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The convent as a furnace - Life as an Augustinian by Jef van Houtem osa

'I was born in 1946 in Pamel, in the Pajottenland west of Brussels. I grew up with two brothers and my mother, who was widowed at an early age. My father died in a traffic accident before I was born. My mother couldn't handle that well. In 1954, a Marian year, she went on a trip to Lourdes. At the beginning of her marriage she had also gone there with my father. That trip had done her good. On that trip she also met a Father Augustine with whom she had good conversations. They have always kept some contact.

When I was going to high school, and a fellow villager went to the St. Rita College in Kontich, run by the Augustinians, I wanted to go there too. I had a good time there. It was a great group of teachers and a good place. Slowly the realization grew that I also wanted to become an Augustinian. There was no special moment, but I slowly grew towards that choice. It felt good without having a clear picture of everything.

Being alone and being together

Father Jef at a young age

I then joined more former students of Sint-Rita College. We had a large group of 7 novices at the time. After our novitiate in Ghent we went to Leuven for our further studies. I had good contacts with several fellow friars. I felt it was a great shame when some of them resigned and left. These were turbulent times at that time and there was also tension between those who wanted little change and those who really wanted new things. I was in favor of innovations, but I also kept my distance from the tensions. I don't like arguing and I hadn't really learned to speak out. This was not always promoted within a community.

What attracts me to Augustinian spirituality is the relationship between being able to be and wanting to be alone, and community. I can't live without the community. It is important for me to hang out with fellow friars. It is also important to me that I can also take my own place. The Rule also assumes that it is a community whose members have different histories. Rest and being able to work on my own is also important to me. What is also dear to me is that Augustine depicts the convent as a fiery furnace. Life in community is a fiery furnace, in which your desires are also purified, and in which you also have to 'endure'.

Ordination to the priesthood on October 1, 1972 in the Saint Rita church in Kontich by missionary bishop and fellow friar Van den Elzen osa

Being a priest must be of service

Before my theological studies, I was asked to do Roman philology. They needed a French teacher at Sint-Rita College in Kontich. I did that, although it was not exactly my own desires. I grew into it and of course I knew the college from the past. I was ordained a priest in 1972. I was active in the parish church there, and we also tried to bring the liturgy more up to date. However, my main task was teaching.

Lecturer at Sint Rita College. Father Jef kneeling on the far right  

I wasn't very good at teaching. They were students who wanted to obtain their diploma and were not immediately interested in French poets and writers. In 1982 I was transferred to Heverlee. Shortly afterwards the new library was built and a librarian was needed. I did that with pleasure. I was able to delve into the history of the order and the province. I have also been secretary of the province for 13 years. When the pastor of the Our Lady of Consolation parish became too old, I became more involved in the parish as a cooperating priest. After a while we took over the care of the parish as a team. I was mainly in favor of pastoral work: I enjoyed attending funerals, although I always had to overcome something within myself during the first conversation with relatives whom I did not know. There was also the care for the sick, later Samana. It was also important in the parish that parishioners took their own responsibility and did not let everything depend on what a priest did. My priesthood had to be of service to the community.

Working in the library in Heverlee

Wanting to remain meaningful

When my mother died at an old age, I found it difficult. My health also started to suffer. That meant giving up my work at the library and the parish. Now I am still concerned with the history of the Order. The history of the Augustinian Order in France in particular has my great attention. Before the French Revolution there were as many as 2,000 Augustinians and nothing remains of them, except a lot of old convents. Researching the houses of the Order in other parts of the world also has my attention. This way I can remain meaningful. Even though I can't do much anymore, that's what I want to live by: serving the community as an Augustinian and as a priest.'

Pater Jef van Houtem in 2022