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Paul Schratz - Life In The Schratz Lane

Vanier made us examine our humanity

Voices May 9, 2019

Jean Vanier mostly did what Jesus calls all of us to do – love his neighbour as himself, writes Paul Schratz. (CNS photo/courtesy Jean Vanier Association)

I mentioned to my daughter that The B.C. Catholic would probably feature the Victoria March for Life on the front page of this week’s paper. However, I said the coverage might get bumped by the death of Jean Vanier.

“Wow,” she said. “Unborn babies or the mentally disabled.”

Jean Vanier would have appreciated the comparison.

Vanier was known for his work for the developmentally disabled, as a prolific author and speaker, founder of L’Arche for his disabled friends, and establishing the Faith and Light movement for those with intellectual disabilities. Mostly what he did, however, is what Jesus calls all of us to do – love his neighbour as himself.

He was compared with Mother Teresa in that regard. In his love for the needy, he saw Jesus in everyone. He had Pope-Francis-like encounters with each person in a way surpassing the encounters most of us have with our own loved ones.

He was lauded internationally for his care for those with disabilities. Although one has to wonder how much longer Vanier would have continued being seen as heroic rather than a thorn in the side of those favouring a more eugenic role toward disabilities – eliminating them pre-natally, and increasingly post-natally.

Vanier himself had spoken out against society’s growing tendency to issue death sentences for the disabled in-utero. It was as if society was ready to tolerate the disabled already among us, but was working toward an Orwellian approach to make sure they never got born in the first place.

Few of the secular obituaries mentioned his opposition to abortion, and on that issue he was someone akin to Pope Francis, who generally prefers a pastoral rather than railing approach toward abortion.

For example, when Vanier received the Order of Canada, he took some flak for not returning it to organizers to protest their also awarding it to abortionist Henry Morgentaler.

Vanier’s response was typical Vanier in the tender manner he addressed the conflict. In an article by Andrea Mrozek, she said she would have given her award back “pronto.” Then she noted how Vanier, instead of choosing to engage in a political/cultural skirmish with organizers or pro-choice Canadians, stressed the need for Canada to rediscover what had made it great:

“It is important that we re-find this identity, that we encourage the young of our land (in whom we should have much hope) to discover the beauty of being Canadians with our own specific culture – peacemakers, people who give life, who become a sign that peace is possible in our world; to discover that our land is called to be a place of welcome not just for wealthy and competent people from other lands but also for refugees, for people from war-torn and poverty-stricken lands.”

In her article, Mrozek interpreted Vanier as saying “Canada should be a place where the unwanted are welcome” – a veiled reference to abortion.

Vanier’s way of dealing with abortion, like everything else, was one of charity. “I do not want to say (a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy) in anguish is a ‘killer.’ I would like to walk with her – maybe cry with her.”

Vanier preferred not to deal in the polarizing binaries that thrive in our world today. He chose not to simplify matters into “something which is either ‘abortion’ or ‘not abortion,’ ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice.’ We are in front of something so much more complex.”

He said the real question, which applied to those with disabilities and everyone he met, was: “What is the meaning of our life? What does it mean to be human?” A quandary worthy of Shakespeare: “To be, or not to be?”

If Vanier is to have a single earthly legacy, I hope it’s to confront us with that question: What is the meaning of our life? What does it mean to be human?

Vanier’s tender question applies to the developmentally disabled as well as to women facing crisis pregnancies. It is relevant to our own attitudes toward the unborn, the elderly, the sick, those with disabilities, those with mental illness, and our own loved ones and neighbours.

In the toxic, Twitter-fuelled environment spreading its influence to so many areas of discourse today, it becomes all the more important for us to engage with others in human dialogue, rather than insults and quarrelling.

Archbishop Miller said the world is a gentler place because of Vanier. I pray that Vanier’s influence from heaven will make it even more gentle as we struggle to address the conflicts shaping our world.