ever before.
I would like to conclude with a reflexion on the slanderous accusations that have been made against father Philippe. First, I remain scandalised by the fact that these accusations were made public in veiled and incomprehensible terms, thus leaving the imagination to run riot, without consultation of the persons who rubbed shoulders with father Philippe for so many years, nor any possibility of them giving their opinion. The opinion of the brothers alone was asked, that is of men, and therefore of persons who did not necessarily have relevant views or testimony to give concerning Father’s “unchaste gestures towards adult women”. Before such accusations were made public should the persons most implicated not have been consulted, that is the women and religious who benefited from his spiritual paternity? In fact nobody consulted the numerous sisters with whom I have spoken about this matter and none of them can see the slightest resemblance between their experience of father Philippe and what has been presented to the public at large as the truth.
Indeed, it is a gross misjudgement of father Philippe to suspect him of unchaste gestures. Father’s gestures were those of a father, of compassion and it was quite simple not to be mistaken about his intention, unless one was unbalanced and obsessed about sexuality. Moreover, Father’s affective purity and poverty drew us into a deeper poverty and purity. He was even at times extremely severe and impoverishing when he detected in us a desire to possess him or the temptation of stopping at his person.
In these public communications, I am surprised to see that no concrete facts are revealed, except that there was no sexual union, nor are the names of the persons who accuse him mentioned. If this is with the intention of respecting their private life, then why not respect his private life and ours, for we can be accused, too, for having cooperated by our silence with the perverse activities of which Father is accused in an implicit way and of having allowed ourselves to be blinded by an emotional dependence.
I therefore demand that this matter be the object of further investigation, and legal review, so that the question of Father’s moral life is studied in the open with all the legitimate legal input. The present slanderous climate must be surpassed and the matter must be approached from a truly Christian point of view, which respects the persons involved (Father Philippe, the so-called “victims” and all his spiritual children who have been wounded by these accusations).
On this feast of Blessed Padre Pio of Petrelcina I am reassured in remembering that servants of God who were calumniated in the Church have subsequently been officially recognised as witnesses to Christ through their holiness. I therefore pray that the Church will rapidly bring to light the truth about father Marie-Dominique Philippe so that his holiness may be fully recognised, for in this holiness he was very deeply given for the Church and todays’ world.