French priest and author gives five days of reflection in diocese on cultivating a deeper relationship with God
By Bill Brewer
The more the prayer is simple, the better it is.
That succinct lesson underscored Father Jacques Philippe’s Lenten retreat for the Diocese of Knoxville, providing spiritual sustenance for those hungering for his unique charism — writing and preaching around the world on prayer, peace of heart, and God’s love. His talks were held at All Saints Church and the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
His message, like the devotion to prayer he fervently espouses, has grown in popularity, and his books are increasingly considered classics of modern Catholic spirituality.
And that message was delivered one-on-100 with an ease of understanding like a favorite parable, allowing retreat-goers to savor every point Father Philippe emphasized through his interpreter, Sister Magdalit Bolduc, who also is a member of the Community of the Beatitudes.
Part of Father Philippe’s allure is his everyman — and every-woman — approach to deepening a relationship with God. Father Philippe advances the theology that every person holds the love of God in his or her hand and can instantly converse with God through prayer.
The French priest explained that we all face daily challenges that present obstacles to growing closer to God. But he challenged those attending his three-day retreat, as well as those attending his two conferences wrapped around the retreat, to rise above the noise and distraction of daily life to cultivate that deeper relationship with God.
“Our Father knows our secrets. God has a unique relationship with each of us,” Father Philippe said. “We do not live enough of the love of God. The goal is to know more of the Father. We all have demands on time, but we must give a minimum to God. We always find reasons not to pray, but God gave us the grace to be faithful. It is difficult to give a lot of time to prayer. God does not ask the same thing of everyone. Where is the place of God in my life? Is God first?”
He encouraged his audience to find a rhythm to their faith and be faithful to it. He urged them to devote time every day to prayer, but he cautioned them against setting the faith bar so high they will routinely fail to reach it.
Father Philippe’s message was laden with mercy and understanding for those who must overcome personal and professional stumbling blocks to grow closer to God.
Reminding all that no one but God is perfect, Father Philippe challenged his Catholic followers to take simple steps toward a stronger faith.
“There is a beautiful mystery. God wants to communicate Himself to us. He wants to talk to our heart. He wants to transform us day after day. I think faithfulness to prayer is really an important element for that, to be able to welcome God more deeply into our hearts and into our lives,” Father Philippe said. “I think there’s really a calling from the Holy Spirit, from God, that is addressed to all Christians, to all the Church, to be more faithful to prayer.”
Father Philippe has authored several books, with more than 1 million copies sold in 24 languages. The Paraclete Catholic bookstore offered his books for sale at the retreat and conferences, and he signed many of his works for those in attendance.
Four of those who anxiously awaited Father Philippe’s signature on the books they bought drove 10 hours from Arkansas to see the French priest in person.
Mary Jo Lewno, Sharon Robinette, Jeannine Hart, and Carolyn Barnett have been in a Bible study group at Christ the King Parish in Little Rock for about 15 years. As the 15-member group’s studies have branched out to include renowned Catholic authors, they discovered Father Philippe and have read four of his published works.
“We first heard of him through a priest in our parish. He asked us if we had read anything by Father Jacques Philippe, and we said no. We read spiritual books, so we then chose one of his titled Searching for and Maintaining Peace. We just all loved the book. Everyone in the group loved it. So someone in the group suggested reading another one of his books,” Ms. Barnett said. “So we now have done four of his books.”
Ms. Robinette said the group was looking for a silent retreat and had seen where Father Philippe leads retreats.
“I said, well, let’s see if he is doing any near us. We found one in Knoxville. Really, more than the four of us were interested in coming. Several of the others couldn’t because of scheduling problems. But we came,” Ms. Robinette said.
“And it was well worth it,” Ms. Lewno added.
Ms. Lewno explained that as the study group read Father Philippe’s works, they would re-read passages together and then take time to underline many of his statements.
“With his books, we decided to re-read his chapters together because almost every other line is something that one of us wanted to underline. His talks are very similar to that. I was writing down what I considered little gems like ‘prayer is like opening the gates of heaven to let God come into your life.’ The way he says things can be so concise, yet he’s saying things you haven’t thought of before,” Ms. Lewno said. “It was like seeing his books live to me.”
She noted that the group had fun traveling together, which made the trip that much more enjoyable. It was the first retreat the group had ever traveled to. They hope to do so again.
“Actually, we hope to get him scheduled to come to our parish. It might be difficult to get him on our schedule, but he has a lot to share. He’s sharing what God has given him and what he has gathered by being with God,” Ms. Hart said.
They agreed that Father Philippe’s teachings reinforced Scripture for them.
Retreat-goers were from far and near.
Lisa Healy savored every moment of the retreat, excited by the opportunity to grow in faith with others who shared her interest in Father Philippe. The interim executive director of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee said she knew of Father Philippe’s strong reputation for spirituality but she had not read any of his books.
“He is a person who has a personal relationship with God through his life and especially through prayer. He was an excellent presenter, bringing love and humor in his message. He spoke with humility and authority; his message was of faith, hope, and love. The greatest being love,” Ms. Healy said.
“He imparted to me that the Father is seeking us in prayer, and He wants to open heaven up to each of us. To pray — this act alone is a great sign of faith on our part. Meeting God in prayer allows God to reveal to me who I am, and He reveals Himself to me. He reveals His love and mercy,” she added.
One of many remarks by Father Philippe that stood out to Ms. Healy was when he said one of the most important things during prayer is the “attitude of the heart.” She agreed that this is what makes a good prayer.
“The attitude of the heart must be an act of faith, an act of hope, and an act of love,” she said. “Putting yourself in contact with God in prayer, this alone is enough as the act of faith. An act of hope — when we pray, we expect something from God. This is important to ‘lean on God’ for everything. To hope in Him. And love — faithfulness to devoting time for the Lord, to pray each day, is a solid act of love.”
Ms. Healy said she looks forward to participating in another retreat led by Father Philippe. In the meantime, she is reading his books and she finds them to be excellent.
One of her favorite quotes of the weekend was from St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who said, “I cannot fear the God that has made himself so small for me.”
“He spoke about the different kinds of prayer and the fruits of prayer. These are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. One of the fruits that I love to experience is the peace of the Lord in my heart. This is a great gift,” said Ms. Healy, who attended Father Philippe’s conferences and retreat.
Sister Mary Charles Mayer, RSM, facility coordinator and delegate for the religious for the Diocese of Knoxville who organized Father Philippe’s visit, is glad East Tennessee parishioners were exposed to Father Philippe’s teachings.
“The feedback that I received from those that attended the conferences was overwhelmingly positive. I had asked him to bring a translator, since I had had some difficulty with his heavy French accent the first time I heard him speak, and it made a world of difference. Sister Magdalit Bolduc, one of the Sisters in the same community, the Community of the Beatitudes, was excellent in how well she translated and worked with Father,” Sister Mary Charles said. “The conferences just flowed back and forth between the two of them. I think it was an overwhelming success and I am so happy that he finally did come.”
Much of Father Philippe’s retreat and conferences were built on prayer and how regular conversations with God are the foundation to a solid faith.
Father Philippe pointed out that while we are all in this world, we don’t have to be of this world.
“Obviously we have to be informed. We have to know what is going on in the world. But I think there is something much more necessary. We don’t need just information. We need presence, someone who is with us and can guide us and give us His strength,” he said.
“And that is one of the aspects of prayer that is so beautiful. Faithfulness to prayer is for us the means that is so important to find peace, that peace that only God can give us. That peace that Jesus has promised to us,” he added.
Father Philippe’s words resonate with audiences around the world, and he has found a loyal group of faithful in the United States. He explained that he did not believe his vocation would take the evangelistic turn that it has when he joined the then recently founded Community of the Beatitudes in 1976 at the age of 29.
He spent several years in Israel studying Hebrew and the Jewish roots of Christianity and in 1981 began studying theology and canon law in Rome. He was ordained a priest in 1985 and began serving the Community of the Beatitudes as a spiritual director, working in the formation of priests and seminarians of the Community. He returned to France in 1994 to take more of a leadership role in the Community as well as lead retreats.
In recent years, he has devoted himself primarily to spiritual direction and preaching retreats.
The Community of the Beatitudes is an ecclesial family of consecrated life founded in 1973 in Montpellier, France, composed of priests and men religious, sisters and women religious, deacons, seminarians, and laypeople who model the early Christian community through the common life, sharing of goods, voluntary poverty, and an intense sacramental and liturgical life.
The community was recognized in 2002 by the Holy See as an association of the faithful. It has 50 houses in 30 countries and counts among its members 190 brothers, of which 110 are priests; 310 consecrated sisters; and 350 lay members.
Father Philippe said about eight years ago he began leading U.S. retreats through the Community of the Beatitudes’ parish in Denver and that interest in his retreats and books has been building since then. He tries to visit the United States twice a year.
His nine books have sold more than 1 million copies in 24 languages.
“After I was ordained a priest and had written a book, I received many invitations to speak around the world. Then about eight years ago I first spoke in the United States. I have many more invitations to speak now than I did 20 years ago,” Father Philippe said.
“I am more free now to travel and write books. I’m just following the call of God,” he added.
The course God has laid out for him isn’t one he anticipated. While he always felt called to help people, he said he never planned to travel or write. And he never expected the response he has received to his writings and retreats.
“There is a need and a thirst. People need something personal, not impossible or a burden, but the Good News. That does not mean the Gospel is not demanding. It is encouragement for people. We are not alone. We can rely on God’s faithfulness and love,” he said.
And Father Philippe is a priest who practices what he preaches. He said what keeps him going is prayer.
“I try to practice what I preach as much as possible,” he said. “It is very important to understand the Gospel as a grace from God.”
The one message he hopes will resonate with his audiences and readers is: the biggest gift we can give to people is the gift of prayer. He wants to give people a desire to pray so they can be guided by God and receive God’s graces.
Father Philippe’s visit to the Diocese of Knoxville was his first. He spoke in Nashville about three years ago at the invitation of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation.