In the face of darkness: the recent news of Jean Vanier

Julian Paparella

February 25, 2020
Jean Vanier in Trosly-Breuil in 2011. Photo credit: Elodie Perriot. Courtesy of L'Arche.
This past Saturday, L'Arche International released the results of an internal investigation which concluded that founder Jean Vanier has been credibly accused of the sexual and emotional abuse of six women. Jean, who passed away last May, was prolific writer, speaker, and philosopher with a worldwide impact, whose work with persons with disabilities has had a profound effect on the way we understand and engage with disability and with what it means to be human together.
This recent news concerning Jean Vanier is deeply disturbing. It reveals aspects of a man that are so distant from what we knew of him. It makes us wonder: how is it possible? How could his life include these unacceptable acts? How could his work have had such a remarkably good impact if he committed these evil actions?
I met Jean Vanier on two occasions. Once at a conference he gave in Paris. His talk was about how we can be more deeply human together. The second time was a five-day retreat during Holy Week that he led in Trosly-Breuil, the village where he founded L’Arche. The retreat was an extraordinary spiritual experience. Jean gave powerful talks each morning that were moving and inspiring, without any notes. It seemed he was talking straight from the heart, straight from his life. I sat near him during the Easter Vigil and he even invited me to sit across from him at the lunch table for Easter Sunday, since I was a fellow Canadian. I saw a man who spoke of tenderness, of vulnerability, of loving as Jesus loves us, of discovering Jesus in our own weakness and in the weaknesses of those around us, of welcoming the gifts of every person, and of celebrating one another. Not only did he speak of these things, his whole way of being witnessed to what he said.
How can this message be reconciled with such grave misconduct? There is no easy answer. Our first thoughts go to the victims who have courageously come forward to reveal these actions which have caused them so much suffering. We next think of all of those who work for L’Arche, all those who were friends of Jean, and all those who live in L’Arche communities across the globe.
All of our lives are a mixture of light and darkness. In some cases, the darkness is crushing and scandalizing. There are certain actions that are not good, and there are others that are simply not acceptable. We see in every human life a mingling of good and bad. How do we strive to chase away the bad and run towards the good? This is what keeps us moving away from the kind of hypocrisy that we now sadly see in the life of Jean Vanier.
Without a doubt, there were good things in the life of Jean. Before these revelations, we may have thought that there was only good. Now we know there was evil too. His good acts do not justify or diminish the seriousness of the evil that he committed. Similarly, the evil that he perpetrated does not compromise the good effects of the work he did. How could we deny the goodness of the message that he represented? How can we ignore the good fruits of his work in the lives of millions of people around the world? We can no longer admire the man, but we must continue to champion what he advocated. Not because he advocated it, but because the content of the message is good, in and of itself.
There are two positive effects that can come from these depressing revelations. First, let our shock and sadness turn into determination and motivation to strive for the good and turn away from evil wherever we experience it in our lives and in our hearts. Let us strive to be authentic bearers of tenderness and not violence, forgiveness and not bitterness, love and not indifference. Let us continue working to be truly human by welcoming others with an open heart, living joyfully with one another, and celebrating each other.
At the same time, let us put our faith not in human beings, who are always fragile as we are fragile, but in God. May God bring light in our darkness. May God inspire us to live life authentically every day and to refuse hypocrisy in everything we do. The season of Lent that begins in these days is the perfect opportunity to do exactly that. In the midst of our sadness and anger, may God teach us how to pray for the victims of Jean, for the entire L’Arche community, and for Jean himself. We put our trust not in Jean, but in Jesus. He is our hope and He will never disappoint us.

Julian Paparella has contributed to Salt + Light Media since 2012. He served as an intern for many summers and currently studies theology at the Institut Catholique de Paris.