Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier coverage: Vague on his Catholic beliefs about the humanity of the disabled

Jean Vanier coverage: Vague on his Catholic beliefs about the humanity of the disabled

With all the online arguments last week about the faith of Rachel Held Evans, there passed from our midst someone who many people around the world truly believe will be hailed as a Catholic saint.

I am referring to Jean Vanier, the French-Canadian philosopher and humanist who believed the disabled should be treated like human beings and that they deserve one-on-one care. He died on May 7 at the age of 90. As BBC’s Martin Bashir said, he engaged in the “upside-down economics of Christianity; that the first shall be last.”

Vanier had a profound effect on people of my generation, a number of whom spent a year at his community in Trosly-Breuil, France, much like others served a stint with Mother Teresa in Calcutta in the 1970s and 1980s. It was his Catholic faith that led him to forsake marriage and children to devote himself to living with the handicapped his whole life.

Most of the mainstream media obits mentioned his Catholicity only in passing. How is that possible?

The CBC video with this post and a piece from The Guardian are cases in point.

In August 1964, having giving up his job teaching philosophy at the University of Toronto, he bought a small, rundown house without plumbing or electricity in the village of Trosly-Breuil, north of Paris, and invited two men with learning disabilities – Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux – to share it with him. Both had been living in an asylum and were without family.

The initiative was prompted by Vanier’s visits to the long-stay hospitals that housed many people with learning disabilities at the time. “Huge concrete walls, 80 men living in dormitories and no work. I was struck by the screams and atmosphere of sadness,” he said.

Believing the men’s overwhelming need was for friendship he thought the small house could provide the support of domestic life, with the three of them shopping, cooking and washing up together.

Any expansion was far from his thoughts: “I had no idea of starting a movement or establishing communities outside Trosly, even less outside France. At one moment I even said we should stay the size of one carload – so if no one came to help me I could at least continue to travel by bringing everyone in the car.”

The New York Times was a bit better:

Today L’Arche, rooted in the Roman Catholic Church, has 154 communities in 38 countries; Faith and Light has 1,500 communities in 83 countries. Through both organizations, people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in a community where they can feel they belong. His work served as a model for several other organizations.

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Jean Vanier wins the Templeton but many mainstream journalists dismiss the Catholic angle

Jean Vanier wins the Templeton but many mainstream journalists dismiss the Catholic angle

Jean Vanier, 86, is an extraordinary French-Canadian humanitarian, Catholic philosopher and founder of L’Arche, a federation of communities worldwide for people with disabilities. I had friends who would spend up to a year at his communities in Trosly-Breuil, France and near Toronto.

There are few things in my mind less glamorous than helping the mentally ill, so I was glad to hear that his years of efforts had resulted in winning the Templeton Prize earlier this month. I’m sure he’ll put that $2.1 million to good use.

So what is the journalism problem here?

To be blunt about it: I was surprised at how many of the mainstream news stories about this humble man skirted his Christian commitment.

Is it hard to find this information?

Look, here’s a man who almost became a Catholic priest, but instead found he had a more unusual worldwide parish. He’s never married and any interview with him -- such as this 2006 piece by Religion & Ethics Newsweekly -- will produce a ton of quotes having to do with God.

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