It is almost one year since the death of our founder, Fr Jaime Bonet. He died June 25, 2017. After his death, many people started asking me about Jaime: who he was, how he interacted with us and how he managed to transmit and keep his vision and spirituality alive.
In the following months, I will try and summarize some of the traits that have shaped our community and my personal life during the 30 years that I had the privilege to know, to appreciate and to learn from our founder. I will start off telling the stories during my formation course (novitiate) while living in our Spirituality Center in Siete Aguas, then as a student in Alcala and Loeches (all in Spain), followed by apostolic years in Mallorca, Colombia and the US, before working with Jaime in the international leadership team in Madrid and Rome.
When I arrived to the outskirts of the small village of Siete Aguas, the place where our community built its formation and spirituality center in the hills around 30 miles from the Mediterranean city of Valencia, Jaime was around and present all the time. He lived in a small old house, close to the welcome center. At that time, the center had three clearly defined areas, one for the formation of each branch and Jaime was right in the middle. All of us attended daily mass with him, where he would share his prayer, his thoughts, his vision and spirituality. The homily was always a transmission of his wisdom, his view of what we needed to deepen in and would often go over an hour.
Jaime was such a gifted speaker that we would hardly notice the length of his talks, on the contrary, we were anxious to hear more from him and we would often discuss his talks in our small formation settings. At least once a week, we had a question and answer session with him, where we were encouraged to speak up about our desires, our restlessness, our critiques, our ideas, things we did not agree with or that we were struggling with.
Jaime would take a long time to listen to us, he always commented that the spirit speaks through all of us and that we need to learn how to listen especially to the younger generation with their nobility and pure desire to follow Jesus. Nothing seemed too trivial for Jaime, he would thank us for the questions and he would answer in his own peculiar way of telling personal stories and prayerful reflections, – which seemed often unrelated to the question posed, or which seemed off track – but which would on the long run, deepen our understanding of what laid beyond the question, of its backdrop and implications.
During my formation years, I also loved the informal and uncomplicated way he lived his life among us all. I still recall how Anita, one of his most trusted friends and co-founders of our community, would tell him to go and put on more formal clothes since we were expecting a visit from a local bishop or local clergy. He would openly joke about it, wink at me and say, vanity of vanities but then he would humbly turn around to go and change his olive big shirt for a black clerical shirt.
From the very first day we were introduced to him as Jaime, our founder. He did not want us to call him “Padre”, “Father” or any other title. He always thought that titles and especially the way priests and religious were placed on pedestals was not beneficial and had ruined the church. His emphasis was on the equality created by baptism, before Christ we are all the same and he therefore insisted in not being called Padre nor being given any special status.
I recall how years later, while I was living in Rome as the general responsible (superior) of our women’s branch, we had an audience with the Pope and we were told that we could not address Jaime simply by his name but we had to call him “Father” or “Father Founder.” We all started laughing and gave it a trial session so as not to slip into the casual Jaime.
The preaching of Jaime was a living transmission of the grace of God – through God’s word and Spirit – who had shaped Jaime and had given him the grace of being a Founder as well as a Mystic and Visionary. Jaime’s vison of church was the Body of Christ, where all baptized and those of good will were inserted and called to be life giving members within their own particular calling and grace. For us, especially the women, he envisioned that we would assume a leadership role in the church; that we would study theology at a time where no women were admitted to catholic faculties; that we would reform our surroundings just like Jesus and the first community of believers did.
He insisted on the equality of all, – married couples, women and men – all called to evangelize and to reach out to others in personal and diverse ways. He would always stress not to compare ourselves nor imitate one another, but rather to live out our personal potential given through grace as well as through our state of life. Our formation groups comprised of intellectuals and workers, pious young people who heard the call when they were still very young as well as restless baby boomers and later millennials in search for truth and meaning, young couples wanting to do more than settle for domestic happiness, as well as some seminarians in search for more radicality and authenticity.
Jaime was not political, growing up in post-civil war had left deep marks of suffering in his life and education. He had grown up in a poisoned atmosphere where nearly every family had lost a loved one either by the left regime or the Franco regime. The church was discredited and often seen as the enemy which is why he envisioned the church as a people of God, reaching out to all and not clinging to power and authority structures.
Jaime’s standard was the Sermon on the Mount, God’s mercy and forgiveness consisting not only in a personal salvation from sin but in empowering the sinner to become an evangelizer and an active member of the body of Christ. He would believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, capable of transforming the greatest sinners into saints, former enemies of Christ and the Church into apostles, just like St. Paul.
Jaime was a charismatic leader – but of the mystical, love poet tradition – who would sometimes become so affected by the love of Christ that he had to pause during Eucharist. He would try and hide these strong emotions and tears, but we all saw them during our years of formation. Sometimes he would get so inspired that we sat before him as if we were receiving a living injection of faith through his preaching, which went beyond receiving some interesting ideas or comments. It was a privileged time of receiving our formation directly from our founder enabling us to witness and participate in his vision for the Verbum Dei and the church.