The Holy Spirit at work
in the story of the Chemin Neuf community
A follower of Ignatius of Loyola encounters the charismatic renewal movement
When the charismatic movement came to France from the United States, Laurent Fabre was a Jesuit seminarian in Lyon. A fellow seminarian from Seattle told him of a personal experience of the power of the Holy Spirit and this really struck Laurent.
He and fellow Jesuit Bertrand Lepesant decided to spend a weekend in the mountains, praying to the Holy Spirit, and invited the young American Jesuit along. As it happened, on that same evening the American met two young Episcopalian hitch hikers : Lewis Beaver (‘Brother Elijah’) and Mark Hoffman (‘Brother Moses’), both originally Messianic Jews. The two Episcopalians offered to pray for baptism in the Holy Spirit for their companions. This spiritual experience was to change their lives. On his return to Lyon, Laurent joined a prayer group which was pioneering the way for the Catholic charismatic renewal movement in Lyon.
Soon after this, Laurent travelled to the USA where he came to appreciate just how vital the Holy Spirit was for all people and for the whole Church – indeed, for life in Christ.
These foundational experiences developed into a calling for Laurent and provided the context for a new plan to emerge.
‘Whatever the challenges of our times, the Holy Spirit is up to the task’.
The first fraternity
During a formation weekend in June at Neuville-sur-Saône, Father Laurent was challenged by the words of Acts 2 :42, and suggested that all those interested in community life meet together. Around ten people joined, including Jacqueline Coutellier.
During his pre-ordination retreat, the young Jesuit presented his idea for a community life for men and women to God in prayer.
In October, seven celibate men and women began a shared life together at 49 Montée du Chemin Neuf. Step by step, by listening to the Holy Spirit, a call to share with one another in obedience began to be heared. The rhythm of community life, characterised by prayer, hospitality and witness, was soon established.
‘Believe in small beginnings’.
A foundational year
The youngest of the seven original Community members, Brigitte, died on February 1st from kidney cancer. The Community saw her as the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies in John 12 :24.
On the day of Pentecost, the whole Community was in Rome to hear Pope Paul VI state that the movement of spiritual renewal was a good thing for the Church. This was a wonderful moment of confirmation for the burgeoning Community.
In August, the small Community of celibates embarked on a new venture : organising a gathering of families, in Aix-en- Provence. The first formation programmes got underway in the autumn which trained couples and singles in evangelism. It was following this that Pierre and Vivette Briaudet joined the Community – the first married couple to do so.
‘Celibates and couples are two sides of the same coin’.
The ministry of formation moves forward
More and more people started coming to the Community house on the Montée du Chemin Neuf and it was clear that more space was needed.
Father Laurent Fabre scoured the countryside around Lyon for a suitable Community house. One day, he ran out of petrol (in the middle of a firefighters’ strike!). This turned out to be rather providential : a stranger came to his aid, invited Laurent back to his home and told him about a family property near Lyon. This house turned out to be exactly what the Community was looking for. And God’s work didn’t stop there: the Community subsequently received a donation which enabled them to purchase the house.
This house was Les Pothieres, into which several Community members moved so as to start offering Biblical, theological and spiritual formation, with an underlying emphasis on ecumenism. Since then, huge numbers of young people, couples and families have become disciples of Christ, serving the Church and the world, as a result of receiving this formation.
‘Expect the unexpected from God’.
Fools for Christ
In July, the first Cana session for couples and families was held at Les Pothieres, thereby establishing a mission which was to spread quickly throughout France and to many countries. More and more couples from more and more cultures could now experience the grace of being able to be stand in complete honesty before one another in their relationships.
It was in this same year that the Sisters of Adoration invited the Community to come and live with them at Henri IV Street in Lyon, so as to set up a student house. The Lord was at work once again, : the invitation came just at the same time as Number 49 was becoming too small for the 50 or so students who were attending the prayer group. And so, the Community’s mission to young people got underway !
‘Make time and space for mission’.
A total commitment to the unity of all Christians
The charismatic renewal movement had been ecumenical ever since its beginnings in the United States. This movement of grace had formed the basis for the Community’s ecumenical calling from the start, and since then the call to unity has only become stronger and more far reaching for the Community.
During the Unity Tent and Pentecost in Europe gatherings that were held in 1982, strong links began to develop between the Community and Reformed, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Pastor Thomas Roberts made an appeal to churches to ‘give our lives for the unity of Christians’ and this, along with Father Laurent’s exhortation, ‘Europe – if you remain divided, you will not survive !’, was a key moment for the Community.
In 2014, Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, called on the Community to share in this gift of unity. He invited a Chemin Neuf group to live and pray at Lambeth Palace in London, while helping lead the Community of St Anselm – an Anglican initiative for young people.
‘The greatest obstacle to evangelism is division between Christians.‘
Called beyond borders
In the 1980s, there was a growing desire amongst Community members to serve further afield.
The Holy Spirit moved once more : during a stay in Rome, the new bishop of Nkayi in DRC, Monsignor E. Kombo, picked up the phone to call to Father Laurent. He and Father Laurent had studied together but had not seen one another for ten years. And yet, it was at precisely that same moment that Father Laurent was inspired to call the bishop himself !
A few months later, the Community Council sent the first brothers and sisters to DRC to work at the Bouenza medical centre and to build a training centre at Kimbaouka. These were the first steps on a path towards new destinations.
‘Our life of communion drives our mission.’
The mission puts down roots
Yet again, God knocked on the door unexpectedly. The Abbot of Hautecombe Abbey had asked the Community twice to take on the life of prayer and hospitality at Hautecombe – but in vain. The Abbott tried once again. He gave Father Laurent a call : ‘I’m in the Archbishop of Chambery’s office’, he said, ‘and he’s listening to our conversation. Before you say no to me for the third time, come and visit the abbey !’ So Father Laurent went to visit with the bursar of the Community. He was bowled over by the beauty of the place. He and the Community Council were sure the Abbey would be just the place to train young people and provide training in ecumenism. Very soon it became apparent that this intuition was right, indeed ever since the Community settled at Hautecombe, the abbey has been full of young people.
During Pentecost, some close friends of the Chemin Neuf expressed a desire to share with the Community in the grace of fellowship and service. This led to the creation of a new apostolic group : the Chemin Neuf Communion.
For many years, Community brothers from all over the world had been called to the priesthood. Following regular meetings between the Community Council and the Archbishop of Lyon, the Chemin Neuf Institute was set up for priests and those committed to the religious life.
‘Are there roots beneath our branches ?’
The first international Chapter
The presence of the Chemin Neuf in so many different countries led to the Community’s openness to another calling of the Holy Spirit. In order to give all members a voice, regardless of which country they came from, the Community initiated the first international Chapter meeting, with 72 delegates. A major outcome of this Chapter meeting was to agree the principal of the common purse and of financial solidarity between all parts of the Community, of whatever denomination. The vote to adopt the Community Constitution was unanimous.
The Community had always seen itself as serving the Church, and when a request came from the Diocese of Paris to run the parish at St Denys la Chapelle it responded positively. This was the start of an exciting project which grew with time : sharing the grace of fraternity and mission with parishioners in local churches.
‘Sharing makes more.’
A network of prayer and formation
The year 2000 dawns, and the Community is driven further. Turn of the century was characterised by the development of the internet, and this opened up a new way to evangelise. Abbott Paul Couturier’s vision of an ‘invisible monastery’ started to resonate with the Community : ‘If an ever increasing multitude of Christians of every denomination were to form an immense network encircling the earth, like a vast invisible monastery in which we are all taken up in the prayer of Christ for Unity’. Net for God was born, creating a network of prayer, formation and evangelism by broadcasting short films on the internet and at small group meetings.
Around the same time, the Theological Institute at Les Dombes in partnership with the Lyon Theology Faculty ; and the Chartres School of Philosophy in partnership with the Paris Sevres Centre were set up. This collaboration between different academic institutions further embedded the Community’s call to provide formation and training.
‘At the right time, I will move quickly.’
Completing the Community’s foundation
The foundation period of the Community was coming to a close. Father Laurent Fabre had been the Community’s ‘Shepherd’ for 43 years and it was time to hand over the role. The Chapter delegates elected Father Francois Michon, who had just returned from ten years of mission in Kinshasa, DRC, as the new leader of the Community.
In the same year, a group of brothers and sisters were sent to the Our Lady of Atlas monastery at Thiberine in Algeria, to set up a ministry of hospitality, prayer and fraternity.
‘Ignatius said that he was on an unknown path, following the Spirit and not running ahead of it, allowing himself to be directed by the Holy Spirit’s strength and gentleness’.
A new Pentecost
The Catholic charismatic renewal movement celebrated its 50th anniversary in Rome, with Pope Francis giving the event an ecumenical dimension by inviting guests from different denominations. His vision of ‘diversity reconciled’ was completely in line with that of Community.
Three years later, Pope Francis met with Father Francois Michon and Father Laurent Fabre in Rome and encouraged the Chemin Neuf Community to remain faithful to their calling : ‘To be on the way is to move forward, not to go round in circles […]. There’s risk in this, there is always risk, but a life without risk is not a Christian one. I encourage you to move forward in the discernment of the Lord and in obedience to the Church, to the wider Church in which we are all brothers and sisters’.
‘Let the Holy Spirit show the way’ Pope Francis
BE THE CHURCH !
For 25 years, the Community’s parish work had been growing in scope, called to serve in around thirty parishes in several countries and live out the fraternal, spiritual and mission-focused Community life with its parishioners. Every summer the Community organised the international ‘BE THE CHURCH’ festival, gathering parishes together to listen to the Holy Spirit and the Church.
The world is hit by the Covid 19 health crisis, affecting relationships, affecting everyone’s way of life. The Community is impacted too, and has to reinvent itself in order to continue sharing the gift of fellowship and the gift of the Gospel, both near and far. Live-streams of masses, services, teaching, testimonies, as well as online retreats, enable the Community to spread its mission more widely than ever before.