On Tuesday the 7th of May a great man died. He was Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities, spread over around 50 countries, for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. He was the last of a very special triumvirate, three colossal and hugely influential figures in the church over many years, and that was himself, Mother Theresa, and Brother Roger of Taize. Whenever I was tempted to despair of the church, I could look at these three people, all of whom I met personally, and understand what God’s grace can do in lives that are fully open and docile to the Spirit.
Much will be written about Jean Vanier that will do him much more justice than I ever could, and I have no doubt that his cause will be introduced for Canonization at some stage, and rightly so. I do, however have one or two personal memories to share. I first heard him speak in Dublin in the 1970’s, when I was in the early stages of my student life as a Passionist. The Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners, was, and is, set in the heart of student land in Dublin, and for over 40 years, drawing on the student population, it hosted a very popular Sunday Evening Folk Mass. In the early years they had a lot of guest speakers and on this particular Sunday the speaker was Jean Vanier. I went along with some of my fellow students to what, for most of the congregation, turned out to be a very uncomfortable experience. This was because, on the way into Mass, we had all passed by a beggar on the steps of the church without paying him any heed, and this beggar became the focus of Jean Vanier’s talk that night. He wasn’t moralizing or setting us on a guilt trip, he just spoke powerfully and beautifully about the dignity of every human person, and about the Gospel imperative of love, both principles that underlie the work of the L’Arche communities that he had founded.
Getting over my discomfort, I began to read Jean Vanier’s books and I got involved with an organization in Ireland called CASA, the Caring and Sharing Association, which, inspired by Jean Vanier, was also about building relationships between people with disabilities of various kinds and their helpers. Much of the work of CASA centred around local group gatherings and annual pilgrimages to Lourdes until, in the late 1980’s, we decided to set up some break houses, where those with disabilities and their helpers would live together for a time. CASA had a very charismatic leader, one of those people who, when he sets his mind to something, usually makes it happen. And, so it was, that myself and two others found ourselves heading off to Trosly in France, where L’Arche had first begun, to spend a week with the community there, and to seek the wise advice of Jean Vanier on the setting up of our break houses.
I almost missed the trip as, while on holiday on Achill Island, County Mayo, earlier that summer, I burned my feet very badly in the sun. I ended up making the journey to Trosly in flip-flops as there was no possible way I could put shoes on my poor swollen feet. I was in agony, but nothing would have made me give up on this experience. Each day, while we were there, I would flip-flop along the corridor, and shimmy into a little room, where we would sit for ages and chat, but mostly listen, to this beautiful, gentle man, who exuded love and compassion in every word he spoke. When I would later describe the experience to others, I would say that, in those moments, I knew I was in the presence of true holiness, and that God shone from the inside out of this amazing, yet incredibly humble person. I would later use the same expression for being in the presence of Mother Theresa and Brother Roger. I was also privileged, in the years after, to be invited to give some Retreats to the L’Arche Communities in Ireland – different from any other Retreats I ever gave, before or since, and wonderful.
I hope that this holy triumvirate are now enjoying each other’s company in the Community of God’s Kingdom in heaven. I thank each of them for how they influenced my life, inspired my faith, and showed me what Christ’s Church, at its very best, can be. Rest in Peace. Amen.