The Little Brothers of Jesus is a religious congregation of brothers within the Catholic Church; it is inspired by the life and writings of Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Founded in 1933 in France by five seminarians with the assistance of Louis Massignon, a scholar of Islam and contemporary of Foucauld, the congregation took root in El Abiodh Sidi Cheikh District in French Algeria, North Africa.
Founded at the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre, Paris, in September 1933 by five seminarians from Issy-les-Moulineaux, they first took the name of Little Brothers of Solitude. From Paris, with the assistance of Louis Massignon and Louis Gardet, and with a temporary superior named René Voillaume, they left to found their first 'fraternity' in El Abiadh Sidi Cheikh in southern Oran at the edge of the Saharan Desert. There they took on their present name the Little Brothers of Jesus and the religious habit of grey embroidered with the 'Jesus Caritas' symbol of a heart with an outcropped cross and modified nomadic garb. Drawn by the desert experience of monastic austerity and the Islamic culture of the sub-Sahara, the first years were marked by tracing the intuitions of Foucauld, settling and adapting his original 'Directory' or Rules, and establishing novitiates for the first generation of a fledgling religious congregation.
After World War II, the members decided to move toward a greater witness outside of Algeria into the post-war world. By modifying their original monastic idea to fit new circumstances while retaining a contemplative approach to life and prayer they split into small fraternities based on the simple rule of adoration of the Eucharist and prayer in their dwellings; this was to be coupled with a life of ordinary manual labour, friendship, and solidarity with those amongst whom they lived and worked. Their traditional habit was replaced with the appropriate plain clothes to help assimilate into their work and neighborhood roles. This revised congregation became somewhat linked to the Worker Priest movement in France at that time for the non-traditional setting of religious life apart from overt mission, religious education, pastoral service, or direct evangelization before the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). The Catholic Worker Movement in North America, though from a different perspective, also shared similar expressions of alternative approaches to consecrated lifestyles of work and prayer among those outside the immediate embrace of church and society. The three separate movements, one priestly, one lay and one a religious institute represented concurrent examples of early 20th century expressions of modernity in a Catholic setting.
The congregation has since grown to number some 250 brothers, including ordained priests, with members living in small communities of two, three or four in some 40 different countries. They are one of a family of Jesus' at Nazareth communities, lay and religious, which build on the original inspiration of Brother Charles of the Desert; these include the Little Sisters of Jesus, Jesus Caritas, and the Little Brothers of the Gospel. They were officially recognized by the authorities of Catholic Church as a congregation ‘of pontifical right’ (approved by ‘Rome’) in 1968; this was confirmed in 1987 after a revision of the community's constitutions. The three traditional monastic rules of poverty, chastity and obedience are accepted by each brother who undergoes and a period of formation lasting several years including a postulancy which is followed by a novitiate. Afterwards, there are some years of formal study which include Christology, Sacred Scripture, Theology, Philosophy, Christian Spirituality amongst other subjects - all ongoing within a fraternal setting of daily work.
Though originally consisting of mostly French speaking members, today the 'Fraternity' as it is commonly known, is inclusive of many different languages and cultural viewpoints in its contemporary settings.
A brief description of their charism or "mission" has been found on their web page:
Born in the vast Saharan desert, the brothers retain a sense of the value of living with a minimum of human supports in the simple presence of the living God. Their mission is to be “among people” (in the ‘heart of the masses’), but like Jesus they retire periodically to the ‘desert’, to be more free to seek God, and to learn dependence on God alone. The desert is a place where one is ‘stripped down’ to basic essentials, a key experience on the road to contemplation.
- Charles de Foucauld, Jean-Jacques Antier, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1999.
- Seeds of the Desert, René Voillaume, Anthony Clarke Books, 1972
- Cry the Gospel with Your Life (Dieu est Amour), Edition Le Livre Ouvert, 1994
- Charles de Foucauld - A Diverse Life
- Little Brothers of Jesus Web page at Jesus Caritas
- Catholicism: Rome, Leeds and the Desert, "The Long Search" BBC series, episode 4.