1. The Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament

Interview with Father Francis Gelens,

the monk of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament

In what year your Congregation was founded?

F.F.: My Congregation is a French congregation and was founded in Paris in 1856. But this monastery, here in Nijmegen (in the Netherlands) is built in 1908. In Holland the first community is founded 100 years ago - in 1902. So, we are preparing our first centenary. This foundation in Holland was the consequence of a new anti-religious law in France at the end of the 19th century. Religious communities and congregations were not recognized as juridical persons and could not have possessions . Many congregations moved to other countries, or – at least-founded new houses abroad. This was the case with our Congregation. We had already a house in Brussels, founded by our founder himself. And from there the first community in Holland was founded in 1902. It was in a small village, on the frontier between Belgium and Holland Six years later we got a patch of ground here in Nijmegen, where we could build a monastery .

Several times the house is reconstructed and enlarged. In 1914 a rather great church was added to the monastery. This church has become rather wellknown because of the great dimensions of the altar, on which the Blessed Sacrament was exposed day and night.

By our publications, especially by a review, called “God with us”, we attracted from the beginning many young men, who wanted to enter in the congregation, either as candidate for priesthood, or as lay-brother.

In 1924 we had to build a new part of the house. In 1931 our congregation, - which meanwhile had expanded itself over the whole world – was split up in provinces and Holland became a province with three houses: one for the young seminarists (12-18 years old), one for the noviciate, and one for those who studied theology in order to become priest. Nijmegen became the house for this latter group.

In 1965 a great changement took place in the life of our congregation, and also in the building of this house: the Second Vatican Council resulted in a new vision on the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the main object of our spirituality.

At the same time the quarter, in which this house and church were built, underwent a great expansion by the construction of many new houses. So, we had to change our church for a liturgical and for a social reason. This leaded us to the idea to reconstruct the monastery too, according to the basic plan of the old classic monasteries, but in a modern style. What you see now, is the result.

M.V.: How many people are living here?

F.F.: On this moment we are seventeen. The oldest father is 90 years. In September 2001 he came from another house in Germany, where he lived and worked for many years, the youngest brother is 39 years old and will be ordained deacon in a few days. He is working as a nurse in a house for aged people who are psychically or somatically handicapped.

M.V.: What about your ordinary occupations? What are you doing?

F.F.: The community as such gets up at seven o'clock. At 7.30 h. we begin to sing our morning prayer which immediately passes into the celebration of the Eucharist. After the Eucharist the brothers take their breakfast, but the Consecrated Bread remains exposed on the altar; till 10.30 h. the brothers and also people from outside return individually to the chapel – according to their own choice – in order to perform their own personal prayer, during half an hour. At 10.30 h. we drink a cup of coffee and at 11.00 h. everyone retakes his own task. At 12.15 h. we come together in the chapel for the midday-prayer; and at 12.30 h. we have our warm meal. While most of us are rather aged, we take a little rest after dinner. Further everyone has his own daily plan or obligations. From 16.00 h. the chapel again is open and people from in- or outside can visit it for a time of personal prayer. At.17.45 h. the community again gathers in the chapel in order to sing the evening prayer, together with some people from outside. We conclude this prayer with the Benediction with the Consecrated Bread. Immediately after we take our supper. Afterwards most of us make a little walk in the monastery's garden, or visit the library in order to read the newspaper or some review, or they follow the news-reel on TV. Some have still work in their room or in the parish. At 21.00 h. we try to meet each other in the recreation-room, and at 22.00 h. everyone is supposed to take his night-rest.

M.V.: Could you tell me about the activities of fathers in monastery?

F.F.: As I said, our community mainly consists of old, aged people. Those old brothers spend their time, besides their moments of prayer, to reading and some domestic tasks. When they are still healthy, they visit their sick fellows who are living in a nursing-home in the neighborhood, or sick people in the quarter

From the others a part is active at home: preparing meals, entertaining the garden, the house, the clothing, the administration and the reception of guests. Others, especially the priests among us, have pastoral work outside, not only in the own parish but also in parishes which have no parish priest. One of us has the responsibility for our own parish. A very important work is the preparation of the services in the parish church at Sunday and in the chapel during the week. That’s a question of reading and studying. For some of those activities we work together with lay-people.

We have further a Center for Spirituality in our house. One of our fathers is the director and we have two lay-persons who are involved in the work of that Center. Recently they set up a web-site on which one can find inspiriting texts according to the liturgical time, a list of editions and activities. Our fathers are also editors of a periodical, called “Building up”; here too several lay-people are collaborating with us. In the parish many people are active.

M.V.: And what about you, father Francis?

F.F.: Before 3 years I still was parish priest in this parish, but it was only a provisional function: because of my age and my health I had accepted it only for a fixed time. In 1999 finally I got my rest, but this ‘rest’ is filled with many activities: supplying pastoral work in other parishes, being guest-father for you and other guests from Eastern Europe, and in connection with it studying theology at the Institute for Eastern Christianity and even studying Russian language.

M.V.: And the brothers who are not priest?

F.F.: I spoke already about our youngest brother who is deacon. He is working also in a parish: there he has the task to organize the activities of help for mission in other countries and the activities which promote the mentality of peace.

In our house one brother is responsible for the administration and for everything in connection with washing and cleaning. Another is sacristan, organist, tailor, hairdresser. A third one is working in the garden, and a fourth one is mostly at the reception, for the telephone and in order to receive guests.

M.V.: Can you tell me more about the duties of the fathers?

F.F.: Above I mentioned already our daily program, and the tasks and activities of the different members of the community. All our duties are consequences of the three vows of monastic life. And those vows (poverty, obedience and chastity) are related to the essence of every monastic life: that we are a community.

In principle we share all our possessions with each other and have no personal property. I can drive a car but the car belongs to the community. We pray together, we take our meals and our free time together, at least for a part. Besides we have our personal tasks and duties, as I told already. Most of those tasks are related again to our community-life. The distribution of those tasks is a question of obedience. This obedience is not a military discipline, but should be fulfilled in a spirit of brotherhood. According as our possibilities we are supposed to be disposable everyone for all. This is the essence of our celibatary life.

M.V.: You have a library in your monastery. Can you say what books the brothers like to read?

F.F.: We must make distinction between the reading-room and the magazine. In the reading-room we can find the daily and weekly newspapers; the periodicals and the reference-books, like dictionaries, encyclopedias, and compendia. Almost everyone here in house is to be find in that room every day. The periodicals and compendia are related to the level of our monastic life : theology, liturgy, spirituality, church-life in general or in the local situation of diocese or parish.

As for the magazine: it contains partly old books, partly recent standard works; also serial works and bound volumes of periodicals. On this moment this magazine is not intensively used because there are no (or very few) persons in house who make a real study about a special subject. By the way, when some of us are interested in a very actual book, with a good recession, they buy it in a bookshop, and after reading they hand it over to the library; other, more expensive editions are procured by the father librarian.

M.V.: What about the periodicals published by your own congregation?

F.F.: We have a lot of bound volumes of periodicals, that were published by our own congregation, not only in Holland but also in other countries of the world. In earlier times we published reviews for priests, for youth, and for faithful people in general. This last review, called “Building up”, is the oldest one and still exists. That means that we are now in the hundredth year while we exist just 100 year now. The first thing the pioneers of our province have done in 1902 , is starting and propagating a monthly review. It made us known in the whole country. Now it still is published 6 times a year, and it deals with the different actual aspects of church-life, in behalf of persons who are working for the church either as volunteers, or even as professionals.

M.V.: Your community is only for men? Not for women?

F.F.: No. We have some nuns here in house: they don't belong to our Congregation. But they belong to a congregation founded by the same Founder, by father Julian Eymard. Here in Holland they had two houses, but the sisters of both communities became older and needed care. So the communities were solved and two sisters came here.

There is also a group of not-married ladies. They live from the same spirituality as we have. They are living as lay-people. Every lady is living in her home, in several different towns, but every 3 months they come here for a week-end.

M.V.: Who can be a member of your Congregation? Are there rules for enter to your community?

F.F.: In a very general sense we could say: every male person who has a vocation for the life in our congregation, is welcome. But this vocation supposes that the candidate meet some requirements. Our congregation is a religious family within the Roman Catholic Church; and those who want to be a member of our congregation, are supposed to be a member of that church, either by baptism, or by transfer from another Christian church.

When somebody knocks at our door and expresses his desire to be admitted as a member of our community, we suppose that he is a faithful man and that he is attracted by our typical way of religious life. If the data about his previous life give any confidence that he will be a serious candidate, the superior will ask him to begin with regular visits, not only at our services but also at our community. This is the time in which he is ‘aspirant’. After a certain time he can ask to be lodged in our monastery and to be adopted in the community. From that moment he is ‘postulant’.

From than he is supposed to have an expressed desire to be one of us, and therefore he has to follow the day-order of the monastery. Meanwhile he can continue his work or study outside of the monastery. After a half year or even more the third stage of his formation will start: the noviciate. In earlier times the novice received his monastic ‘outfit’ on the first day of his noviciate. This could be a habit or – in our case - a cassock. We have abolished the cassock; only when we are in the church or in the chapel, for a service or our personal prayer, we are dressed in a white ‘alb’. In earlier time, when the novices were rather young, the time of the noviciate was two years; in our days candidates are mostly older. the time that they are aspirant and postulant is longer, and therefore the noviciate is brought back to only one year.

Nevertheless this year is very important and critical. The novice shall be free from every responsibility outside the house (work, study, family) and concentrate himself on the things he ought to know and to do as a religious man: study of bible, of the rule of the congregation, the biography of the founder, the history of monastic life and especially of our congregation, the consequences of the three vows: poverty, obedience and celibacy, and the principles of the liturgy.

After that year the novice passes a screening and if the result is positive he may pronounce his first profession: that is only for one year. Only after three yearly professions he is admitted to do his perpetual profession.

Besides of this religious formation the candidate has to look for an answer to the question: do I want to be a simple religious man; or do I feel myself able and called to the ministry , as a priest or as a deacon? The preparation to that ministry asks at least four years and can start normally only after the first profession.

M.V.: Your community has not young people. Why?

F.F.: Here in house indeed we have very few young people. It is not longer a house of study for candidates of priesthood But the group of the young people are living together in Amsterdam. There we have a community of about 10 young persons between 30 or 40 years.

I must say that our congregation in fact is one of the few congregations that have vocations. It is probably because we have a Rule of Life in which the place and the role of prayer is very important. We have about one hour a day that we spend to personal contemplative prayer, besides of the Liturgy of collective morning- and evening prayer.

The most important time of the day however is the celebration of the Eucharist. We try to give form to the new way of celebrating Eucharist according to the rules and vision of the Vatican Council. We see it as our special task to help other parishes how to celebrate the Eucharist and to live it on this way.

M.V.: You spoke about help in other parishes. Don’t have those parishes their own priests?

F.F.: To my regret I must say that there is a great and growing lack of priests in the parishes, in Holland and in most of the other countries of western Europe Perhaps in earlier times we had too many priests, so many that we could send them everywhere in the world. We were the country with the highest number of missionaries. And in own country every place of average extent had its own parish priest, often with a chaplain, especially for the youth. But ten years ago – when I was still parish priest on the country - I had to serve two parishes. And on this moment priests who have to serve three parishes, are not an exception. This is one of the great differences with the churches in eastern Europe which know a revival of church-life with a growing number of vocations. But take attention: revival of church-life doesn’t mean always revival of faith, especially when priesthood and monastic life give more social security and power. From this point of view they are not attractive in the west. Moreover the celibacy with which they are connected, is a great sacrifice, which only can be brought by someone who has a deep faith and approved love to God.

M.V.: Is your church always open?

F.F.: For a reason of safety most of the churches in Holland are open only in the time of the services; some city-churches however have a special chapel or center of silence, either within the space of the church, or annex to it. And those chapels or centers are mostly open during the day.

We have a special chapel, next to the parish church. As I said already, this chapel is open during the hours of ‘adoration’, both in the morning and in the afternoon. Everyone from far or neighborhood can enter for personal prayer or in order to assist at our services. Our parish-church however is only open on the times of our services, both in weekend and during the week.

M.V.: How many people come to your church, in order to assist at your services?

F.F.: Every Sunday about 150 to 200 people; that is 10% of the total number of faithful in our parish.

M.V.: In your opinion, what is the average age of this people? Are they old people?

F.F.: Yes…

M.V.: Not young people?

F.F.: Very few. In earlier time, about 20 years ago, we had a choir of young people, and 7 years ago also a choir of children. On this moment it is very difficult to find volunteers who are ready to set up such a choir. And it is a fact that young people and children want to recognize something of their own lifestyle in the services of the church. But here too must be said: to have a great, modern choir, which attracts many singers and many hearers, is not always a guarantee for the building up of the faith among the youth. This depends from more factors than from the music-style of such choirs.

M.V.: The faith is living among the youth?

F.F.: In protestant walks of life more than among Catholics. After the war (in the years ’50) the catholic youth had still more contact with the church .Every year, in the autumn, a great walk to a cathedral was organized; small groups, guided by a priest, walked at feet during two or three days, and the final arrival at the cathedral was a very emotional happening. This is all past time. After the sexual revolution of the years ’60 and the introduction of the TV in the years ’70 the mentality of the youth changed quickly. Nevertheless some young people have contact, either with spiritual centers like Taize (in France), or with movements like Emmanuel (also France) and Focolare (Italy). Also some congregations or orders, like the Franciscan movement for peace, the Augustinian family, and the Salesians attract young people. And in general we can say that interesting for spirituality is growing. The question is only: what do you mean with “spirituality”? Not every young man or woman is interested in Christian spirituality; and still less in typically catholic spirituality.

M.V.: Has your community contacts with people from other confessions and other religions?

F.F.: Of course! We here have structural contacts with students and scholars who come to Nijmegen from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and some other countries of eastern Europe for a stay of 5 or 6 weeks. During that time they are lodged in our monastery. Those students and scholars mainly belong to the orthodox church; some of them are Greek-catholic. Although they have a more intensive contact with the University, on theological or philosophical level, they also share our life for a part and several of them are really interested in our life and our history, like we from our side are interested in the situation of their church- and faithlife in the last 10 years.

As for other religions, our house in Stevensbeek, which was a seminary but had to be lift up by lack of vocations, was transformed into a center for refugees from Africa and Asia. One of our fathers, with a team of volunteers, worked for several years among those people. They were mainly moslims. In that time I was there and we followed a course about the Islam and the different Islamic traditions.

As for Protestants, you know that Holland for a great part is a protestant country. So, we have many contacts with people from the Reformation. In several respects we work together with them. About 40 years ago one of our communities had to her disposal a church, which was also used by a protestant community. I must say: it was a rather complicated structure, but the relations were good.

M.V. So, soon you will celebrate your first centenary?

F.F. : Yes, we are in full sphere of preparation.

M.V.: I wish you all a successful centenary!

Marina V. Vorobjova
September 2001 - August 2002
Nijmegen, The Netherlands - St.-Petersburg, Russia

Photos - Marina V. Vorobjova.
Nijmegen, 2001.