JEAN VANIER has been transformed by the people he has served. And the transformation is attracting thousands of others.
Mr. Vanier, 72, has spent half his life welcoming people with developmental disabilities, providing them with homes and respect. These are the people the world has either locked up in institutions or abandoned on the street.
The world-renowned theologian is best known as founder of L’Arche, homes for people with developmental disabilities. Today there are 110 L’Arche communities in 30 countries, including 24 in Canada. L’Arche, which is French for “ark,” is a symbol for both refuge and new beginnings.
Mr. Vanier himself was born into privilege as the son of Governor General Georges Vanier and his wife, Pauline. And while he enjoys the company of the intellectually impaired, Jean Vanier is actually a Doctor of Philosophy.
Yet when he spoke on Hope for the New Millennium at Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto this fall, he wore neither academic gown nor tailored suit, but only a shirt and windbreaker.
He certainly engaged the capacity crowd of 1,700 but what was more telling occurred after his lecture. He moved away from the podium and simply sat down on the platform steps. Then for almost an hour he greeted and embraced more than 100 people, giving special attention to those who were developmentally challenged.
Sometimes we forget the incredible beauty of people with disabilities who “see and call up the heart.” They possess qualities of welcome, wonderment, spontaneity and directness.
Mr. Vanier told of waiting with Fabio and some other L’Arche community members for an audience with the Pope. Fabio looked around for the best chair in the room, and when he found the papal throne, sat on it. The monsignors were flummoxed. “I would never have dared to do that but with Fabio there’s a freedom. He’s not concerned with convention. He can be himself.”
Another friend, Pascale, has a way of embracing cardinals. “He goes right through function and only sees people. He has a way of conquering people whom he knows need to be conquered.”
God has chosen the weak of this world, the lowly, the most despised to shame the wise and the strong, Mr. Vanier said. Whatever their culture or religion, their abilities or disabilities, each person is precious and sacred.
“The only thing Jesus asked us to do is love one another as Jesus loved us and to receive the word of God as a personal message: that you are loved, that you are precious to God. You are challenged to become in your flesh a good news, not just to announce a good news, but to become in some way, the face of Jesus.”
At first, Mr. Vanier admits, we may feel repulsed by poverty, disfigurement, or weakness. Mother Teresa taught him that if we stop, like the Good Samaritan, when we see a man dying in the street, repulsion will turn to compassion as we try to alleviate his pain. And compassion will turn to wonderment, “for the man looks at you and with his eyes says ‘thank you’ even as he dies in your arms.”
Mr. Vanier has affection for young people who, he said, desire authenticity. “They seek people who are witnessing truth through their flesh; they’re looking for the face and flesh and presence of Christ and they don’t always find it.” If they don’t find alternative communities, they can become marginalized. L’Arche allows young people to come for a year or two to discover who they are.
Mr. Vanier tells assistants at L’Arche, “You came to L’Arche because you wanted to serve the poor; but you will stay in L’Arche if you discover you are poor. You’re not an élite; you’re a human person with all the fragility and beauty of a human person, no better than people with disabilities. You’re bonded together. The good news is not given to those who serve the poor; it is given to those who discover they are poor.
“It’s not just doing things for people but discovering we are changed when we come close to them. If we enter into a friendship with them, they change us. Here we touch a mystery that the person we reject because of prejudice is the one who heals us.”
Mr. Vanier believes that even if we have been deeply wounded, that “gaping wound of the heart, the emptiness or anguish, can become the meeting place with God. Prayer is not just saying prayers; it’s listening. It’s being with Jesus, remaining in his love. God reveals himself in silence.
“Anger, violence, hate can rise up very quickly and be very deep. We create prejudice as a system of protection so we don’t get close to others. If I do, maybe some of my certitudes will be wounded and changed. The acceptance of difference implies a strengthening of the inner person.
“Where are the schools of love?” he asked. “Who will teach us to accept difference, to listen, to forgive, to discover reconciliation and non-violence? When are we going to teach children how to make peace?” Sue Careless is a journalist based in Toronto.