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9 jean vanier

The revelations about Jean Vanier warn us not to put faith in ‘living saints’

What we now know about Jean Vanier, should not overshadow the valuable work done by L’Arche, the organisation he founded—by Ian Dunn

I’ve never become numb to revelations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, but the surprise goes away. You learn too much, you know too much, you make what peace you can with that knowledge and surprise passes. Until I read about Jean Vanier.

The founder of the L’Arche movement was someone I admired tremendously. I never met him, never saw him speak, but I had read his books, watched his interviews and his message was one that I found very powerful.

‘Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness’ is one quote of his I remember printing off and putting in my wallet, I was so taken with it.

Disappointment

One admirer wrote of Vanier: “The total effect of his presence and his words was to calm me, soothe me. This is why I was a Christian. He was the nearest thing to a saint I had ever met. I loved Jean Vanier.”

And of course, now we know more. We know that, over the course of several decades, Vanier had sexual relationships with several women who had come to him for spiritual guidance. Under his direction, they were seduced into relationships that they experienced as abusive. It seems that Vanier used the language of Christian vulnerability in order to persuade women to sleep with him.

I have a friend who has binned all his books, and I understand the impulse. In my life, I had some dealings with a couple of priests I later found out had abused people sexually. It was a great shock—but it wasn’t incomprehensible. They had been men, with good moments and bad, but the worst had been worse than I could have imagined.

‘Good and evil’

I’ve also met a few people I’d describe as holy—having a profound and ineffable goodness about them. From what I’d read, and what I’d heard from the reports of others, I would have readily put Vanier in that category.

How those two forces, the good and the evil, can exist in the same person is beyond my understanding. If this man had such a dark side, then who can we believe in? Going back and reading some of his writings now is quite painful. ‘To become fully human is to let down the barriers’ now reads like an exercise designed to permit exploitation. It’s hard not to be angry and suspicious.

Of course, Vanier’s sins do not undo all the good he has done. He founded L’Arche in 1964 and since then it has grown to 153 communities in 38 countries. They have done wonderful work. The way they have handled these allegations, with sensitivity and transparency, should be a model for others. We can only hope they survive this scandal.

Only God is perfect

For the rest of us, perhaps we should put less faith in princes—of the Church or otherwise. There is a tradition in Islamic art where, no matter how elaborate the piece, they always put in a small imperfection, because only God is perfect.

In recent decades, the Church has canonised people at an unprecedented rate, partly to offer the faithful more models of holiness. I’m not sure this has been wise, especially when there is a tendency to raise people to the altars so recently after they’ve died. It encourages us to seek out ‘living saints’ and to place expectations that cannot be fulfilled.

I wholly understand the impulse. We want to be inspired by others, to celebrate the best of us. That is laudable, but only God is perfect. The more we place others on a pedestal, the greater will be the temptations of power.

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