Catholic Worker Inspirations: Jean Vanier (Part 1 – with a video)

Catholic Worker Inspirations: Jean Vanier (Part 1 – with a video) December 30, 2015

Jean Vanier (1928-) is the founder of L’Arche, an”International Federation dedicated to the creation and growth of homes, programs, and support networks with people who have intellectual disabilities.”

Photo credit: Kotukaran via / CC BY-SA 3.0
Photo credit: Kotukaran via CC BY-SA 3.0

Vanier is the author of numerous texts and a magnificent servant of the Gospel.

In 1964, Vanier invited two men with intellectual disabilities to live with him in community after he witnessed the disgraceful manner in which they lived by being institutionalized in Paris, France. He’s a Canadian and a philosopher, and was invited by Pope Saint John Paul II to participate in the Synod on the Laity of 1987 in Rome.

Within five years of starting L’Arche, Dorothy Day took notice of Vanier. In a December 1969 issue of The Catholic Worker, Day mentions then quotes Vanier:

So many of the little ones are left to die in mental hospitals, the only other place where they can be put. As Jean Vanier, son of the former Governor General of Canada wrote in the Jesus Caritas Bulletin, “These little ones are good for two things, they can be loved, and they can love. These innocents! Sinless and suffering, a mystery, not ‘vegetables’ but little human beings, capable of loving, and evoking love!”

Similarly, in a February 1972 issue she wrote:

I went through that hospital and thanked God that here the crippled and retarded, hydrocephalic and idiot had the kindness of the c.o.’s and the gentleness which reflected their respect for life.

Jean Vanier, son of a former governor general of Canada, has started several “villages” for the retarded, and he wrote once that there were two great contributions which these most unfortunate of “little ones” could make – that was, to love and to be loved, and so increase the sum total of love in the world.

Be Not Afraid (1975) by Jean Vanier.

Many of our troubles have to do with the fact that, instead of loving the other, we’re afraid of the other. We build walls that prevent us from being vulnerable, from being human, from loving.

In his 1975 text, Be Not Afraid, Jean Vanier wrote powerfully of our need to recognize the beauty of the other and to bring down the walls of the ego.

Competition and greed would have us see others as enemies, threats.

We would build up walls with possessions to shut out the other, in order to make sure we would not have to acknowledge their dignity – we would embrace false symbols of “status” and “power” to degrade the poor and the weak. Doing so, however, prevents us from loving and serving according to the demands of not just our faith, but of our humanity. This is why, instead of loving the other, we exclude or discard them. The other becomes our enemy when we see their face, because we are challenged to put their good above our comfort.

This is why if we respond to the other – embrace them, love them, cherish their dignity – we’re forced to change.

He writes,

The poor man – the weak man, the man who cries because he is in need – is a danger to the rich man, the man who is self-satisfied and shut up in his liberty and his pride. If the rich man starts to approach the poor man, he cannot remain rich. He has to change. He has to open himself and he has to share.

The poor man is a danger to the rich man. The black man is a danger to the white man enfolded in his pride and sense of superiority. The handicapped and the weak are a danger to the able-bodied. The person in need is a danger to the one who has the goods of this world.

When we see another in need; if we truly see them for who they are, in their worth, their dignity; we’d respond accordingly. With so many in need, the man who responded out of love would share – and thus there would be no rich man who knew how to love his neighbor:

The rich man is rich precisely because he does not know how to give, because he does not know how to share. If he had known how to share he wouldn’t be rich any longer.

Vanier recently won the Templeton prize for his work in the world. Where others see burdens, defects, and disposables, Vanier sees beauty, dignity, and humanity.

It’s unfortunate, Vanier remarks, that our current culture is one of success and desire for power and wealth. Those who cannot produce results, who cannot attain status in our society, are deemed without worth.

Indeed, with the individualism, utilitarianism, relativism, materialism, and consumerism of capitalism, Vanier is right to consider ours a society that does not value the fellow person as person. I’d like to look into the work of Vanier a bit more, but for now we’ll end with an interview he gave after receiving the Templeton prize, shared below. Consider the remarkable contrast between a utilitarian, capitalist way of life, where people are treated as means to the end of material prosperity or are seen as a burden or threat – spouses, children, parents, the poor, the sick, the disabled – versus the mentality of love, beauty, and dignity evident in Vanier’s interview below:

Until next time,

Keith Michael Estrada

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