The Catechetical Review - Communicating Christ for a New Evangelization

The Foyers of Charity: Pioneers of the New Evangelisation

Authored by Tony Schmitz in Issue #33.3 of The Sower

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In this first article of a new series, examining the contribution the new movements in the Church are making to the universal work of catechesis, Deacon Tony Schmitz presents for us the Foyers of Charity and the founder of the Foyers, Marthe Robin.

When, seven years ago, he emerged onto the balcony high above the doors of St Peter’s as the newly elected successor to St Peter, Cardinal Ratzinger described himself as a “simple humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord”. And he chose for himself the name of Benedict. Why Benedict? “When it comes to the main priorities of the Pope,” says one who know him well, the theme of new evangelisation, especially for Europe, “is a key motive of his papacy and that's why he took the name Benedict.”

New communities and new movements

Ever since his election he has not ceased to demonstrate his affection for the new communities and movements that are the signs of the new outpourings of the Spirit, the authentic fruit of the Second Vatican Council, a new Pentecost, to counter the ‘apostasy of the gentiles’ especially in Europe and the First World. “In recent decades, movements and communities have come to birth in which the power of the Gospel is keenly felt.”[i]  During the dry post-conciliar years, difficult years for the Church, these new entities unexpectedly appeared as a providential gift: “Suddenly here was something nobody had planned on. The Holy Spirit had, so to say, spoken up for himself again. In young people especially, the faith was surging up in its entirety, with no ifs and buts, with no excuses or way out, experienced as a favour and as a precious life-giving gift”.[ii]

We can be tempted to imagine that the need for re-evangelisation and groups that are explicitly consecrated to this are new features of the Church de nos jours. But in the early part of the twentieth century, alongside the liturgical, biblical, catechetical, ecumenical and diaconal movements, new communities and even the work of ‘new evangelisation’ avant le mot, were phenomena that arose in the Church in different countries of Europe. Perhaps the oldest and most spectacular in term of expansion across the globe was the Legion of Mary founded in Dublin by Frank Duff [iii], Mary and Elizabeth Dooley and others, ninety years ago on Wednesday September 7th 1921 and today established on all continents in over 170 countries, with four million active members and five million auxiliaries.[iv] Frank Duff, as a disciple of both Blessed John Henry Newman and St Louis-Marie de Montfort was a man who anticipated so many of the insights of the Second Vatican Council concerning the role of the laity, the need for their solid formation in the faith and their key role in evangelization.  

Marthe Robin

Another who realised this and even foresaw the days of a New Pentecost in the Church was a French lay woman, Marthe Robin (1902–1981)[v], who together with her spiritual director (and also a devotee of St Louis-Marie), a diocesan priest from Lyons, Père Georges Finet, founded the first Foyer de Charité at Chateauneuf de Galaure some sixty miles south of that earliest of dioceses, Lyons, founded by St Pothinus and his successor St Irenaeus, in 1936. Châteauneuf, in eastern central France, the former province of Dauphiné, in the department of Drôme and the Diocese of Valence was as de-Christianised as anywhere in France at the time Marthe was growing up.

After the Third Republic drove out all the religious who had till then taught in many schools, these were replaced by teachers from training colleges that were, according to the novelist Marcel Pagnol, ‘anti-clerical seminaries’. The lay school at Châteauneuf, after the Brothers and Sisters had been expelled, became a centre for subjecting children to anti-religious propaganda. An anti-Christian group was formed in the village and brought pressure to bear on the local population. “A Masonic lodge even set itself up in Châteauneuf and more or less controlled the elections.”[vi] In 1961, Marthe recalled an incident from childhood: “One day I was on my way to Catechism class. I had a copy under my arm in a brown cover; a gentleman from Châteauneuf asked me: ‘Where are you going?’ I answered him proudly: ‘To Catechism.’ ‘And what is that?’ He pointed to my Catechism book. ‘Show it to me.’ I handed it over to him. He took it and tore it in two … But I was so attached to that book that I kept it after that, torn as it was, as a relic … I must have been seven or eight years old.”

Character of the Foyers of Charity

The founding of the Foyers of Charity was, under the One she called le bon Dieu and the Blessed Mother, the work of both Marthe Robin and Abbé Finet. Although everything happened at Marthe’s initiative, it could not have done so without Georges Finet’s unfailing commitment. The providentially arranged encounter between these two personalities in 1936 was therefore decisive. Regrettably there is not the space here to describe the riveting way it came about.[vii]  From the first, the Foyers were called Foyers de Lumière, Charité, et Amour. The Foyers exist for the fundamental retreat, and the fundamental retreat has been – from September 1936 – an instrument for the re-evangelization of the faithful and for evangelization tout court. The goal has always been to help lay people realize their full vocation as baptized.  The Light in the Foyer de Lumière is the light of the Gospel preached in the Church.  The Foyer has always been a place of teaching.

Key to the Foyer’s mission and effectiveness has been teaching in a climate of silence.  The silence allows for a completely different “hearing” than the “hearing” of the classroom. The Gospel is heard in a silence that transforms the heart and not simply the mind. It is a contemporary version of the Dominican aliis tradere contemplata.  The silence in which the Gospel is heard can hardly be underestimated and corresponds to many affirmations of Benedict XVI.[viii]

Also key to the Foyer’s effectiveness is the witness of a priest and a community of lay-persons working in harmony.  The collaboration seen in the Foyers should also be seen in parishes and in other communities of Christians. If I may be allowed a personal observation, two of the many things that most struck me upon making my first Foyer retreat at Châteauneuf, given in English by Father Matt Bradley of the Foyer of Charity in North Scituate (near Boston), Massachusetts, USA, was the quality of welcome encountered in the Foyers and the spiritual depth of the retreat conferences, based as these were on the Gospel of St John.

Those with a mission in and from the Church to catechize are especially in need of receiving the Word in silence.  Fr. Bradley writes: “When I preached the Foyer retreat in Bangui, Central Africa in 1991, there were a hundred and twenty-three retreatants ranging from university students to a federal judge.  About thirty of these were full-time catechists preparing themselves for another year of service.”

When he was approaching the age of ninety, Father Georges Finet would often follow the preaching of others and said that he was still in need of “re-evangelization”.

Participation in a fundamental retreat – in which the participants may range from seekers, to catechumens, to a bishop – helps Church “personnel” to see grace at work in ordinary folk, and that is a source of humility and an antidote to unhealthy professionalism.

Handing on the Faith

At the concluding meal of the retreat, participants are invited to give a testimony about themselves, a conversion story, or what they have experienced during the retreat.  The world has a great need of witnesses. To witness to our faith is not just an option. The Church exists to evangelize. In his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope Pope John Paul II spoke of the struggle involved in witnessing to Christ in the world:

“Against the spirit of the world, the Church take up anew each day a struggle that is none other than the struggle for the world’s soul. If in fact, on the one hand, the Gospel and evangelization are present in the world, on the other hand, there is also present a powerful anti-evangelization which is well organized and has the means to oppose vigorously the Gospel and evangelization. The struggle for the soul of the contemporary world is at its height where the spirit of this world seems strongest.”

Each Foyer de Charité is a retreat centre, run and animated by a community of lay people consecrated to God, at the head of which is a priest-father of the community. Mary is regarded as the Mother of each Foyer. These members, men and women, are called to live according to the spirit of the Beatitudes at the service of evangelisation, and work with the whole of the Church to reveal Christ, the light of the world, and his message of salvation. In the spirit of the Beatitudes they also place their material, intellectual and spiritual goods in common. Among the formation activities, spiritual retreats open to all play an important part, as a synthesis of Christian life and faith[ix] in fidelity to the Word of God and the Magisterium of the Church. Retreats, animated by the laity, are led by the priest responsible for the Foyer. There are today over 75 Foyers in 41 countries throughout the world. In 1940 this form of community was totally new in the Catholic Church. Marthe’s support and encouragement for a host of new communities is well known and well documented.[x]

The establishing of the Foyers

The arrival of the Charismatic Renewal[xi] in France combined with the establishment of new communities[xii], some of which (nearly forty or so) were within its fold but others (about eighty or so) belonged to other spiritual traditions. A look at the history of the new communities will show that Marthe and the Foyers’ contribution to this renewal was considerable, not least through personal contact with the founders of these communities who came on retreat to Châteauneuf or to seek Marthe’s counsel and intercession. The Foyers showed that it was possible to have priests, religious and diocesan, living and working together with consecrated men and women, an intuition which was taken up by some of the new communities. The extent of her influence varied, but among those she met and kept in contact were the Emmanuel Community – the most important charismatic community in the world based in seventy countries – the Community of the Beatitudes, the Saint-Jean Community and Jean Vanier’s l’Arche.[xiii] We know of over sixty Cardinals, bishops, philosophers and theologians who consulted her.[xiv] Marthe not only helped the new communities’ movement, but remains a protectress for the evangelization of the world. Those who pray to her feel they are dealing with a living friend.[xv] “Beyond the barrier of death she is very close to the hearts of those who love her and call upon her, and is more active than ever. Her beatification is sought and expected everywhere.”[xvi]

Holiness as the heart of catechesis

What the Marthe and Foyers teach and exemplify, contrary to the thinking in the Church at the time she was born, is that to be a Christian is to be somebody who has been called to be holy. Sanctity is not something reserved for the few. Unless we wish to damn ourselves, we are all called to see the Blessed Trinity. And in order to see God we must be absolutely pure, that is to say holy. If then this is our destiny, why not start now, at once? Why miss out on life by leading a mediocre existence down here?

Contrary to those who held that a life of contemplation of God was only for some, Marthe thought and Fr Finet taught the opposite. In line with Francis de Sales, the spirituality of the Sacred Heart and especially with Doctor of the Church Thérèse of Lisieux, she wanted to make holiness accessible to all. Here her thinking was in consonance with Père Garrigou Lagrange, his doctoral student Karol Wojtyla, Père Finet, the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict XVI. Marthe and Père Finet and the Foyers state loudly and clearly that Baptism is a sacrament the aim of which is nothing less than holiness. The implications of this stance were, at that time, considerable and remain so for us in 2012. And as all the baptized are called to holiness so are they called to evangelise. Marthe’s position was at the time seen as a shocking doctrinal deviation. The challenge was and remains enormous: the Church must be transformed. But not transformed from the outside, though there will be ever increasing persecution from without. It must be conquered gently, from within. By love. Then people allow it to happen. It is a transformation by divine light and divine charity that Marthe Robin and Père Finet and the Foyers of Charity have always advocated and continue to advocate.


[i] Benedict XVI, “Homily, Holy Mass: Marienfeld Esplanade, 21 August 2005”, L’Osservatore Romano, English ed., no. 34, 2005), pp. 11–12, citation at 12. Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, New Outpourings of the Spirit, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2007, p.13.

[ii] Ibid, p. 8.

[iii] For a good account, see the new biography by Finola Kennedy, Frank Duff: a Life Story, Burns & Oates, London, 2011

[iv] Cf. Legion of Mary, Celebrating 90 Golden Years 1921–2011,  Myra House, Dublin 2012, p. 57. A significant further link between the Foyers of Charity and the Legion was the remarkable figure of Veronica O’Brien, who introduced the Legion of Mary not only to France, but also to Belgium, Greece, Turkey and erstwhile Yugoslavia. Her contribution to the Church both before and after the Council was of the first order. She played  a key part in winning the acceptance of the Roman authorities for the Charismatic Renewal in 1975. See Cardinal Suenens, Les Imprévus de Dieu, Paris, Fayard, 1993. Following her meeting with King Baudouin of Belgium Veronica gave up her external work in the apostolate in order to play a providential role in his life as revealed by Suenens in Baudouin, King of the Belgians: The Hidden Life, Fiat Publications, Ertvelde, 1996.

[v] Bernard Petrous, Marthe Robin: A Prophetic Vision of the Gospel Message, Veritas, Dublin 2010. Her life is one of such extraordinary charisms and gifts that over thirty books and over a thousand articles have been written about her, mainly in French. It is not surprising that this is so. Even when she was alive, people tried to discover things about her that she did not want to be made public. Marthe herself was discretion personified. The work she founded, the Foyers of Charity, reflected this same reserve. Retreatants are guided to focus on the Gospel and not on Marthe. This has not always been the case with some of her Anglophone devotees. Like St Francis of Assisi she carried the marks of the wounds of Jesus in her body, “Her identification with Jesus brought her to suffer him even to suffer his suffering” said Jean Vanier. She lived the Passion every Friday after she received Holy Communion, brought her till the end of her life by Père Finet. How could a person living as she did, “lost in the Drôme countryside, confined to bed and without education, engage the interest of great intellectuals and ordinary people alike, and make herself understood and appreciated by all?” Ibid. p.12.

[vi] Ibid. p. 19.

[vii] The circumstances of this meeting, as described often by Père Finet, as well as the immediate fruit of it are given by Peyrous, Ibid. pp 100–123. Peyrous does justice to Père Finet’s role as co-founder.

[viii] Cf. also: “There is a simple truth at stake. There can be no real relationship with God, there can be no real meeting with God, without silence. Silence prepares for that meeting and silence follows it. An early Christian wrote, 'To someone who has experienced Christ himself, silence is more precious than anything else.' For us God has the first word, and our silence opens our hearts to hear him. Only then will our own words really be words, echoes of God's, and not just more litter on the rubbish dump of noise.” Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB of Aberdeen in his Advent Letter in 2011.

[ix] Cf. William Harmless SJ, Augustine and the Catechumenate, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1995, passim.

[x] Peyrous, pp, 306 ff. See also: Frédéric Lenoir, Les Communautées Nouvelles : Interviews des fondateurs, Fayard, Paris, 1988.

[xi] The French Dominican, Albert de Monléon, who was the first to write about it in France, sought out Marthe Robin and she gave him a positive welcome and encouraged him: “The future of the Church lies in prayer groups.”

[xiii] Others with which she was associated include: Equipes de Notre Dame (or Teams of Our Lady) founded by Fr Caffarel, Notre Dame de la Sagesse, the Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem, the Little Brothers of Marie Mère du Rédempteur, the Little Sisters of Nazareth, the Missionaires de Notre Dame, l’Office culturel de Cluny, the Canons Regular of Champagne-sur-Rhône, the Fraternité Bethléhem-Saint-Benoît, the Foyer Marie-Jean, the Nouvelle Alliance community, the Petites Soeurs Mariales d’Israel et de Saint-Jean, and the educational work of Eau Vive.

[xiv] Amongst them: Jean Danièlou, Réginald Garrigou Lagrange, Gabriel Marcel, Jean Guitton, Cardinal L J Suenens, Cardinal Villot, Secretary of State to Paul VI, then John Paul I and John Paul II.

[xv] One day I shall be at liberty to testify to the great encouragement and help she has given to the new British movement, the Little Way of Healing Ministries founded by Mrs Pauline Edwards and the Augustian friar, Fr Laurence Brassill.

[xvi] Peyrous, p. 363.

This article is originally found on pages of 29-31 of the printed edition.

This article is from The Sower and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of Maryvale Institute. Contact [email protected]

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