Jean Vanier Celebration

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Reflection of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

The Riasc Centre, Drynam Swords, 29 June 2019


Jean Vanier’s reflections on the Beatitudes are not just a poetic paraphrase or a commentary on the Beatitudes.  His description of the Beatitudes is something that springs from and can only be understood in the context of a deep and thoughtful insight into the person of Jesus and his teaching and the implications of that teaching for people of faith and for all of society.


Pope Francis, on the death of Jean Vanier, noted that Vanier could read and interpret not only the Christian gaze on “the mystery of death, of the cross, of suffering”, but also “the mystery of those who are discarded by the world”.  One could say that for Vanier you can only understand the mystery of the cross when you set out from a personal encounter with the discarded by the world.  Faith in Jesus involves radically discarding worldly interpretations of life.  Faith, as Pope Francis notes, involves not just reaching out to serve those who live on the peripheries of human existence, but above all through experiencing what it means to be periphery.  Like Vanier, Pope Francis asks:  do you set out to bring Jesus to the periphery or do you go to the periphery because there is the true place in which you find Jesus.


Of the various tributes written about Jean Vanier after his death, one of the most surprising was in the British newspaper The Economist, a newspaper that prides itself on being uncompromisingly liberal in its views on the economy and libertarian in its social policy.   Alone for that reason it was remarkable that The Economist would dedicate full obituary to Jean Vanier.


The obituary was entitled “The beauty of humans”.  Vanier had the capacity to understand the dignity and the beauty of humans, not through the lens of the superficial and commercialized exaltation of what we conventionally decide human beauty should be like, a lens which condemns others to be permanently outside beauty.


Jean Vanier shows that we can find beauty in someone twisted and immobile from birth through being able to exclaim not just “here is beauty”, but by being able to say “you are beautiful”.  The beauty of humans is not to be discovered in the photos of glossy magazines, but in loving relationship.


The Economist article noted that for Vanier “L’Arche was rooted in his following of Jesus.  Whatever was done for the poor and the suffering was done for him.  For Jesus too was vulnerable and a servant”.


The obituary stressed that it was Vanier’s “own Catholic practice that underpinned his activities”, but it immediately added “his arms were open to Hindus, Muslims and Jews and those of no faith at all, as long as they acknowledged that at the heart of the universe, bringing everything together was love”.


Vanier interpreted the Beatitudes in a language that takes us beyond the capacity of worldly culture to interpret them.


“Blessed are you in your poverty; you are not shut in the false world of convention, riches and human security”.


Blessed are you because you are gentle; you refuse violence and aggressiveness.  You allow yourself to be led by the spirit into the word of tenderness”.


“Blessed are you because you are merciful; you attach your heart to misery and no one will see your sin”


Fundamentally, Jean Vanier’s reflection on the Beatitudes is not just a nice and inspiriting spiritual reflection.  He is telling us about the Church.  He is challenging us to re-examine what the Church should be like.


The Church must poor not according to some statistical norm.  It must radically reject the false world of convention.  The Church must be gentle and avoid violence and aggressiveness, even in the way it teaches its orthodoxy.  The Church must seek unity and understanding and reconciliation in the way it exercises authority.   The Church must be free to proclaim the truth of Jesus, a truth founded in love.


Jean Vanier represented not just the charity of the Church but in a special way the Church of charity.  The Church of charity is not an added extra to religious teaching or devotion of practice.   It is an essential dimension of the Church.  The Church of rules and norms and rubrics, the Church of internal debates and discussions about reform, all these are empty if they are not lived as a Church of love.  Dialogue among Churches, dialogue with modern societies must be dialogue in love and not in ideology or polemics.  Dialogue in love inevitably changes our internal human rules.   In the roll book of Church membership, the Church of love is just as vital if not more than vital the Church of outward observance and self-styled perfection.


Jean Vanier knew that, as The Economist obituary noted, those who are most rejected and despised by society have the most to teach it”.  If we have encountered Jean Vanier and his living the Beatitudes we can never be the same again and our understanding of the Church can never the same.” ENDS