New Blood in the Old Monasteries of France

Movements Take Over Abbeys of Mont-Saint-Michel and Dombes

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PARIS, SEPT. 3, 2001 ( Young monks and consecrated members of new ecclesial movements and communities are taking over historic monasteries in France.

Some of the monasteries were once thought doomed to extinction. But the movements established in the wake of the Second Vatican Council are proving those predictions wrong.


The most striking case is that of Mont-Saint-Michel. This jewel of world architecture is located on the border between Brittany and Normandy, and bathed by the waters of the Channel of La Mancha. When the tide rises, the waters virtually engulf the abbey and its surrounding buildings.

The Benedictines, who first arrived there in 966, built Mont-Saint-Michel into one of the world´s great places of pilgrimage. Tradition holds that the Archangel Michael appeared there.

Until early this summer, only three elderly Benedictine monks remained in this bit of land, which welcomes 3 million tourists and pilgrims a year. Then, the Benedictines allowed the Monastic Communities of Jerusalem to take over.

The latter is a religious family of monks and nuns, founded in Paris in 1975 by Pierre-Marie Delfieux.

With the agreement of the Diocese of Coutances and the Center of National Monuments, to which the abbey belonged since the French Revolution, Mont-Saint-Michel will now house five religious brothers and four nuns of the Monastic Communities of Jerusalem.

Sister Judith Katta, 34, is superior of the community of nuns. Her vocation story is typical of the community. After studying art at the Louvre in Paris, she worked as director of the press office of a large apparel firm. Six years ago, when she learned about the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem, she abandoned her career to consecrate her life to God.

Sister Judith´s priority, like that of her comrades in religious life, is to live her vocation of prayer in the noise of contemporary society.

«Some of the visitors who come here are desperate, wounded, and they are looking for something without knowing what,» she explained. They start to find an answer in the liturgy, prayer and warm welcome they encounter in the monastic settings, she said.

The Monastic Communities´ eighth foundation was inaugurated in Belgium on Sunday, in the heart of a popular Brussels neighborhood.

The group already had 150 monks and nuns living in monasteries in France and Italy. The average age of the members is 32.


Another case is that of the Abbey of Dombes, a symbol of the world ecumenical movement.

Last Saturday, the Trappist monks left this architectural complex in the Diocese of Belley-Ars, where they had resided for more than 140 years.

Dombes had 65 monks in 1949. Only nine remained, ranging in age from 69 to 82, making it impossible to maintain an abbey of 200 cultivable hectares and 300 head of dairy cattle.

«None of the other monasteries of the order was able to help us; this is why I decided to call the new communities,» Abbot Bernard Christol explained.

His offer was accepted by Chemin Neuf, a Catholic movement founded in Lyon in 1973 by Father Laurent Fabre.

Chemin Neuf has a new charism: Religious and laity live together to serve the Church and the world. In addition, the Dombes community has a particular ecumenical vocation.

Indeed, dialogue between Christian churches made Dombes famous. Beginning in 1973, the Dombes Group was established around the abbey. It included some 20 Catholic and an equal number of Protestant theologians, who were responsible for documents such as «Mary in God´s Plan and the Communion of Saints» (1998).

The Chemin Neuf community of Domes will soon number 30 people.

«We hope to become a place of prayer and renewal,» said Father Fabre, the founder. «We want Dombes to be a center of study and formation, in contact with the Catholic School of Lyon, with the ecumenical spirit that has so intensely characterized this place.»

Worldwide, Chemin Neuf has 700 members in 15 countries. The Chemin Neuf Communion apostolic movement, which stems from the Chemin Neuf Community, has 6,000 members.

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