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Jean Vanier: Real ministry is grounded in mutuality

Sebastian Gomes

May 8, 2019
Photo of Jean Vanier by Bill Wittman
Photo credit: Bill Wittman. Used with permission.
Beautiful tributes to Jean Vanier, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 90, are flooding the web. Keeping pace with all of them has been a challenge, as Vanier’s life and work touched so many different people around the world.
I never met Vanier personally, nor have I spent time in a L’Arche community. But from what I’ve read, two themes continue to surface in the tributes to the man and the dynamic of life in the communities he created.
First, concerning the man himself: Vanier was a deeply peaceful and joyful person. In every picture that accompanies the myriad testimonies, Vanier is smiling or, more likely, laughing. A deeply reflective person from a young age, whatever Vanier was seeking when he first walked into the psychiatric institution in Trosly-Breuil, France, back in 1964, he must have found along the way.
The second theme concerns the L’Arche community more broadly and may be the source of Vanier’s peacefulness and joy. Every tribute that I’ve read makes reference to the approach to care-giving and community-building that Vanier employed. He didn’t set out to “fix” a person with intellectual disabilities but created a community based on mutuality.
When we do charity, we tend to think it means doing something for a person who is less fortunate. The act is a one-way street that serves to appease our conscience.
The principle of mutuality completely subverts that premise. Everyone living in a L’Arche community is on the same level, regardless of their mental health or ability. Vanier knew that we cannot be fully alive unless we live in community and that we cannot create community unless we dismantle worldly systems of power and separation.
When authentic mutuality is fostered in a community, everyone becomes aware of their respective limitations and of their need for love and mercy. Living charitably becomes a two-way street. When individuals no longer think in categories of “us” and “them”, the inherent dignity of each person—regardless of their “ability”—can become the foundation of a community. The L’Arche community is a living witness to the principle of mutuality.
If we were to ask: “what makes a truly ‘Christian’ ministry?” we would do well to consider how mutuality factors into it. There are countless ministries in the Church: for example, ministries of service, evangelization, or social justice. What is the attitude of the ministers? Is it to help people who are “less fortunate”? Is it to convert more people to Catholicism?
Jean Vanier showed us a different way. He taught us that the most powerful witness to Jesus is coming to terms with our own weakness and then opening ourselves to transformation by encountering those on the margins. Vanier’s life was not about what he did for people with intellectual disabilities, it’s about what they did for each other. And I imagine it was the people he lived with who taught him about inner peace and joy.
 

On Thursday, May 16, Jean Vanier's funeral will be broadcast live on Salt+Light Television through the generosity of KTO in France.
Click here for more information.