Fr Kevin Hegarty
AMONG the films released earlier this year is ‘Summer in the Forest’, a documentary about Jean Vanier’s ministry to the handicapped. Many people regard Vanier (pictured) as the most inspirational person in the world. The film tells of the story of the love and friendship between people with and without learning disabilities in the L’Arche communities of France and Bethlehem.
Jean Vanier is now 89 years-old. His father was a Canadian diplomat who served in Britain, Switzerland and France before becoming Governor General of Canada from 1959 to 1967. It seemed that Jean’s career would follow a similar faith. After studying in the Royal Navy College he served in the British and Canadian navies for eight years. He saw action in the later years of the second world war. By 1950 he had become disillusioned with his navy career. Horrified by the Nazi atrocities, he experienced a profound sense of emptiness. He despaired of the human condition.
He started to explore spirituality. He joined an international Christian centre for lay students in Paris, run by a Dominican priest, Fr Thomas Philippe, who became his spiritual mentor. Under his direction, Vanier studied philosophy and gained a doctorate on the ethics of Aristotle.
In 1964 occurred the event that transformed his life and shaped his destiny. Fr Thomas Philippe had been appointed chaplain to an asylum for men with mental handicaps in the French village of Trosly-Breuil.
When Vanier visited, he found it ‘a horrific place, full of violence and screaming, and yet it filled him with a sense of wonderment. “I sensed in these men a great cry - ‘do you love me? Will you come back?’”
Life changing moment
Soon afterwards he visited a south Parisian asylum. Huge cement block walls surrounded the institution. Within, 80 men lived in dormitories without any work or positive activity. They spent their days walking around in circles. There was a compulsory siesta between 2pm and 4pm, followed by more walking. An atmosphere of profound sadness pervaded the asylum, punctuated regularly by despairing screams. Vanier decided to act. In the Paris asylum he befriended two men, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, who had been placed in the institution after the deaths of their parents. The story of the Good Samaritan inspired him.
“What I love about the Good Samaritan is that he did not waste time weighing up the pros and cons, he just did something.”
Vanier bought a decrepit cottage in Trosly and invited the two men to join him. He called their home ‘L’arche’ or ‘the ark’.
It was a small start that led to massive results. The two men helped Vanier in the house and the garden. It was a transforming experience for all of them. As Vanier says: “We began to get to know each other and do things together. We were learning to live together, care for one another, listen to one another, have fun and pray together.”
Raphael and Philippe helped him live from his heart to escape the tyranny of normality and to laugh like a child.
Today there are 143 L’arche communities in 35 countries, including Ireland. Vanier, the quiet Canadian, is an inspiration in our fragile world.
May I conclude by correcting a mistake in my last column. I referred to the former Taoiseach, Jack Lynch attending an episcopal ordination in Ballina in 1970. Due to the gremlins Ballina appeared as Ballindine.