“The desire to serve the sick by consecration to God has always been the main reason why I followed my vocation,” confessed Brother Alain Samuel Jeancler, the leader of the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God in France.
He was speaking in this interview about the charism of his community which serves the poorest of the poor, which we are proposing to all our readers to (re)discover for themselves during this Lent, on the occasion of the visit by the General Curia in Rome to Liberia and Sierra Leone.
A community in “the peripheries” but also a community at the heart of the Vatican with a pharmacy used by people from all over Rome.
A community founded by a Portuguese Saint, led throughout the centuries by performing “works of mercy” which the Extraordinary Jubilee Year has encouraged among the faithful.
And it also evokes a virtue which is too-often forgotten, but which is able to revitalise the fabric of our societies: Gospel-based Hospitality.
“As Lent begins, we are all called to “create a family”, to “be a family,” says Brother Alain-Samuel, after having recalled the work of the Brothers in Madagascar, and in Europe working for migrants by running mobile hospitals.
ZENIT – Brother Alain-Samuel, you are the “French Provincial Superior” of the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God: what does that mean? What is the role of a “Provincial”? How were you attracted by the charism of this Order?
Brother Alain-Samuel : I am responsible for the Hospitaller Order in France. I would like to say first and foremost being the ”French Provincial Superior” is not really my function: in reality it is a mission which has been entrusted to me, by and for the love of Our Lord, at the service of the common good, the service of the communion of the people I lead, accompany and serve. This is, at all events, the way I am trying to work in this capacity! Being a “Provincial” is basically a journey, it is walking as a fellow-traveller, it is following in the footsteps of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to re-read with my Brothers the presence of the Risen Christ in our lives. I joined the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God first and foremost to place myself at the service of the sick, the poor and people in distress. We should make it clear that we are an Order of carers. We are not therefore trained to work as HR or general managers. This demands a great deal of humility, common-sense, generosity, and sensitivity from time to time, remembering the example set by our founder who had to pass through a radical process of conversion, which was to trigger his work devoted to “serving” others. The Order is present in 53 countries today, and looks after more than 1 million people every year! John of God had to undergo the trial of madness, the personal experience of the inhuman treatment meted out in hospitals in his age, to realise for himself the suffering of the sick, and to have a clear view of his new mission: the mission to institute a new model of care, based on service. He understood, in his age, that in order to lead others, he first had to empty himself in order to reach out to his neighbour, and through him, draw close to God.
The desire to serve the sick through consecration to God has always been the first reason for my own vocation. And that is how life goes on, placing us in the course of our earthly pilgrimage in situations which require us to make choices, make decisions, and take guidance that can influence the course of our personal history, and that is the people in our charge and under our responsibility. And this Lent is giving us an ideal opportunity to question and take stock of the path we are following, our faith in God, the place we leave for Him in our commitments, our readiness to cast ourselves onto the love of a Saviour God in the world of suffering, sickness and loneliness… “Through the body to the soul”: that is our mission as Hospitaller Brothers today.
ZENIT: As long ago as the 16th century, your founder, John of God, based his work on a virtue which is still being practised today by the 1100 Brothers throughout the world: Hospitality. How do you link this hospitality and the works of mercy which Pope Francis has appealed to us to practise in the Extraordinary Jubilee Year?
One of the distinctive features of the Brothers of Saint John of God is that they take a vow of hospitality in addition to the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. By virtue of this vow, we consecrate our lives to “caring for the most vulnerable people, even at the cost of our own lives, imitating Christ who loved us to the point of dying for our Salvation”. It is hospitality practiced in so many different situations, stretching out a helping hand to those in despair, being a loving presence by the side of children affected by AIDS, patiently welcoming people, through daily acts restoring trust to those who have lost it, acting as an open door, without conditions, to take in the homeless, and to care for all those who are the “face of the poor, the sick and the suffering, and people in difficulties”. The most beautiful example of this unconditional hospitality was given most recently by our 4 Brothers in Sierra Leone and Liberia, who sacrificed their own lives to care for the victims of the Ebola outbreak in 2014.
This Gospel-based hospitality is founded on our own daily experience of God’s mercy: our encounter with God entails committing ourselves to serving the most vulnerable people, to show them this merciful love which we ourselves have received. The works of mercy are nothing other than expressing this desire to love and to will the good of our neighbour, as Saint John of God did in his age. As soon as he heard God’s call, he immediately set out and overcame every obstacle, in order to manifest God’s divine mercy to all who knocked at his door, through Hospitality. A Hospitality which made him happy, as he himself said when he walked through the streets of Granada crying out to all people of goodwill to help him: “Do good to yourselves, Brothers, by doing good to others!”. Through our words and through our deeds, may we also prove that mercy can achieve all things, and make people profoundly happy.
ZENIT: During Lent, Zenit will give our readers the joy of following you and discovering more about your mission. But would you please give us an advance idea of some geographic benchmarks and examples of your commitment in the field, which illustrate the work you are doing as the maternal face of the Church, bending over to help the poorest people who come to you wherever you are in the world, regardless of their status and condition?
We are present in all 5 continents working in 454 health care facilities, and social and medical care centres, designed to meet the demands of the local government policies, but also and above all to meet the needs of the people who seek us out. The latest foundation was created last year when we opened a psychiatric rehabilitation centre in Madagascar. We reached that country in 2007 and established a community there, and a dispensary. As time passed when the Brothers set about serving those who applied to them, they soon found that many of the psychiatric patients discharged from the only hospital in the country had to be very quickly re-admitted because there was no service to accompany them to reintegrate them back into society. This is why we decided to offer them a place where they could not only continue to receive the care they needed, but also learn a trade, and to live in society and rebuild themselves physically, mentally and spiritually.
When the migrant crisis erupted in Europe, we also set up mobile hospitals in Italy and in Slovakia to offer primary care to the families, drained by months of trekking. I would also like to mention, somewhat earlier than that, the example of a German Brother, Fortunatus Thanhäuser in the 1970s, who had been sent on a mission to India to set up a dispensary in a region tucked away in the mountains of Kerala. Because of the large numbers of people who often walked dozens of kilometres for help from him, he decided to build a hospital which is now the largest hospital in the region, catering for about one million people! There is also Europe’s first ever night shelter, founded 140 years ago in Marseille (France) in which the Brothers are still welcoming in about 300 homeless people every single night.
I might mention many other examples of the work which we are managing throughout the world, but it would take far too long. I mention this to show that our centres are simply there, as you yourself have quite rightly said, to demonstrate the Church’s concern for those in greatest need. That is also the meaning of our motto: “Caring for the body as a means of caring for the soul”.
ZENIT: You are also present in the very heart of the Church, in the Vatican, where the mission is no less universal: the Vatican Pharmacy, for example, is also international and is open to everyone. How did this mission begin? Some of your Brothers also care for the health of our popes. Isn’t this is a wonderful symbol which clearly exemplifies the Church’s mission?
This is a very good example of our charism of hospitality which we also practise with Papuans and Popes alike! And what fascinates me whenever I visit any of our Houses is that regardless of differences of culture between the communities, the Hospitality we practise is exactly the same.
The Pharmacy we manage in the Vatican was founded by the Hospitaller Brothers in 1874 at the request of the Secretary of State at the time, Cardinal Antonelli. A community of Brothers still lives there to this day, close by Saint Agnes’ Gate. It provides not only everything that you can find in any other pharmacy, but also numerous potions which the Brothers themselves make in-house, and for which they alone hold the secrets! Two Brothers of this Community also care for the health of Popes Francis and Benedict XVI, as their nurses.
ZENIT: The 1100 Hospitaller Brothers are supported by more than 60,000 lay Co-workers who help you in your mission. How do you associate them with your charism of Hospitality?
Since the Internet began to play such a prominent role in contemporary life, the family has been for all of us the first social network that we must not neglect and learn to love. This fact, and our own experiences of family life and of which we speak so much, led the Order to take up this whole issue of the family in its own particular way, to draw on the wealth of the family and broaden our family circle. And our Superior General invited us, in 2009, to live the experience of the Hospitaller Family of Saint John of God, made up of the Brothers, Co-workers, supporters and our guests in our services, each one with their own vocation. As any other family, we are trying to share the same experience of love, acceptance and mutual forgiveness and hospitality, which has to be explored and enriched.
A family is better placed than anyone else to speak this language of the heart in our fragmented, globalized and dehumanized societies. Giving life and creating a hospitaller family in today’s world takes on a radical character and sense of solidarity and of human brotherhood.
As we set out through this Lententide, we are all called to “create a family” and to “be a family” by listening to and responding to a deeper and more interior call – the call of God Himself, inviting us to do His will. And what is His will, if not to love one another as He has loved us?