International humanitarian and spiritual leader Jean Vanier spoke to a crowd of about 250 in Gaston Hall Wednesday evening about prayer, compassion and his communities for the disabled around the world.
“The whole reality of disabilities is scandalous,” Vanier said. He said that he had seen much pain and suffering in several countries. He spoke of brokenness, how marriages have split because of the difficulties of caring for children with disabilities. “I have visited many numbers of institutions . [and found] that people with disabilities are the most oppressed people in this world,” he said. “Why do we reject people that are fragile?”
In 1964, Vanier left his job as a university professor in Toronto to found the first L’Arche community to care for the mentally handicapped in Trosly-Breuil, France. They referred to their home as “L’Arche” (French for “ark”) referring to the biblical Noah’s Ark, a symbol of refuge and hope. Vanier said of that he continues to see such hope through the L’Arche communities around the world, from the Washington, D.C., community to those in India, Rwanda, alaysia, Belfast and Haiti. “I’ve seen people rising up from depression, anger, violence, with no self-esteem . broken,” he said. “It’s about becoming human, becoming peaceful, becoming loving. It happens. I’ve seen it.”
The L’Arche communities also had an influence on Vanier. “It’s been a real privilege all these years living with people who are fragile,” he said. He explained that he learned to treasure the simple pleasures of life and see all humanity as “precious people.” He found that living with the poor and disabled taught him “how to be, how to live, how to sustain communities of peace, how to learn to struggle for justice and how to learn to forgive.”
Vanier refused to watch the news accounts of Sept. 11 because he said he was too sensitive to the vulnerability of others. “I can’t let those pictures have power over me. I will not be consumed by fear,” he remarked. Instead, he said, “we are not to governed by fear, but be governed by truth and compassion.”
Although Vanier spoke of service and unity as “a message of Jesus,” he also discussed a fundamental connection between people of all faiths. His L’Arche community in India includes uslims, Hindus and Christians. Belief in God, however, was not a requirement. “I’d rather have people who believe in people with disabilities and don’t believe in God than people who believe in God but don’t believe in people with disabilities.”
Vanier also gave a lecture at Georgetown in the 1970s, and among the undergraduates who said they were inspired by Vanier’s message includes University President John J. DeGioia and Interim University Chaplain Scott Pilarz, S.J.
In his introduction of Vanier, Pilarz said it was appropriate for Vanier to speak on the Hilltop because of “Georgetown’s Jesuit and Catholic identity.”
A question and answer period allowed those in the audience to connect with Vanier and share their own experiences. Linda Campanelli, a single mother of a child with regressive autism, thanked Vanier for “creating a place for other individuals to share.” Like Vanier, she left a competitive job with long hours to take care of children with disabilities. While her estranged husband and friends did not understand why she chose to leave her job to care for her son and work as a substitute teacher at his school, Campanelli saw it as a “second calling.” She explained that she found it is “through grief and prayer that you begin to understand that this child is the closest gift of unconditional love.”
Katherine Chiu (NHS ’05) said hearing Campanelli’s story after Vanier’s speech had a major impact on her. “The woman who shared her experience gave me a sense of reality,” she said. “It was heartfelt.”
In addition to Georgetown students and faculty, Washington, D.C., residents and members of Vanier’s L’Arche communities attended the lecture. Local resident Faye Yu said that Vanier’s writings have inspired her. “I loved his book Brokenness . by living in a community and mutually teaching each other, you come out being served and learning about your own brokenness.”
Vanier’s speech inspired some audience members to consider a life of service. Brian Griffiths (MSB ’03) said. “He’s had such an amazing life . I wish and hope I could do something similar,” he said. Gerard Alolod (SFS ’05) said he found Vanier’s speech powerful. “His message was absolutely genuine and truly God-enlightened,” he said. “I hope his mission doesn’t stay within the walls of Gaston.”
Born the son of Canada’s Governor General Georges Vanier, Jean Vanier joined both the British and the Canadian Royal navies and received his doctorate in philosophy from L’Institut Catholique de Paris. With Marie Helene Mathieu in 1971, Vanier founded Faith and Light support groups for the disabled and their families to pray together a few times a month. The Catholic Church has recognized Vanier for his lay ministry by honoring him with the Paul VI International Prize in1997. In 2000, Inside The Vatican magazine recognized Vanier as one of the top 10 people of the year. Because of Vanier’s influence, there are now over 110 L’Arche communities in 29 countries and 1,300 “Faith and Light” groups all over the world.
Vanier’s lecture, entitled “Becoming Human” was sponsored by Campus Ministry. Vanier will be speaking again on Saturday, Oct. 19, at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on New York Avenue, NW.