Some truths are particularly hard to hear — as in the scandal that brutally destroyed the image of holiness that had for so long surrounded Jean Vanier. This truth is especially difficult to process for those who lived and worked alongside him, in the community of Trosly-Breuil in northeastern France.
Jean Vanier, whose life at the service of people with intellectual disabilities inspired countless faithful for decades, received vibrant tributes from around the world when he died on May 7, 2019, including from Pope Francis himself, who expressed his gratitude for Vanier’s unique testimony.
But all that has changed in the wake of the Feb. 22 publication of the report commissioned by the global community of L’Arche, which Vanier founded to serve the disabled, that revealed Vanier’s sexual misconduct with six women without disabilities, in the context of providing spiritual direction to them.
Although the Church has been faced with a wave of sexual-abuse scandals over the past years, this unexpected news about a man who was often regarded as a saint was like a bolt from the blue.
“These serious facts [regarding Jean Vanier] are undeniable,” Archbishop Pierre d’Ornellas of Rennes, the spiritual director of L’Arche International, wrote in a letter published on his diocese’s website. While expressing sadness about what he calls “the Jean Vanier enigma,” Archbishop d’Ornellas highlighted the “undeniable” fact that, by founding L’Arche, Vanier also did a “great good, which remains a true good.”
Father Thomas Philippe’s Shadow
The “wrong spiritual doctrine” that Vanier embraced was, as the archbishop of Rennes noted in his letter, inspired by Vanier’s spiritual mentor, the Dominican priest Thomas Philippe, who, after a canonical investigation was condemned in 1956 for his “pseudo-mystical doctrine” and sexual practices and prohibited from exercising any priestly ministry.
These facts about Father Philippe, who died in 1993, became public only in 2015. But according to the recent independent investigation, Vanier was fully aware of Father Philippe’s actions for many years, while pretending to ignore it.
The two men met when Vanier was 20 years old, and this relationship had a decisive influence on his personal development. “Except for his studies in philosophy, Jean did all of his education with Thomas and spent a lot of time with him at a critical age. With no real bonds with his own family since the age of 13, [his relationship with Thomas] had a strong spiritual impact that darkened Jean’s conscience, for sure,” Father Christian Mahéas, chaplain of L’Arche in France, told the Register.
Father Mahéas hypothesized that because Vanier was under the influence of Father Philippe for so long that it likely took a lot of time for him to understand that the kind of relationship he had with women was totally inappropriate. “But he was also responsible for himself. He knew that these women he accompanied had suffered, and he cannot be excused for what he did; it would be too easy,” he said.
A Member of Our Suffering Church
Father Mahéas accompanied Vanier the last five months of his earthly life and was beside him when he died. As the chaplain of L’Arche in France, he has been aware of the opening of an investigation about Vanier for a year but had to stay silent until its official conclusion.
“When I realized what was going on, Jean was already close to death, and he was very weak; so it was not really the right time to discuss that. But I tried to accompany him until the end, seeing him like a poor brother that needs God’s forgiveness, just like any other member of our suffering Church, in the words of [Georges] Bernanos.”
According to Father Mahéas and other members of L’Arche, during the last months of his life, Vanier mentioned on a few occasions the “burden” he was bearing as Father Philippe’s spiritual son. “It took time, but he eventually felt there was something wrong, something disordered, but he couldn’t talk about it,” Father Mahéas said, warning against the temptation to demonize Vanier now, as quickly as many people called him a saint. “The luminous part of him was so big that no one could suspect such a dark side, but the tendency to put people on a pedestal is not good for us Christians.”
While calling for greater vigilance with regard to spiritual direction within the Church, the chaplain also recalled the worldwide impact of Vanier’s work, starting from the expression “people with disabilities” — an expression he created.
‘We Are L’Arche’
But if Father Mahéas has had enough time to grieve and process, that’s not yet the case for all of the community members, including disabled members themselves.
“Some of them in our homes have removed Vanier’s picture; they don’t want to see him, as they feel betrayed,” Christine McGrievy, director of L’Arche in Trosly-Breuil, where Vanier founded the first L’Arche community, told the Register.
Indeed, emotion is still palpable in the various communities of L’Arche, which are slowly trying to overcome the shock of the news about their beloved founder. “We need time to process, and then we’ll have a clearer vision of what is good and bad in this man,” McGrievy said, noting Vanier had an important place in the homes’ life symbolically, even though the communities have been working without him for decades since he retired from leadership of L’Arche in 1981. “L’Arche doesn’t belong to Jean Vanier; and by removing his picture, the members with mental disabilities are trying to say: ‘We are L’Arche, not him.’”
Moreover, in these deeply troubled times for the association worldwide, these special members remain the most consoling presence for employees and volunteers, many of which are still strongly shaken.
“As usual, the core members [the persons with disabilities welcomed in the homes] were of great support on the day of the announcement,” Pierre Jacquand, director of L’Arche International, told the Register. “A leader of a community told me that one of them stayed beside him all day long, asking him how he felt after revealing Jean’s actions to the members.”
“And another person told an assistant: ‘I am here for you if you need me,’” he said, commenting that these vulnerable people are the true face of L’Arche — those who make it live and evolve.
The Strength to Stay Aboard the Ark
Beyond pain and anger, this tragedy also represents for many members an opportunity to refocus on the only and genuine purpose of L’Arche: the care of people with mental disabilities. Indeed, as many employees fear that the latter will suffer the consequences of the scandal affecting Vanier, undergoing a kind of “double rejection” from society — first, because of their disability; and, second, because of their association with Vanier’s work — they feel the urgency to reaffirm the necessity to protect and support them.
“The main temptation in such circumstances is to run away and leave the ship — in this case, the Ark,” Father Mahéas said. “However, it is today more than ever that we must stay and witness the importance of people with disabilities for societies and the gift of the relationship we have with them.”
As the spiritual guide of L’Arche, he says to all those he accompanies — volunteers, employees, religious or nuns within the communities — that what they are living “is part of the cross, in this Lent period that started a little bit earlier than expected.”
While inviting the members of L’Arche and all the Catholic faithful to find “in the heart of the Christian message” the strength to move forward despite scandals, pain or death, he pointed out the fact that this period of purification for L’Arche can also be very fruitful. “If L’Arche is truly God’s work, then God definitely wants to keep us in humility.”
Rebuilding a Narrative
Psychological assistance is being provided by the administration of L’Arche to initiate a healing process and ensure protection both for employees and those welcomed in the communities. “It is important to understand our story and put words on what we’ve lived,” Christine McGrievy said.
According to her, even if it is impossible to simply erase Jean Vanier from the founding story of their community, as it would have never been created without him, L’Arche will need a new narrative to ensure the sustainability of its mission. “We must evolve, integrate new elements to our story; and we’ll have to work on that all together,” she said, mentioning new projects around environment and rural communities.
“Without Jean and his imposing figure that was bigger than us, we will find our rightful place,” McGrievy said. “Perhaps it will be smaller, but it will surely be still as worthy and important as before.” She is convinced that the world still needs to hear that any individual should be respected in his intrinsic dignity and value.
And her confidence in the future is shared by Pierre Jacquand, who has already received a lot of demonstrations of support from all around the world since the publication of the investigation report. As he said, “This is a proof that the experience of L’Arche has shown the world that mutual relationships with people with mental disabilities brings hope for the construction of a more human society.”
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.