The now-disgraced Jean Vanier.
Not to worry, next week I will get back to Part 2 of “Legacy Giving: Love that Low-Hanging Fruit” but for now something else is weighing heavy on my heart.
In early May of last year, I wrote the post, “Two Inspiring Lives…Lost.” It was about the close timing of the deaths of Rachel Held-Evans, author and visionary, who passed away at the tragically young age of 37 and Jean Vanier, aged 91, who founded the internationally-renowned L’Arche Community.
L’Arche is a series of 154 communities and 19 projects in 38 countries. Its mission is to “develop a culture of shared lives between people with and without intellectual disabilities…to build a more human society.”
Vanier was a Christian hero of mine. I read his book Community and Growth years ago when I was coming to understand what social justice and community had in common. I even had a chance to hear him speak. The church I went to in Washington, D.C. supported a L’Arche Community House around the corner. I loved Vanier’s vision of the world.
That was until Saturday, when I received a gut punch. Fr. James Martin, S.J. posted this on his Facebook page:
I am very sad to have to share this news report. A devastating and lifelong tragedy for those who were abused and for their families. A time of deep sorrow for L'Arche and all its many members. A grave disappointment for all who admired him, and considered him a saint, as I once did.
The “tragedy” is that Jean Vanier, who was not a priest, took spiritual, psychological, and sexual advantage of six adult women (who did not have disabilities) while they were under his spiritual direction. Vanier also lied about the abuse he knew that his mentor, Fr. Thomas Philippe, inflicted on untold women. Vanier showed no compassion when these women came to him to express their concern about Philippe and thus allowed the pain and suffering to continue. You can read the summary report, commissioned by L’Arche International, here.
The psychological world will tell you that what I’m experiencing is called “cognitive dissonance.” It’s the discomfort I feel while holding two opposing ideas or beliefs, at the same time.
One of those beliefs is: “L’Arche is an amazing organization, founded by Jean Vanier, that’s doing so much good in the world.”
The other is: “I know that Jean Vanier, who founded L’Arche, has done terrible harm to at least six women and their families and is not the human being I thought he was.”
These two things don’t compute right now. How do I make sense of this?
As Colleen Dulle of America: The Jesuit Review, wrote this week:
It is difficult, but possible and necessary, to hold the truth of both Vanier’s good and evil at the same time. Holding these facts in tension both invites, as the leaders of L’Arche International wrote, ‘mourn[ing] a certain image we may have had of Jean’ and raises important concerns about who holds power in the church, the ways that power can corrupt those who hold it and the disturbing links between spiritual and sexual abuse in so many similar cases in the church.
Dulle’s words fail to make my cognitive dissonance any easier to deal with but they do give me something to think about. Holding the “truth of both Vanier’s good and evil at the same time” seems most impossible right now.
It’s a good thing that today marks the beginning of Lent. Perhaps the next 40 days will be a time to think about what makes someone a hero. What happens when that hero is found to have feet of clay? Maybe it’s a time to reflect, as much as it’s possible, through the eyes of Jesus. What does justice demand? How can such evil happen? How can we stop it? Is there or should there be grace?
This Lent I will be careful about bestowing hero status on anyone. I will pray for people hurt by clergy sexual abuse. I will hold this cognitive dissonance close to my heart and struggle with it. And, most importantly, I will turn my eyes to Jesus – the author and perfecter of my faith – the one whose love is sure and does not fail.