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L’Arche founder reveals face of Christ


I recently bumped into Jean Vanier, the 74-year-old founder of the L’Arche movement that fosters community life with people with developmental disabilities, during a Catholic-Orthodox dialogue in Terni, just north of Rome. Our encounter was unexpected, and Vanier’s face broke into the broad smile that is a trademark upon seeing someone he recognizes in even the most vague way.

The tall, silver-haired Vanier, a French Canadian perfectly bilingual in French and English, cuts a dashing figure despite the blue “Maytag repairman” style windbreaker he always wears in public. Yet when he grins, he can’t help looking slightly like a senior citizen version of Gomer Pyle.

Vanier and I had already spoken several times, at a string of Rome press conferences, at this summer’s World Youth Day in Toronto, and just days before at an international congress of his Faith and Light initiative near Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the pope. He knew I was preparing a feature about him and his movements, and asked how my interviews with American Faith and Light delegates had gone.

“They want to see you a saint one day,” I said, interested to see how he might react.

Vanier’s smile died a quick death.

“That’s a way of destroying you,” he said, scowling. “You know what Dorothy Day said about that.”

Taking the cue, I repeated the famous line from the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, whose cause for canonization has been launched by the New York archdiocese: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

“That’s right,” Vanier said, drawing out each syllable. “That’s right.”

It was all vintage Vanier -- humble, gentle, yet intense, with enough political realism to keep his deep Catholic piety from seeming artificial.

Jean Vanier is, by any standard, one of the most remarkable people in contemporary Catholicism. Like Mother Teresa before him, he carries the rare burden of being both a public figure and someone widely flagged as a saint in his own lifetime.

Born in Geneva, Switzerland, on Sept. 10, 1928, Vanier is the son of the 19th governor-general of Canada, George Philias Vanier, and his wife, Pauline Archer Vanier. Both were staunch Catholics, and sainthood causes for both have been launched in Canada.

His father was also the Canadian ambassador to France at the end of the Second World War, where the young Vanier visited him in January 1945 and saw ex-inmates arriving from Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. He later described “their white and blue uniforms … They were skeletons. That vision has remained with me -- what human beings can do to other human beings, how we can hurt and kill each other.”

At the age of 13, Vanier applied and was admitted to the Royal Naval College in England. After serving as an officer in the Royal Navy, as well as serving in the Royal Canadian Navy, he resigned in 1950.

Vanier then joined a small community, l’Eau Vive, directed by French Dominican Fr. Thomas Philippe. L’Eau Vive was a community of students, predominantly lay, situated in a poor area near Paris. The aim was to foster prayer and the study of metaphysics. Shortly afterwards, Vanier was asked to direct the community when ill health forced Philippe’s resignation.

Vanier did so for six years; then he too stepped down.

Vanier next obtained a doctoral degree in philosophy at l’Institut Catholique in Paris in 1962, focusing on contemplation, friendship and justice in Aristotle’s thought. He taught for a period at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.

In the meantime Philippe had become a chaplain for mentally handicapped men living at Le Val Fleuri, a large institution in Trosly-Breuil, about an hour by train from Paris. Vanier moved to Trosly-Breuil where he bought a small, dilapidated house that he called l’Arche, the Ark -- Noah’s Ark. After visiting a number of institutions, asylums and psychiatric hospitals, as well as Le Val Fleuri, Vanier welcomed two mentally handicapped men, Raphael and Philippe, into his home on Aug. 4, 1964.

Thus L’Arche was born. It is a community born of a series of dyads, pairing one person with a disability, another without.

Its charter says the community, in the Roman Catholic tradition, “seeks to respond to the distress of those who are too often rejected, and to give them a valid place in society.” A guiding principle is that “everyone is of unique and sacred value” with a “right to friendship, to communion and to a spiritual life.”

Vanier says that the aim of L’Arche is not to change the world, “but to create little places ... where love is possible.”

‘A place of pain’

Despite the lofty language, Vanier is no public relations flack -- he knows community gets tough.

“I bet many of you have communities in difficulty,” he said to a recent meeting of Faith and Light members. “In fact, I hope you do. Community, real community, is painful. I’ve been doing this 38 years, and this is what I’ve learned … a community is a place of pain.”

Vanier’s vision got international attention in the mid-’80s when Fr. Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest whose spiritual self-help books have sold in the millions, settled in a L’Arche community in Ontario, Canada. Nouwen had suffered a nervous collapse from the pressures of worldly success, and his friend Vanier suggested L’Arche as a place he might find relief.

L’Arche has grown to some 104 communities in more than 30 countries on five continents. Vanier is no longer its director, but still lives in a L’Arche community in France.

Vanier founded the Faith and Sharing movement in 1968, which brings people with developmental disabilities and others together once a month for gospel readings and prayer. In 1971, he and Marie Hélène Mathieu founded Faith and Light, which holds regular get-togethers for people with disabilities, their parents and friends.

Vanier and Mathieu founded Faith and Light after taking a group of severely disabled persons on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, where they were shocked at the hostile response. Some townspeople and pilgrims actually suggested that people this badly disabled should not be taken out in public.

Pat and Frank Dani were two of the Americans at the international Faith and Light conference in the hills outside Rome. They have a developmentally disabled daughter, and say Vanier’s approach helped them learn to see her in a different light.

“I used to sort of pity her, feel sorry for her,” Frank said. “But through Faith and Light I’ve come to understand how incredibly gifted she is, how special she is. Wherever we go now, the action focuses on her. She’s got a naturalness, a gift for people, that’s amazing.”

That’s the Vanier spirit -- finding gifts where others see tragedy.

“Faith and Light is an experience that was born from suffering,” Vanier told NCR. “The terrible suffering of parents, of people with handicaps … the aim of being Christian is to reveal the compassionate face of Christ.”

A theology of the body

Almost without trying, out of necessity rather than any taste for dogmatics, Vanier has developed a sophisticated theology of the body to explain his ministry. While early Christians spoke of fides ex auditu, or “faith from hearing,” he says his communities cultivate fides ex corpore -- faith transmitted through the body, through touch.

Vanier told the story of his relationship with one of the original members of the L’Arche community.

“He does not understand much, but he does understand whether we touch him with love,” he said. “Our bodies are called to be the instruments of grace. We must learn to touch with tenderness. Touch has become sexualized in our culture, but it is so vitally important to reveal to people their value and to give them security.”

Vanier, true to his word, is not bashful about placing his hands on you while you talk, even applying a quick rub of the shoulders that can be remarkably penetrating. He does so without asking, and without blushing.

One surprise about Vanier’s extensive circle of activities is the deep ecumenical dimension. There is a L’Arche community in Russia composed of Russian Orthodox believers, and there are Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican Faith and Light groups as well.

Vanier himself, however, is deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition. (He was a seminarian, but abandoned his studies shortly before ordination.) He is a regular at Vatican events, and is clearly a favorite of John Paul II. After his most recent audience with the pope in September, L’Osservatore Romano published a photo of Vanier with his head buried in the pope’s arms as the two men wrapped one another in a deep embrace.

I pulled Vanier aside in Rome and asked if the pope had whispered something special to him in that moment. “No, and I probably wouldn’t tell you if he had,” Vanier said curtly, as if I had invaded a special moment that belonged just to the two of them.

I once asked Vanier if John Paul, now that he is physically weak and broken, is a more powerful role model for his communities. “The pope has never been more beautiful,” Vanier responded.

Part of what John Paul must admire is that, like Dorothy Day and other social reformers anchored in a muscular traditional Catholicism, Vanier does not play fast and loose with doctrine or church discipline.

“To bring social activism and faith together is very complex,” he said in a keynote talk to the Faith and Light congress Sept. 28. “Lots of things begin this way, but gradually they become exclusively spiritual and say goodbye to the poor, or it’s all social activity and the faith disappears.”

No ecclesiastical games

Vanier turns gruff when one tries to push him on church politics, like women’s ordination. “Let’s get on with it and start being with the poor,” he said.

Anyone who knows Vanier realizes he is not playing ecclesiastical games. When he says his vocation is “revealing the face of Jesus to people in pain,” it rings true.

Vanier is, though one almost shrinks from the word for fear of overuse, a holy man.

Yet his is not, it must be said, a fluffy, feel-good holiness of the “Touched By An Angel” sort. It is closer to Rudolph Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a sense of the divine that is as terrifying as it is consoling. Terrifying, because standing next to Vanier is in some sense to stand in judgment, to contemplate the hollowness of one’s own life compared to his heroism, to feel an overpowering sense that you should change your ways before it’s too late. Being with Vanier is both inspiring and, at times, disconcerting and even disorienting, the way people used to respond to Mother Teresa.

Most of Vanier’s admirers have no problem acknowledging his sanctity, even if, a bit like Catholic Worker attitudes about Day, they may feel some ambiguity about a formal canonization somewhere down the road.

Mike Ciletti, a chaplain and permanent deacon in Colorado Springs, Colo., pondered Vanier’s possible sainthood when I put the question to nine American Faith and Light members at the congress outside Rome Sept. 29. Ciletti eventually said that Vanier himself would argue that it’s the developmentally disabled persons themselves who are the real saints, who know how to experience and to project joy despite their sometimes agonizing conditions. They’re the ones who deserve a halo.

“Maybe that’s the final proof of Vanier’s saintliness,” I ventured. No one in the room disagreed.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

Related Web sites

L’Arche Canada

L’Arche USA

Faith and Light

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002