By Marjorie Parker
Jean Vanier died peacefully on 7th May. At his requiem Mass, Marie-Helene, his long time friend and co-founder of Faith and Light reminded us that “to die is not a lamp going out but a new light lighting up, Jean has given us a new light” What is the light that Jean has left behind for our world? Two of the greatest lights he lit up are no doubt L’Arche Communities and Faith and Light Communities but the full impact of his life and work is much more far reaching.
Jean was born in 1928, of Canadian parents. At 13 enrolled in Naval College and subsequently had a short but successful career in the Canadian Navy. However, the Holocaust, the dropping of the atom bombs and the beginning of the Cold War made a great impact on him and he left the Navy in 1950 with no clear plan in mind but certain that “God would guide him”
The next years were a time of searching, including studying and teaching philosophy. In 1964 after spending time in visiting various institutions in France for men with severe learning difficulties, deeply moved by the conditions they lived in but impressed by their simple request “Will you be my friend”, he bought a small, tumbledown cottage in Trosly-Breuil and invited two men with mental difficulties to make their home with him. It was a simple life. Together, they shopped, cooked, shared meals, prayed and had lots of fun. Phillippe and Raphael became “his teachers of tenderness”.
From the beginning Jean had one basic philosophy: that he was not doing things for them but with them. He was learning from their special gifts. The joy he experienced was greater than anything he could have imagined as he discovered that people with learning disabilities, might be unable to develop their rational intelligence but they have a heart that longs for encounter, not intense scholarly discussions but sharing, joking and laughing. Their spirituality is often deeply rooted as they move to God through the heart rather than the head.
Jean never intended to start a movement but like the mustard seed, from this first L’Arche, other communities began to grow in France, Canada, India and many parts of the world . There are now L’Arche communities throughout the world including 10 in the UK. Although their structures are constantly under review the basic ethos remains the same. In the words of Pope Francis, they are places “of celebration and forgiveness, compassion and joy, demonstrating that everyone, no matter his or her disability is loved by God and called to participate in a world of brotherhood, justice and peace”. We don’t have L’Arche in our diocese, but the House of Light in Chapel Allerton in Leeds was founded on Jean’s philosophy and anyone who encounters this special community can see the light of Jean shining close to us.
From the early days L’Arche communities crossed the boundaries of Faiths. This was and is a challenge but not a problem. When Jean was asked how he, a deeply committed Catholic coped with living with Jews, Hindus, Muslims and people from different Christian denominations, his answer was ” Jesus is our friend and our model. He loves everyone, no matter their culture, their religion, their abilities or inabilities. Isn’t there a danger, at times, that the Catholic Church hides Jesus through its insistence on rules, at the expense of a real encounter with him”.
In the late sixties as L’ Arche communities were becoming established Jean faced another unexpected challenge. He and his friend Marie Helene met Camille and Gerard, parents of Thaddee and Loic, two boys with profound disabilities. They had been refused places on a diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes because they were “handicapped not sick”. The family arranged their own pilgrimage but were made very unwelcome in the hotel and at the Services. Jean and Marie-Helen decided to organise an International Lourdes pilgrimage for groups of 30 people, 10 people with learning disabilities,10 family members and 10 helpers. After three years planning, they met in Lourdes in Holy Week 1971. Initially the authorities and people in Lourdes were frightened, shops, bars and cafes closed, barriers erected – but by Easter Sunday all had changed. There was an explosion of joy and love that changed Lourdes for ever. More importantly it changed the families who rejoiced in the acceptance and involvement of their children, many of whom were adults. On the return home the groups wanted to continue meeting and Faith and Light communities were born. It was the answer to the needs of many families and here in Yorkshire new groups sprang up very quickly.
These are not residential communities but meet regularly, at least each month, establishing bonds of friendship and love. The meetings are simple, sharing food, worshipping together and celebrating our gifts and talents. Together, we discover our strengths and weaknesses, and the importance of coming to God with our hearts as well as our heads. We now have six active communities in our diocese. There are new challenges, but our basic ethos has not changed. Jean has led us to discover for ourselves that the first need of people who are poor, in pain, marginalised or suffering is for people to walk with them, to help them discover and celebrate their gifts, to find confidence and dignity. In walking with people with disabilities we discover our own inner spirituality.
Jean’s message is both profound and simple, learnt through living in community with those the world often neglects and casts out. In essence it is a message for us all. We are not called to do extraordinary things but ordinary things with great love. This is true in the communities of our families, our workplaces, our schools, our parishes, wherever we share our lives with others. Jean was a man of celebration and forgiveness, unity and faith, a peace maker and friend. Any encounter with him made a deep impact. After meeting him, George, one of our friends from the House of Light said “I’ve been talking to Jesus” The greatest light Jean leaves with us is the knowledge that “to love someone is to reveal to them their capacity for life, the God-given light that shines in each person” and by revealing it them we discover our own value and dignity.
ARE YOU INTERESTED IN HELPING FAITH & LIGHT?
Faith & Light is very active in the Leeds Diocese.
In the Leeds area there are groups that meet regularly at Holy Rosary church in Chapeltown, St Theresa’s church in Crossgates (this is an ecumenical group) and at Holy Name Church in Cookridge.
There are also groups who meet regularly in Bradford, Keighley and Dewsbury.
Mgr Donal Lucey of the Leeds Diocese is chaplain to Faith & Light UK north.
To find out more you can contact Marjorie Parker directly on 07470 359057