Jean Vanier: A prophet for our time

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When I was first asked to write this column, I must admit that I struggled with the proper subject. It was the recent death of a saintly, prophetic figure that clarified the matter for me.

Jean Vanier, friend and inspiration to popes, Templeton Prize winner and considered by many as the “European Mother Teresa,” passed away on May 7, 2019. Vanier was the founder of l’Arche, communities for people with intellectual and physical disabilities, which started in France in 1964 and grew to more than 150 communities in 37 different countries. L’Arche was founded by Vanier when he responded to a simple call from Jesus to invite two men with disabilities, Rapfael and Phillipe, to live in community with him rather than the psychiatric institution where they had been left. 

Vanier then committed his life to recognizing that persons with disabilities not only have an inherent dignity value as God’s children, but are truly gifts from whom the “strong” can learn how to be truly human. Vanier taught that if we enter into relationship with the “core members” around whom l’Arche communities center, we will learn that we too are broken, and ultimately, that we are made for love. 

So why did Jean Vanier’s death focus my thoughts in a particular way? After graduating from college in 1993, I spent more than two years volunteering in a l’Arche community in Kilkenny, Ireland. In addition to reading his books, I had the tremendous blessing to meet, listen to, and speak with Jean Vanier on multiple occasions. I can honestly say that I felt that I was in the presence of a living prophet, saint or both! 

His close relationship with Jesus was evident. So too were his deep friendships with the people whom he served. Despite having a Ph.D in philosophy, his faith was not an abstract, intellectual endeavor. His holiness was grounded in the Spirit-led reality of everyday life. He was deeply humble and confident at the same time. When he spoke you listened intently and he looked at all of life as a gift.

Vanier taught that rather than searching for grand solutions to the issues that face people with disabilities, l’Arche communities should instead be signs of hope that there is a different way of life. Developing friendships with people on the margins, and thereby learning about what it means to be truly human, helps to save us from the utilitarian ethos which permeates the prevailing consumeristic culture in which we live. People who are often marginalized have much to teach those of us who think we are “normal” about what life is really about. 

Vanier reminded us that Jesus’ Kingdom is about moving those who are rejected and thrown away to the center, and l’Arche communities are places which seek to make that Kingdom a reality.

When I lived in l’Arche Kilkenny, I was a 22-year-old college graduate who didn’t quite realize how little I actually knew! Living for more than two years with people with disabilities and young assistants like myself was an incredibly intense and challenging experience. Our role as assistants was to create a real home and community for the core members. The focus was on their health and well-being, and at 22, I was not exactly well-practiced at the sacrifices that this lifestyle demanded. Needless to say, I failed many times, but learned an immense amount about my own limitations and gifts as a person. 

The core members who welcomed me into their home, Packy, Richard, Gina, John and Roisin, were all very different personalities. I learned that each person had their own brokenness and gifts, just like me. It was no utopia, but they taught me the art of welcome. 

Perhaps more than anything else, l’Arche communities are about the spirit of hospitality. One of the lessons I learned was not only how to cook, but how to truly welcome and serve others. In my role as a Catholic educator, I try to integrate a spirit of welcome and hospitality to my role. Catholic schools can be a powerful witness, just as l’Arche communities are, to building a culture of dignity and welcome to those on the margins.

I encourage you to learn more about Jean Vanier by watching videos of him online or by purchasing one of his many books on Amazon. “Becoming Human” or “The Broken Body” are classic Vanier and very easy to read. I have no question that our Church and world need more of Vanier’s example of compassion, hospitality and respect for dignity, and that it is up to us to keep his legacy alive! 

Peter Shaughnessy is president/principal of Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth. He resides in Fairhaven with his wife, Anabela Vasconcelos Shaughnessy (Class of ’94), and their four children: Luke (Class of ’24), Emilia (Class of ’25), Dominic (Class of ’27) and Clare (Class of ‘30).


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