Response of the Association Hope and Dialogue to the letter of Bishop Henry Brincard, originally published in French in the « Letter to the Friends of Saint-John » March 2013 (pp. 20-22)
April 12th, 2013
1. In his letter entitled « Information sur les Soeurs Contemplatives » published in the Letter to the Friends of Saint John of March 2013 (pp. 20-22), Bishop Henri Brincard publicly commented on events which led to the dissolution by papal rescript, dated January 10, 2013, of the Association of the sisters of Saint-Jean and Saint-Dominique. This letter also traces one facet of the difficulties experienced since 2009 by the Contemplative Sisters of St. John.
2. Bishop Brincard explains what has been his mission since he was elected Commissioner and Pontifical Delegate for the Sisters of Saint-John. This mission was to establish a personal relationship of trust with the sisters (§ 5 and 6), work on the discernment and the charism (§ 4, 7 and 8), and improve the teachings and the governance of the community (§ 13). Bishop Brincard insists on the constant consent of the Holy Father for all decisions taken by himself and Cardinal Philippe Barbarin (§ 3 and § 11).
3. Bishop Brincard also wished to inform us on:
– The opposition, and therefore the disobedience of the Sisters following the decision of Cardinal Barbarin to dismiss the government council, replacing Sister Alix by Sister Johanna (§ 3);
– The creation in « the greatest secrecy » by the Sisters of the Association Saint-Jean and Saint-Dominique and its consequences, which he claimed was « disastrous for the unity of the congregation » (§ 10);
– The disagreement about the charism of the contemplative sisters (§ 4 and 8);
– The mass departure of the sisters since the beginning of these problems (§ 14);
– His diligence to inform Pope Benedict XVI of the evolution of events as well as the « non-religious behavior of some sisters » (§ 11). Also his diligence to transmit to the latter, in the last hours of his pontificate, letters of thankful sisters satisfied by his governance (§ 16);
– Finally, on his readiness to receive the sisters, and to receive the parents and families through Bishop Maurice Bitz (§ 6 and 15).
4. The association Espérance et Dialogue (Hope and Dialogue), whose mission is to try and restore the dialogue and the truth about the facts, is compelled to provide some information that has been omitted in this letter. These numerous omissions of material facts do not allow readers to get an accurate perception of the situation of the Sisters. It is therefore essential, for the sake of truth and charity, to complete this presentation.
5. Firstly, with regard to the disobedience: This is the crucial point, and of course the most difficult. In his letter, Bishop Brincard explains that the disobedience of the sisters started in June 2009, when Cardinal Philippe Barbarin asked Sister Alix to resign, and decided to dismiss the whole counsel of community government by personally appointing « Sr Johanna as the head of the Congregation of Contemplative Sisters » (§ 3).
6. What the letter does not mention is that far from disobeying, Sister Alix, « immediately agreed to leave her office » (https://unegoutte.wordpress.com/historique-2/chronologie/). It does not say that Cardinal Barbarin chose Sister Johanna as head of the order without ever having met her. Also, the letter does not say that Sister Johanna, as well as most of the 10-15 Sisters behind the conflict, have since left the Community of St. John, either permanently or in relief of common life. The letter also fails to reveal that the decision to dismiss the government was taken without any consultation with the bishops in dioceses where the Sisters were present (consultation required by Canon Law, Can. 625, § 3) and without any dialogue with the Sisters.
The letter also does not say that the sisters were deprived of their right to vote, which, according to the constitutions of the community, allowed them to elect their superiors every 3 years. Since 2009, their right to vote has not been given back to them since no chapter was ever called and no meeting has been planned for 2013.
7. The letter then states (§ 3) that « four professed Sisters were discarded from the Government of the Congregation » in November 2009. It does not mention however that these Sisters were not only discarded, but exiled in cloistered monasteries belonging to other communities with no permission to leave and communicate with the outside. It also does not mention that these four Sisters obeyed and left, despite the violence of the decisions taken without notice and without cause.
8. What is omitted is that the decisions of 2009 were so radical and so disproportionate, taken suddenly and without consultation, that they were impractical and they led to chaos and the inability to lead a normal religious life. The origin of this crisis lies in the decisions of 2009 and not in the disobedience of the Sisters.
9. As regards more recent allegations of disobedience, the letter fails to mention that in April 2012, Bishop Brincard asked the sisters to respond in writing by “yes or no” to the question of whether they agreed, in advance, to all decisions he would take, which carried his right to amend all constitutions (as Pontifical Delegate, Bishop Brincard was granted full powers). The letter does not say then that the refusal of the Sisters to respond by “yes or no”, for the sake of their freedom of conscience, was interpreted as disobedience (to our knowledge, the Sisters responded to this letter, but not by a simple yes or no).
10. Disobedience in the religious life is a serious act that vaguely alleged, is mere rumor. Yet the letter does not inform on the existence of any evidenced acts of disobedience.
11. Turning now to the creation in Cordoba, Spain of the association « Sisters of Saint-Jean and Saint-Dominique », the letter states that it was created « in the greatest secrecy » by the Sisters and that it was an act of disobedience with consequences « disastrous (s) for the unity of the congregation » (§ 10). The letter attributes solely to the Sisters the creation of this association. However, the Sisters were welcomed by the Bishop of Cordoba. And to create a public association of the faithful, the bishop did not need special permission. Indeed, under the terms of Article 312 § 1 of the Canon Law:
To establish public associations, the competent authority shall be:
1. for universal and international associations -the Holy See;
2. national associations, which because of their creation are designed to exert their activity across the nation- the conference of bishops in its territory;
3. for diocesan associations -the diocesan bishop in his own territory, but not the diocesan administrator, except for associations whose establishment is reserved to others by apostolic privilege.
12. The Bishop of Cordoba did not act alone. He testified that he spoke with people qualified to create this association. He therefore did not disobey, and he has not been sanctioned. The letter fails to mention why this reasoning should not have been also applied to the Sisters.
13. What the letter does not say again, is that all the young sisters who left St. John community to join the Association Saint-Jean and Saint-Dominique were free to do so because, firstly, they were prevented from commitment for 3 years and, secondly, Bishop Brincard had written to them, asking them to leave (due to their refusal to answer yes or no to the letter mentioned above in § 9 of this document). They therefore had no future in the community of St John.
14. On the disagreements regarding the charism of the Contemplative Sisters of St. John, Bishop Brincard considers that the dissatisfied Sisters consider themselves as the « custodians of this charism” (§ 8).
Not revealed in the letter is that in November 2010, Bishop Bonfils, at the request of Cardinal Rode (predecessor of Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, Prefect of the Congregation for the Religious), organized a meeting in Lourdes (France) to specifically allow the sisters to work on their charisma. All perpetually professed sisters were present, except the four mentioned above, to ensure that they would not exert any influence. Note also that an elective chapter was promised after the meeting, but this promise was taken back on the opening day of the meeting (see La Croix, on 26 January 2010: http://www.la-croix.com/…/je-n-ai-pas-ete-missionne-pour-benir-une-scission).
Also not mentioned is that on all the votes, a majority of two thirds was reached or exceeded, in favor of the Sisters faithful to the founding charism implemented by Sister Alix. As a result, Bishop Bonfils decided to create a board with equal representation of the two groups. The letter omits that when Bishop Brincard was appointed Pontifical Commissioner, right after this meeting, his first decisions were to choose Sister Johanna as his assistant and to appoint on the Board only Sisters of the minority group.
He also appointed « four religious people from outside the congregation. » But what is not revealed is that these religious have never lived inside the Institute and have never visited the communities (with the exception of one visit to Africa). They were present only occasionally to attend meetings of the Council. The new board had no sisters representing the majority of 2/3.
15. As stated by Bishop Brincard, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, Prefect of the Congregation for Religious, asked the Sisters, in March 2011, to « implement a clear formulation of the charism of their Institute » (§ 4). The specification of the charism lies therefore partly on the Sisters. However, when they have a say, as was the case at the meeting of Lourdes, the opportunity to express themselves is taken away from them.
16. Regarding the departures of the Sisters, the letter states that since the decisions of 2009, 70 professed sisters have left the congregation as well as 64 novices (§ 14).
17. However, the letter does not mention that the numbers do not stop there. Here are some important facts:
June 2009: 380 Sisters of St. John (among them twenty are in “school of life”).
Between 2009 to 2013: 70 Sisters have left the Community, either permanently or by exemption from common life, because of the problems. Among them are most of the 10-15 Sisters behind the conflict and who had been appointed to positions of responsibility in 2009.
Between June 2012 and September 2012: 150 younger Sisters (professed and novices, probably the 70 + 64 cited by Bishop Brincard + some fifteen that were omitted) left the community to join the association Saint- Jean and Saint-Dominique (now they have no status because of the Rescript of Jan. 10, 2013).
April 2013: 160 Sisters are still in the community, but 80 are perpetual professed who have requested to leave the Congregation of Saint-Jean as they no longer recognize their charisma (they are not yet allowed to leave.)
18. In total, there are 300 sisters who have left or who may leave religious life because they don’t find their place among the Sisters of St. John. Only about 80 Sisters are satisfied by the current governance, thus a small minority. (The figure of 80 has not been checked due to lack of response to our correspondence on this subject).
19. As for the information given to Pope Benedict XVI by Bishop Brincard about the « non-religious behavior of some religious sisters » (§ 11) and letters of thanks from the Sisters satisfied with Bishop Brincard’s governance, and transmitted by him to the Holy Father just before His departure (§ 16), it poses, given the information on the numbers given above, serious questions. Why didn’t Bishop Brincard also send to the Holy Father letters from the Sisters that represent the overwhelming majority of Sisters? Why has he been discussing with the Pope only about the « disobedience » of the sisters and not their difficulties? In short, what information has been sent to the Pope and Cardinal Bertone, other than those concerning disobedience; a disobedience challenged and highly questionable as demonstrated above?
20. Finally, regarding the availability of Bishop Brincard to receive the Sisters, and of Bishop Bitz to listen to parents: The fact is that since he was appointed Commissioner and Pontifical Delegate, Bishop Brincard has consistently refused to meet with parents. Besides, his proposal remains ineffective for parents and Sisters living on other continents. If a few parents have been able to meet with him, it is only by relations. Despite numerous attempts, he has never responded to requests for a meeting with the Association Espérance et Dialogue. It appears that his delegation to Bishop Bitz for meeting parents only allows him to avoid direct contact with parents. As for Bishop Bitz, even though he listens courteously, he never answered the questions asked by parents who met with him, saying only that he will « forward » and never providing any answers.
21. It must be added, that the letter does not explain why, on March 8, 2012, the Congregation for Religious Life, headed by Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, was removed as the authority for this case and transferred to the Secretary of State headed by Cardinal Bertone. The letter also does not mention that Cardinals and Bishops do share different opinions on the causes of this crisis, as well as the ways and opportunities to put an end to it. The letter does not mention for instance that a significant number of lay people, religious, priests and bishops (especially abroad) support the Sisters. And it is precisely the ones who know the Sisters best and have shared with them, that now support them.
The letter fails to inform on the catastrophic consequences: Among the 380 sisters present in June 2009, only 80 are satisfied by the current governance. Finally, it does not say that the 150 ex-Sisters of St. John and St. Dominic were sent back to lay life and had to take off their habit. They are in a very precarious situation; some are left without health insurance, uncertain finances, housing and sustenance and it is the Association of Hope and Dialogue, and its members, who must now provide for their basic needs.
22. It was therefore imperative that the Association Hope and Dialogue be created on February 2, 2013 in Paris, France(which now has over 400 members across four continents) to reveal these facts. The Sisters know they are not perfect, and they may have been clumsy sometimes in their attempts to open dialogue and cooperation. But they suffer unjustly that so many sanctions were taken without any explanation, and without the ability to speak and be heard. We can testify that the Sisters remain faithful to their love for the Church and for the Holy Father, with radiance, despite these difficulties. They say that it is because they love immensely the Church that they have now the courage to stand and fight for what they believe in: their vocations.
23. The real and only question now is whether 230 religious vocations should be sacrificed or saved. And it must be pointed that the letter does not mention any breach of the vows of poverty and chastity, or doctrinal drift.
24. The mission of the Association Espérance et Dialogue (Hope and Dialogue), is not to make accusations or to be judgmental, but rather, to assist those willing to travel the paths of truth, to allow all the Sisters to live and express their blessed vocation. This requires efforts of forgiveness, charity, and love of our Church. May we, within the Church, help to restore a constructive dialogue, so that the spiritual radiance that our Sisters provide continues to shine brightly.
– The Office of the Association Hope and Dialogue