What would a conversation between John Paul II and Jean Vanier be like?


Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together, is to receive the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award.

For the first time in its history the US-based award is being taken overseas, to France, where Bishop Martin Amos of Davenport, Iowa, will present the award to Vanier in the village where he founded L’Arche in 1964.


The award honours Pope John XXIII and commemorates his 1963 encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”)….

(More of the news article here.)

I have joked to some people that the third chapter of this manuscript, on the sign of the impaired body, is pretty close to planting John Paul II and Jean Vanier in the same room and watching them have the conversation they should have had when both were alive.  They did meet–but as far as I know, no in depth conversation occurred.  Vanier’s way of gentleness and openness to the other, and his focus on being an embodied ecclesial community, is lived out in L’Arche communities worldwide–and has points in common with the spirituality and phenomenology of the Theology of the Body.  Vanier and John Paul II both began as students of philosophy, and one sense that although they may be on different pages, they play from the same book.

A clip from the manuscript on Vanier and the Theology of the Body:

Vanier (and others) exemplify the phenomenological attitude when they affirm that  L’Arche is “a sign, not a solution.”….
The sign of  L’Arche fleshes out the shared reality of limitation and weakness and the common reliance on the unlimited strength of God, and points to the divine call to love as God loves. The mission of  L’Arche, as stated in its charter, is simultaneously ambitious yet humble: “Our mission is to create homes where faithful relationships based on forgiveness and celebration are nurtured. We want to reveal the unique value and vocation of each person, and to live relationships in community as a sign of hope and love.”[3]The process of living in community together involves acknowledging weakness, and confronting fear with the concrete power of love. The end of the lived experience is celebration and joy: not that every moment is joyful, or a celebration, but that the lived experience is a real gift of life shared.
But Vanier also says that community is not achieved but received, not a goal but a gift. Living together, guided by the above mission, opens our hands to receive that gift. And in doing so, he undercuts what I think can be a subtle temptation: the purpose of welcoming people with disabilities into small community, into the Church, into our families, is not first and foremost to witness. It is a response to a call from God to love as God loves. It requires a “spiritual seeing,” as Scheler would say, that all human beings are our brothers and sisters, called in Christ to be adopted sons and daughters of God. In doing so, Vanier clarifies what seems to be a temptation among first readers of the Theology of the Body literature: as central as the doctrines of Incarnation and incarnation are, the audiences are not about seeing the body of oneself or another in isolation. It is about the visible lived experience of call to love and response to love, of relationship to God and others. It is about the divinely ordained witness to love. This is seen in a powerful way by the union of a man and woman in sacramental marriage, and as John Paul II argues, was given to us at the dawn of creation as a sign of how we are called to be in union with God. I argue this can be seen in a woman giving birth, yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit, living out the “pre-given language of self-giving and fruitfulness” through answering the call to motherhood.  The relationship of those who are obviously impaired to those of us who are less obviously impaired gives us practice in loving one another without preconditions, in accepting our identity as beloved children of the Father, and in sensing how our mutually sensed limitation and weakness points to God as our fulfillment. The sign is fully manifest in the finite human being’s relationship to the infinite God and each finite other.

[1]A good summary of this notion is provided by John Swinton, in the preface of Living Gently in a Violent World, 17.
[2]Living Gently in a Violent World, 34.
[3]The Paradox of Disability, 60.

Congratulations to Vanier and L’Arche for this well deserved award!


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