... From the Goodnews archives, May/June 2007
Kristina Cooper visits the Chemin Neuf community in Langport in Somerset and finds out about their charism of unity and formation
Chemin Neuf, which means New Way, is one of the new charismatic covenant communities to have emerged from the Catholic charismatic renewal in the last 40 years. It was founded in Lyon, France in the early 70s, by a group of young people led by a Jesuit priest, Laurent Fabre. Chemin Neuf now has 1200 members worldwide with communities in 21 countries in Europe, Africa, America and the Middle East. It also has had for the last eight years or so a permanent house in the west country at St Gildas Christian Centre in a sleepy Somerset village.
Although it is a Roman Catholic community Chemin Neuf has what it calls an ecumenical vocation and counts among its members those who belong to Orthodox and Protestant denominations as well as Roman Catholics. It first came to England, in fact, through the auspices of Anglican vicar, Charles Hadley and his wife, Felicity, who while on sabbatical in France had been very impressed by the Cana programme that Chemin Neuf runs for married couples and families. The Hadleys invited the community to run Cana in England, which they have done since 1994. Cana as well as helping participants improve their marriages also introduces participants to the spirituality and ethos of Chemin Neuf, which combines the insights of Ignatian spirituality with charismatic renewal. Key to the communitys vocation is the call to unity on every level within the human person, unity between couples within marriage, unity between the generations and unity between nations and especially Christian unity, which they work very much for.
The links fostered by Cana grew and eight years ago Chemin Neuf was officially invited to take over the running of St Gildas, a Roman Catholic retreat centre in Langport, Somerset. It was here I came some months ago to find out what they were up to.
English language school
At the time of my visit there were about a dozen or so young people from various parts of the world staying with the community and doing one of their English language schools. These are both an opportunity for young people to learn or improve their English, and to grow in faith, as well as helping them discern their vocation in life. Classes are given by retired teachers and English conversation is provided on a one-to-one basis by locals. Marie Christine Ferry, who with her husband, Dominique, leads the UK community, comments, This helps to build up the relationship between the generations which is part of our calling. Some of the young people have had difficult backgrounds and there is a lot of healing of family wounds that happens through the love and support they receive. Many, even those with nominal faith, are often baptised in the Holy Spirit by the end of their three month stay. As well as providing formation for young people on a residential level, the community also run spiritual accompaniement courses for those from outside. These take place every month or so on 8 Saturdays in the year. Here I met several well known faces from the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in the South West who are benefiting from the communitys expertise in spiritual direction and inner healing, both for themselves and to equip them to help others.
Although most of the Chemin Neuf community in the UK at the moment are English and Anglican, leaders Dominique and Marie Christine are French and Roman Catholic. They have been here for five years. The community, like many of the established lay covenant communities has various levels of belonging, from being part of a neighbourhood Chemin Neuf fraternity, which meets weekly to being part of a residential community, where there is a shared purse and a daily prayer commitment. One of the innovations of the new covenant lay communities is the way that both families and consecrated celibates are given the possibility of living committed community life together.
Dominique and Marie Christine have been members of Chemin Neuf for almost 25 years. It was through a crisis in their own relationship, followed by a spontaneous baptism in the Holy Spirit, that they came to reassess their lives and priorities. Marie Christine comments, Everything looked perfect on the outside but we never talked about what was going on or what was important to us. At the time Dominique was head of the biggest newspaper and publishing company in France. He and Marie Christine seemed the model Catholic couple, socially and financially successful and very committed in their parish helping with childrens liturgy and other tasks. But Dominique comments, Our experience of the parish life was that we were welcomed to do things, but there was no support for the spiritual life. We felt we needed something more if we were to continue on our spiritual journey.
Leave your nets and follow Me
The sisters of Bethlehem, whom they went to on retreat suggested that they go to Cana where they met Laurent Fabre the founder of Chemin Neuf. He, in turn, suggested they spend some time with them but visit other similar communities to discover where they felt most at home. It was while with Chemin Neuf, however, that Dominique and Marie Christine both separately received the same word from the Lord, Leave your nets and come follow me and I will make your fishers of men. They knew they were being called to give up everything and work full time for Chemin Neuf. This was a huge challenge for Dominique because of his career but they realised it was a necessary step for the good of the family and if they wanted to grow spiritually. He comments, I knew that it was the Lord Jesus speaking to me and there was no thought of saying no. At the same time of course there were many questions such as Can you be a married couple with children in a community like this?
He remembers. When we joined the community, it was still a young community and we were greatly helped by church leaders and their wisdom. The archbishop of Lyons, for example said that each family must have its own private space and gradually we learnt to find the right rhythm of life.
Awoke with England on my lips
Dominique and Marie Christine were given the task of running the retreat house in Les Pothi?res and they later went on to hold many positions of responsibility as a couple in the running of the community. Dominique, who was ordained a deacon in 1989, also worked for the archbishop of Lyon for 3 years. It was after nine years at the helm of the community in France, that Dominique and Marie Christine went to see the founder Laurent to discern where the Lord might be calling them to next. Marie Christine comments, Laurent suggested various possibilities including coming to England. I wasnt at all keen as I am not very good at languages and felt I was too old. But while on retreat she received a word from the Lord and a visitation. She remembers I awoke with the word England on my lips and full of a peace and joy I could not believe.
Dominique similarly felt England was where they were being called, particularly because of his ecumenical experience and background. Coming to England and opening a community here, he comments, is something very new for us. It is very different from what we have experienced before. We are in the process of learning how to be a catholic community when you are not in the majority. Over the last five years the little band at St Gildas have been slowly making their mark. Dominique has recently been elected the chairman of the newly formed diocesan service committee for CCR of the Clifton diocese and many good things are happening locally on an ecumenical level, which Chemin Neuf has helped to instigate, including a Thursday evening ecumenical prayer meeting and the NET for God which takes place once a month for prayer, discussion and formation among Christians of the different churches.
It is still all quite small potatoes, however, compared to the huge work the community do in France and elswhere where literally thousands attend their Cana retreats and other sessions. Marie Christine, however, is quite at peace with this and comments, In January 2005, we told the other leaders of Chemin Neuf that the situation in England is not like that in other countries and our role here is different. We see our role is to support those things that are already happening here. We might not see the growth of the seeds we have sown but that doesnt matter. I dont need to see them. I believe our seeds are very precious for the Lord and it is part of a bigger plan. It was the same in Germany for 10-15 years it was very hard for the community, but suddenly things began to happen and I believe that it will be the same here too.
Perhaps one sign of this new opening is that Dominique has just been elected onto the English National Service team and the community have just run their first three month residential foundation course, Cycle A.
If you would like to know more about their work, contact them at St Gildas Christian Centre, The Hill, Langport, Somerset TA10 9QF. Tel 01458 250 496