Despite the hundreds of miles between Boston and Trosly-Breuil, France, philanthropist Jean Vanier was able to address a Boston College audience on February 13 through prerecorded interview. The audience gathered to hear Vanier speak about his mission in founding L’Arche, a network of homes for the intellectually disabled. The BC-exclusive debut of the video was sponsored by The Church in the 21st Center, which will release the content online during Lent.
Listeners at Wednesday’s event included volunteers past and present (among them several BC students), university staff, and some residents of the L’Arche community in Boston. During the half-hour video, Vanier explained both the history of the organization and its roots in a Catholic philosophy of human dignity.
Vanier was raised variously in Canada, England, and France, and joined a school for Britain’s Royal Navy in the early 1940s, when he was 13 years old. He spoke of this commitment to military service as the first instance of a strong, undeniable call in his life—a call which would later be echoed in his vocation as a servant of the mentally handicapped. At every stage of his discernment, his faith was his guiding light.
“I had a desire always, when I could, to go to the Eucharist,” he said.
During his service in the Navy, Vanier read works by Thomas Merton, the American monk and writer. When his ship docked in New York, he had the chance to visit Friendship House in Harlem, where Merton had spent time. Gradually, Vanier began to feel a pull away from the military, and so devoted a year to prayer and study in France. Under the guidance of a priest, he began to consider the other duties to which God may be calling him.
Vanier also had contact with Dorothy Day (the founder of the Catholic Worker movement) and the Little Sisters of Jesus. He described how their determination “to be present to the poor and to be present to the Eucharist” deeply moved him. Vanier soon visited an institution in France for patients with mental disabilities, where he witnessed the loneliness and isolation of the people who lived there.
“I was horrified by what I saw,” Vanier recounted in the interview. “[I found] a whole world of people with disabilities locked up.”
He began to visit more frequently, and in 1964—at age 35—he took two patients, Raphael and Philippe, to live with him in a small home in Trosly-Breuil. This residence, where the three men went about their day-to-day lives together, became the starting point of L’Arche, a series of communities for the intellectually disabled that would expand its presence to 39 countries.
The 4 L’Arche homes in Boston, for example, began opening in 1983, and are home to 50 residents today. The community attracts volunteers from many walks of life, including BC graduate and undergraduate students. Worldwide, there are 154 L’Arche homes, benefitting approximately 10,000 residents.
Vanier explained how the early days of L’Arche, his life with Raphael and Philippe, opened him to a deeper understanding of love, the backbone of this international mission.
“To love,” he said. “Is to help [the person] become themselves. …A meeting is you and me, both of us with our weaknesses…it’s a communion, a mutual presence.”
Vanier also began to see what he identified as “the tyranny of normality,” or the insistence on uniform behavior that leads to the rejection of those with disabilities. Beyond ability—and even beyond culture and religion—Vanier grew to recognize that each person “has something to reveal to the universe.”
“The deepest capacity of a [person] is compassion…to be open to somebody in pain,” he said. “In each one of us there is a place where…we have been in pain. …L’Arche can become a place where we teach peace. We’re on a road to work for unity.”
The Church in the 21st Century Center, which edited and produced the interview, will release the video online during the next month. Meanwhile, BC’s Volunteer and Service Learning Center continues to send students to the L’Arche Boston North communities, where residents continue to inspire Christian charity and “touch [a volunteer’s] difficulties in loving.”
Photo courtesy of the Church in the 21st Century Center