BY MATT WOOTERS, S.J. | February 28, 2020
This year Lent felt like it started last Saturday, not Ash Wednesday. I, like many of you, woke to the stomach-turning news that Jean Vanier used his power to manipulate and sexually assault 6 women over many decades.
I lived and worked at L’arche, the community Vanier started for people with and without disabilities as a Jesuit novice. I have said to anyone who asks that it was a time in my Jesuit formation I most clearly saw a glimpse of the Kingdom of God: where all are welcome, all are celebrated, where meals, tears, laughter, and affection are shared with ease and equal measure. Under the unassuming disguise of birthday cakes, kitchen dance parties, and chicken nuggets God’s dream for us is lived out.
I feel profound sadness for the victims and gratitude for their bravery in coming forward. How difficult it must have been to watch the world informally canonize a man who hurt you. L’arche grew from austere beginnings of three men living together in France to an international movement of hundreds of houses around the world. All the while Jean, the face of the organization, was teaching the world about compassion, human value, and tenderness. He was also hurting women.
How do we hold these complicated feelings together? The broken, sinful, and abusive nature of the founder and the beautiful, transformative, and holy foundation he created? Well, first we remember that it was never about the founder. The reason I and thousands of others love L’arche is because of the joy, honesty, goodness, and self-gift of the core members and assistants. The core members, those with intellectual and physical disabilities, have always been our greatest teachers on how to be human, not the founder.
Next, we need to be honest that we are all capable of goodness and evil. Do not mishear me, I am not conflating serial sexual abuse with minor slights and failings. What Vanier did was warped and in many ways, sinister. But he was also kind to people with intellectual disabilities when the rest of society discarded them, ignored them and locked them away. He offered those men and women a compassionate, non-institutional place to live based on the simple fact that they matter. (One of the hard things I’ve been wrestling with is why he didn’t have that same compassion towards his victims??) We too are capable of hurting those around us while also being generous parishioners, good students or loving parents. We contain multitudes. As St. Ignatius reminds us we are all “loved sinners”. If and when we forget either side of that phrase we can veer off course. Yesterday at an Ash Wednesday Mass Pope Francis reminded us “We are the dust of the earth, upon which God has poured out his heaven, the dust that contains his dreams, we are God’s hope, his treasure, and his glory.” We are loved sinners. We are dust, divine dust.
Finally, in the face of such terrible news, in an age of terrible news, we need to applaud the way L’arche International has handled these revelations. They can inspire the rest of us and illuminate the way we are to bring hard things to the light. L’arche International was transparent, forthcoming, thorough, remorseful and compassionate in their response. God’s saving work throughout history has happened in, with, and through broken individuals. God is still very much at work at L’arche. Even in their darkest days, they are showing us a way to do that.
So this Lent, may we work to tear down our false idols and false heroes. May we believe those who say they have been hurt in our lives. May we continue to uncover and dispel all that does not serve the Gospel and recover and refocus on all that does. As we continue the painful work of purification, may the heart of L’Arche be our balm and teach us the joy of patient, playful, and loving peace.