Bernadette Fournier

consecrated sister, ccn, Zaragoza (Spain)

8 juin 2024

Leaving France

A matter for God and God alone!

Now established in 35 countries, the Chemin Neuf Community remembers the first departure "outside France", the fruit of Providence and the availability of four brothers and sisters.

In 1984, Father Laurent Fabre and his Council were looking for a place to found the Community in Africa. He was living in the student hostel on rue Madame in Paris and had heard that his Jesuit friend, Mgr Ernest Kombo, had just been appointed bishop of the diocese of Nkayi in the Republic of Congo. He asked his secretary, Elisabeth Auliac, to look up the telephone number of this future bishop, who was then in a Jesuit community in Rome. There were two telephones on his desk in the Rue Madame. Just as Elisabeth began to communicate (saying « Pronto », as she should) with one of the telephones, the second telephone began to ring: it was Bishop Ernest Kombo, who was also trying to reach Father Laurent Fabre at the same moment!

Bishop Ernest Kombo

He wanted to come to Paris, to ask us to pray for his recent appointment which, for reasons of ethnic quarrelling, put him in a difficult situation, and also to ask the Chemin Neuf Community for help with his new diocese.

Ernest Kombo and Laurent Fabre, both Jesuits, had known the Charismatic Renewal together in its early days, but had not communicated for more than ten years… And now, at the end of that long period of time, at the very same moment, they were trying to reach each other!

God’s faithfulness since those formative years, the intervention and work of the Holy Spirit: « I, the Lord, will act quickly in due time » (Isaiah 60:22). Father Laurent Fabre obviously took this event as a sign of Providence.

This sign was soon confirmed by another very specific one: Mgr Kombo, who had worked on the fifth regional development plan in his own country of Congo, was unable to find a map of his new diocese. What a surprise it was when he arrived in Paris and searched in vain for a staff map or I.G.N. at the Service National de la Cartographie, to receive this extremely rare map as a gift while eating at our place on rue Madame! In fact, one of our architect brothers, Bruno Coutellier, had long before worked on the construction of a sawmill in this same diocese of the Congo, and he had this famous map!

Bishop Kombo also found Father Laurent’s proposal to set up a centre in his diocese providential. Philippe Verchelde, a young married brother and future cooperating doctor, was looking for a mission in Africa with his wife Myriam. Mgr Kombo suggested that Laurent and Philippe come with him, initially to look for places. They would then send a small team of four people to lead a long month of Spiritual Exercises according to St Ignatius for the priests and nuns of his new diocese. The idea was to run four weeks in a row (two for the nuns and two for the priests) in Brazzaville and at the Benedictine monastery in Bouenza. Father Laurent sent four brothers and sisters: Father Jacques Monfort, Eugène Lehembre (a doctor), Sister Corinne Vergnais and myself.

It was an adventure for all of us. We were a little afraid, but the prayer of the brothers invited us to trust and abandon ourselves. As the Community is not present in the country, it was the bishop himself who gave us a very warm welcome at the airport.

Between two sessions, we had a day’s break and it was he who guided us from place to place. I remember we used to say the rosary in the car and once he took us swimming in the river. The welcome from the priests and nuns of the diocese was very good.

Jacques Montfort, who was in charge of the four weeks, and we divided up the teaching and support. Among the events that left a lasting impression on me, these stand out.

When we arrived in Bouenza, we were impressed by the graves of the first young missionaries, aged between 20 and 25. This provoked a variety of reactions in our small team: some, the more idealistic ones, expressed their desire to follow in the footsteps of these missionaries, while others, the more realistic ones, didn’t feel it at all!

Brigitte Faure and Yves Gélébart, Dolisie, 1985

The diocese was very divided, so Mgr Kombo wanted to create unity. We had a great time of reconciliation. We divided into groups to agree on what bothered us about others and to see if there was anything we could forgive or ask for forgiveness. One member of each group was asked to read the report and then place it on the altar. At the end of this very intense time, the bishop burnt the papers and said a final prayer saying that we should not go back on them.

I was accompanying a priest who was finding it very difficult to enter into the proposal of the Exercises. He was probably also embarrassed to be accompanied by a woman who was younger than he was and less experienced. Understanding him well, and knowing my own poverty and limitations, I put myself in God’s hands and asked him to accompany him himself.

One night, a ‘charismatic’ mosquito woke me up with a start, just as I was having a dream. It was a time of sharing between brothers on a hill, and I was passing by. In the distance I realised that a man had a ball and chain on his foot. No one noticed. The sharing went on quietly. I felt sorry for the man and looked at my watch: 2.30 am. The next day, when I welcomed this man, he gave me a radiant greeting; he told me that he had received a grace during the night, around 2am. I realised then that God didn’t need my skills, just my trust. The only thing I was asked to do was to keep quiet, get down on my knees and believe that it was God’s business and God’s alone! My main role as a companion was to intercede and let God act and free his own people.

As we were leaving, Bishop Kombo took us to the house of a woman of prayer, an elderly Congolese mother. It was like an initiation rite, so that we could take the best with us. As the four of us lay on the ground on a loincloth, they prayed for us, asking God to protect us and that we throw all the negative things we had heard into the river.

What was at stake during the month you spent in Congo?

This event reveals something of the folly and audacity of the Gospel.

Father Laurent Fabre’s folly and audacity in taking the risk of sending his four inexperienced brothers and sisters to a diocese in the process of being founded.

Bishop Kombo’s folly and audacity in daring to put the religious and priests of his new diocese « in our hands ».

Madness and daring on the part of all these religious and priests, already well established in their missions, who agreed to receive us and to be amazed.

I remember their welcome and their kindness towards these white strangers, their astonished looks at times (« What good can come out of this? ») and at the same time these nuns and priests we met were like go-betweens for us, because, as Paul says, « I came to you in weakness, fearful and trembling. My language, my proclamation of the Gospel, was not the language of wisdom that seeks to convince » (1 Cor 2:3-4). The folly and audacity of the cultural challenge. Only Father Jacques knows Africa. I remember my first plate of grilled caterpillars!

What was the outcome of this adventure ?

We’ll never know!

After our departure, not everything was resolved as if by magic. Bishop Kombo still had to face many difficulties.

It was in Bouenza that we built our first community centre in Africa, in Kimbaouka. It was like a small seed of unity that will continue to go through many trials. Many brothers came to give of their strength and their love. One day, the community had to leave suddenly, following the consequences of the civil war. The Lord was waiting for us elsewhere. We had to accept the failure of this small beginning. This little shoot took the form of a cross rather than a settlers’ standard.

The cross was planted, and it firmly sealed the alliance between our « small » community and Africa. Bishop Kombo with his new diocese, Father Laurent Fabre, and the Chemin Neuf community. We were at the heart of the Church! Who knows if it’s not the same root of the same tree growing in other African countries! To do a graft, you need a wound on both sides and you need to hold on tightly with a fraternal bond, the path to forgiveness and reconciliation!

In any case, we didn’t come back from this trip the same.

We had a universal heart forever.

We have the same blood, that of Christ shed for us on the cross.

We’ve given just a little, but we’ve received so much during this long month!

To conclude, I would like to quote a phrase by Father Laurent Fabre, inspired by Gregory of Nyssa, which sums up well what we have experienced: « In faith, Abraham set out, not knowing where he was going, a sign that he was heading in the right direction » ■ B. F.

Cet article fait partie du numéro 078 de la revue FOI


september-october-november 2023

Regard sur le monde   Vie de la Communauté  

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