Pere Philippe was well advanced in years, into his eighties, when I met him at my first summer retreat at St. Jodard. He impressed as a priest of great humility, holiness and charity. This impression remained the same throughout all the subsequent annual retreats, conferences and other occasions when I met him right up until his death.
Each retreat, Pere Philippe made himself available for any participant who wished to see him privately for discussion of personal matters. I saw him on a regular basis for a personal meeting, usually alone or occasionally with a trusted Brother to assist with the translation. During these encounters, Pere Philippe would seem immersed in prayer. He always listened patiently and attentively. His attitude throughout every single encounter was gentle, kind and prayerful, rather like a loving father-figure whom one respected and trusted deeply. Often there was a queue of people waiting to see him. If it was late in the evening, the Brother supervising the visits sometimes wanted to terminate the sessions so that Pere Philippe could retire to avoid becoming fatigued. Pere Philippe however would not hear of this. He frequently remained until the last person could see him, no matter how late it was. He gave of himself right to the end, always putting the needs of others before himself. This desire to serve God through serving others manifested a profound fraternal charity which was lived out in a most exceptional way. He was that rare person who did not just preach the gospel but truly lived it in a simple, humble and loving way and it was this that touched me and the hearts of many who met him. In the same way, he did not just preach on the subject of poverty but lived it in a deeply personal way.
The summer retreats were generally on the writings of St John. His teaching at these conferences, rooted in prayer and silence at his instigation, provided a profound insight into the Johannine gospel. For me, his teaching was unique. Yet he did not wish his words to be received only at the intellectual or academic level but rather to take root in our hearts and transform our lives. His profound and living example truly made this a reality, not just an aspiration. In this way, he was the living embodiment of what he taught. There was no hypocrisy or deceit about him; rather a child-like simplicity which gave him an air of innocence.
Many times he would preach on the subject of Our Lady. His love of her seemed to be immense. His insight into the role of the Mother of God in the order of creation and salvation was quite extraordinary. From what I discerned, it seemed that his regard for women was formed by this light of Mary and his teaching caused one to reflect more deeply on the role of women in life and society in contrast to contemporary thought. In my own experience of being with him, his conduct in private reflected entirely his teaching in public and was always proper and respectful. During these encounters, it seemed as if his mind was with God and this somehow gave him an air of holiness and nearness to God.
He had a very loving and gentle spirit. Once on a retreat at Murat, he preached on the subject of St Dominic. When he came to the death of St Dominic, he started to weep, almost as if he were present himself at the saint’s deathbed and mourning his passing. We, the retreatants were deeply touched by this and by the time the conference was finished, most of us were weeping as well. I often felt that this gentleness of spirit, this loving, humble, poor way of being, was entirely counter-cultural to the world we live in today, almost like a ‘sign of contradiction’. For me, he was a source of inspiration but perhaps this was not so for others.