Jean Vanier coverage: Vague on his Catholic beliefs about the humanity of the disabled

With all the online arguments last week about the faith of Rachel Held Evans, there passed from our midst someone who many people around the world truly believe will be hailed as a Catholic saint.

I am referring to Jean Vanier, the French-Canadian philosopher and humanist who believed the disabled should be treated like human beings and that they deserve one-on-one care. He died on May 7 at the age of 90. As BBC’s Martin Bashir said, he engaged in the “upside-down economics of Christianity; that the first shall be last.”

Vanier had a profound effect on people of my generation, a number of whom spent a year at his community in Trosly-Breuil, France, much like others served a stint with Mother Teresa in Calcutta in the 1970s and 1980s. It was his Catholic faith that led him to forsake marriage and children to devote himself to living with the handicapped his whole life.

Most of the mainstream media obits mentioned his Catholicity only in passing. How is that possible?

The CBC video with this post and a piece from The Guardian are cases in point.

In August 1964, having giving up his job teaching philosophy at the University of Toronto, he bought a small, rundown house without plumbing or electricity in the village of Trosly-Breuil, north of Paris, and invited two men with learning disabilities – Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux – to share it with him. Both had been living in an asylum and were without family.

The initiative was prompted by Vanier’s visits to the long-stay hospitals that housed many people with learning disabilities at the time. “Huge concrete walls, 80 men living in dormitories and no work. I was struck by the screams and atmosphere of sadness,” he said.

Believing the men’s overwhelming need was for friendship he thought the small house could provide the support of domestic life, with the three of them shopping, cooking and washing up together.

Any expansion was far from his thoughts: “I had no idea of starting a movement or establishing communities outside Trosly, even less outside France. At one moment I even said we should stay the size of one carload – so if no one came to help me I could at least continue to travel by bringing everyone in the car.”

The New York Times was a bit better:

Today L’Arche, rooted in the Roman Catholic Church, has 154 communities in 38 countries; Faith and Light has 1,500 communities in 83 countries. Through both organizations, people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in a community where they can feel they belong. His work served as a model for several other organizations.

“He was one of the great saints of our time,” the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America, a magazine of Catholic thought, said in a telephone interview.

“Of all the people in our time who minister to people on the margins, I would say he and Mother Teresa were the avatars for Catholics,” Father Martin said. “Jean Vanier showed us the great strength of tenderness and vulnerability and weakness, which is Christ’s message.”

Vanier, the piece said, had an epiphany in 1963 when he visited a home for mentally ill men.

The men asked him if he would visit them again.

“Behind those words,” he said, “I sensed a great cry: ‘Why have I been abandoned? Why am I not with my brothers and sisters, who are married and living in nice houses? Do you love me?’ A great thirst for friendship.”

I had to be amused when, further down, the writer explained the origin of L’Arche’s name.

The idea of L’Arche — or Ark, where Noah rescued animals two by two — was born. It grew throughout France and spread to other continents.

Are people in our culture so biblically illiterate, they don’t know what Noah’s Ark is?

If you want to read a profound obit, do take a look at this Toronto Globe and Mail piece by a reporter who had extensive dialogues with Vanier because of his own disabled son. Still, the role of faith is not front and center.

The Washington Post’s obit had many more Catholic references.

After stints in the British and Canadian navies, he considered becoming a Catholic priest, ultimately deciding he was not meant for the seminary. He found a degree of meaning teaching philosophy in Toronto. But his life took a new direction in the early 1960s, when he traveled to France to see his spiritual mentor, a member of the Dominican order then serving as a chaplain at a home for people with intellectual disabilities.

At the chaplain’s urging, Mr. Vanier, then in his mid-30s, began visiting French asylums. He found what he described as a “chaotic atmosphere of violence and uproar.” Some patients were shackled. Those who were not did little but walk in circles. Especially disturbing to Mr. Vanier was their screams…

Although driven by his Catholic faith, Mr. Vanier gradually led the L’Arche network into more ecumenical work. Observers described his theology as one of simple, concrete, tender acts: bathing a fellow human being, dining together, offering a reassuring touch.

 The article explains how highly personalized way L’Arche dealt with the mentally handicapped is not typical of how most institutions do so. Typically, people are charted and observed and tested. Not so at Vanier’s communities.

The National Catholic Register gives a lot more background about the Dominican spiritual director who encouraged Vanier to spend time with the disabled along with anecdotes not found in the secular media.

A doctor in philosophy, Vanier wrote more than 30 spiritual essays that focus on the search for happiness and reflect the deepness of his faith. Faith and Light, an association he created in 1971 with French disability-rights activist Marie-Hélène Mathieu to assist those with mental disabilities and their families through time-sharing, celebrations and pilgrimages, is now a leading international movement.

Vanier was also the recipient of countless international distinctions, such as the Templeton Prize, but he had very little interest in earthly honors. His thought has always transcended ideological and political cleavages, and he is seen by many, for this reason, as a “Christian prototype.”

Christianity Today’s tribute to Vainier was filled with anecdotes found nowhere else, including the saint question.  

In the final years of his life, as a faithful Catholic theologian leading an international ministry, Vanier was repeatedly asked the question of what he would think of being made a saint. He always dismissed the idea. He explains that he really just wanted to be a friend of Jesus, someone who exemplifies a beautiful life of love and humility and not the pursuit of accolades and worldly success. He also said that anyone who would call for him to be a saint must not know him very well.

 The article also noted how important Vanier’s work was in inspiring those seeking intentional Christian community.

 His theological influence extended across Christian traditions and denominations, including intentional communities like Shane Claiborne’s The Simple Way and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Rutba House. Wilson-Hartgrove counts Vanier and the work of L’Arche as an enduring inspiration, referencing teachings from Vanier such as “People come to community because they want to help the poor. They stay in community because they realize they are the poor.”

I had to smile when I read that. The writer must be young, as the communities she mentions are quite recent. Had she reached back, she could have seen a rainbow of Christian communities at their zenith in the ‘70s and ‘80s, ranging from Sojourners to a variety of Catholic charismatic and social justice communes, plus a Baptist community I lived in back then. Vanier was expressing what we were all attempting to live at the time. 

I’ll close with Michael Gerson’s column on Vanier in the Post, in that Gerson states how L’Arche’s insistence on individual care was Christian at its core — a vision of human life being sacred from beginning to end.

His life’s work reflects a Christian anthropology — a belief in the inherent rights and dignity of every human life. Vanier identified this as “the belief in the inner beauty of each and every human being.”

In one sense, Vanier’s approach to compassion is wildly inefficient. Who would design a social program that strives for a one-to-one ratio of helpers to helped? How could that type of effort possibly be scaled? But that is precisely the point. L’Arche is not a traditional social program. Its commitment to the dignity of people with intellectual disabilities is lavish, extravagant. It rejects a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. And it certainly rejects a social Darwinism that views the vulnerable as worthless. 

Because of the needs of my daughter, I spend a lot of my time these days in mental institutions, which is heartbreaking.

A deadly loneliness haunts those who live there. Vanier is spot-on about that. But he saw life, not death there. Fortunately a few reporters understood the Catholic details of that vision.


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