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Letter from Rome, February 22, 2020: Jean Vanier

We must remember that God’s mercy — the response of self-subsistent Charity to sinful creatures — is severe; stern as death, and not less terrible than His wrath.

Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities, appears in the documentary "Summer in the Forest." (CNS photo/Abramorama)

I remember the first time I attended the via Crucis at the Colosseum. It was Good Friday of 1998, my first Holy Week in Rome, and my mother had come to visit with my two sisters, the elder very pregnant and the younger a little girl still.

We had a perch above the entrance to the Colosseum metro stop at the base of the colle oppio, and we did not stay for the whole thing — it started to rain, if memory serves — and the fatigue of a day’s hard walking on sampietrini combined with other factors in play to make our staying imprudent and in any case undesirable.

I remember two things quite distinctly: the effect of the torchlight on the air as the evening twilight inevitably failed and gave way to the strangely swallowing dark; and the piercing intonation of the verse and response, Adoramus te Christe et benedicimus tibi, quia per Crucem sanctam tuam redemisti mundum.

It was spectacle, but one I came in later years to see was turned against its perfect, tawdry backdrop: the Cross — instrument of crowd-pleasing judicial murder — and the spectacular shell of the half-ruined Colosseum, locus excellens of Roman bloodsport and a permanent reminder of our universal addiction to cruelty — drive home the spectator-side of our common thrall to gloria mundi.

These recollections came to me after I read of Jean Vanier’s disgrace, and as I read reaction to the news.

Jean Vanier was the founder of l’Arche, a home for people with severe disabilities, which grew from its beginnings in 1965 into an international volunteer network of more than one hundred fifty communities present in nearly forty countries on every habitable continent.

Loved and revered by generations as a living saint, Vanier allegedly used his universal esteem to prey on women who were able-bodied and sound of mind, but weak and vulnerable. Sometimes Vanier seduced them under the pretext of spiritual guidance and sometimes — all according to the report of independent investigators commissioned by l’Arche directors themselves — he shared his victims with Fr Thomas Philippe OP, a priest severely censured in 1956, who was Vanier’s own spiritual guide and master.

Vanier died in May of last year, at 90. I like to think I’m hard boiled and I know I’m hard-bitten, but I praised Vanier this past summer to a group of volunteers who were our guests at a family cookout, friends of an out-of-town relation devoted to serving l’Arche-affiliated communities.

When the news broke, I wrote to a dear friend, who is close to l’Arche and revered Vanier, that I’ve long since come to see the present as a winnowing phase: one of severe mercy, in which our good and patient Lord is letting us be stripped of our heroes.

It is easy to say, “What a heavy reckoning shall be theirs to make on the Last Day!” We know by the cognition of faith that even the righteous man shall tremble naked then, and barely stand. What reckoning shall we have to make for our idolatries, I wonder, which are accessory to all such wickedness?

He is teaching us — apparently, we shall learn no other way — to say, Ave Crux, spes unica! and really mean it.

Truly, there is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.

There is one Holy Cross that saves. The numberless host of God’s holy ones in celestial Jerusalem are the first witnesses to this mighty and awful truth.

I’ve said in these pages — and it bears repeating in days like these — that we must remember that God is good, even and especially as all this gruesome business continues to unfold: that His mercy — the response of self-subsistent Charity to sinful creatures — is severe; stern as death, and not less terrible than His wrath. His Church is true: She is His bride, and she must be spotless; He will not have her any other way.

I recall none of it, but the author of the meditations that accompanied the via Crucis that Good Friday of 1998 was Olivier Clément, the Orthodox theologian and ecumenist. “Jesus,” he prayed at the Second Station:

[D]erision strangely consecrates you: Here you are revested in the purple of kings, head crowned, scepter in hand. But the purple is that of your blood, and innocent blood that flows all over the world. Your crown is made of thorns, which makes the soil grow in cursedness because of our sins. The scepter is a rod that pierces your hand. While those who taunt you, unknowing, tell the truth: You are the king of the Jews.

God help us.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 127 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief for The Catholic Herald. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

13 Comments

  1. Dear Mr. Altieri –

    Thank you for writing this down and sending it out.

    It is true indeed: our idolatries are being laid bare. Even “charity” can erect an idolatrous temple, attractive to the eye from without, yet inside in secret chambers men “excuse themselves” from obeying The Commandments of Jesus.

    Indeed, has Jesus declared, “Love of God is the First Commandment,” and “Love of Neighbor” is only “the second.” It seems in our contemporary Church, lying to ourselves in Gaudium et Spes 24, we have made idolatry of The Second Commandment, equating with The First.

    Jesus is The Way, and apart from Him, our “Charity” is a wooden idol, fit to be thrown in the Tiber.

    But Jesus is our Commander and King, and says “Fear not, I have overcome the World.”

    • How is GS 24 an example of “lying to ourselves”?
      “God, Who has fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood. For having been created in the image of God, Who ‘from one man has created the whole human race and made them live all over the face of the earth’ (Acts 17:26), all men are called to one and the same goal, namely God Himself.” Admittedly, these words were written in the optimistic decade following the end of WWII, and that is important to remember for context–but, again, what’s actually wrong with it?

  2. The background of ‘unholy soul ties’ with similarly afflicted persons , ? even possible Masonic tie ups considering the high social status of the person, its effects and influences that can turn values and relationships upside down – hope
    such would be what would come to the forefront from these disclosures as well .

    Subduing carnal passions , considering that same are likely even a byproduct of The Fall ( as hinted in the Immaculate Conception as well ) and instead taking in The Truth of the Father’s love for us , in the Sacred Heart , to transform all moments unto same , in The Precious Blood , for ever deepening holy innocent relationships – such is our sacred mission too .

    The Church has tried to ever convey same , having had to pay with the blood of the martyrs , from the fury of the enemy who has exerted his influence through carnal realm and continuing to do so , through faiths that embrace such lies as well as the evil of those who were called to The Truth , falling for such betrayals from involvement with the groups that promote same .
    Likely too that there is a common thread of either promoting /condoning contraception , the ‘user ‘ attitude against women , thus inviting the demonic entities that lead families to become ‘disabled ‘ – during the Lenten season, when there are prayers raised up to our Father , for His mercy and grace , may all these wounded and disabled too have a place in all our hearts .

  3. “So here’s a song to the strong, about a shake from a snake and the smile that came along…Can’t trust it.” Is Spinoza right? That eventually even well-meaning, God-inspired groups organized for the works of charity and mercy are ultimately mere human institutions and can and eventual will be subject to the corrupted nature of human egoism and hubris? Or maybe it is another test from God to purify the faithful, Luke 12? All I can say is that as a professed Christian who tries to follow the Way of Jesus Christ through the path of the Catholic Church news like this is very discouraging.

  4. Institutions can no longer masquerade as being communities or of the community — they are instead tied to mass population centers where anonymity and the lack of accountability reign. If there is to be reform, there must be accountability, and everyone must vet each other properly, and where this is not possible, distance must be maintained. This is the only way forward. Trust can no longer be assumed or given freely — it must be earned.

  5. It would be bad enough if it was revealed he had multiple affairs. That would be regrettable but understandable. Men can be lonely and susceptible. But the very creepy part is his mixture of seduction and pseudo spirituality. That’s a reoccurring element in cults.

  6. QUOTE: “I’ve long since come to see the present as a winnowing phase: one of severe mercy, in which our good and patient Lord is letting us be stripped of our heroes.”

    Very well said.

  7. Maybe this will finally heal us of the hero worship (read idolatry) that has plagued the Church these last 50 years. We work out our salvation in fear and trembling. We do not presume salvation or holiness. We honor the Saints the Church has declared through investigation and miracles. Above all, we follow Jesus not Jean.

  8. To me, the use by Vanier of his leadership position as a spiritual guide represents the era in which he operated. True, he developed a brilliant operation and it achieved marvellous things. I am sure his motives in that regard were genuine. But we are talking about the era of the sexual revolution and cults, where even millionaires such as the Beatles had their ‘gurus’.
    It seems that the murky lines of ‘tolerance ‘ preached in that era, combined with a psychobabble and instant diagnosis of sexual ‘repression ‘ enabled a lot of men to exploit women and to use them in manipulative ways. This dishonesty in the relationship, represented as a ‘liberating’ thing, would very likely have been damaging for the women he emotionally manipulated. But the whole era was about exploitation and manipulation and all of it was dressed up as a ‘liberation ‘ from the strictures that had previously applied (you know, when women who were valued enough to sleep and have sex with were seen as valuable enough to marry – that bad old time).

    • Jude,
      You bring up a good point. There were a lot of strange things going on in the 1960s and 70s and the sexual revolution made it all the creepier.

      Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross of “Death and Dieing” fame was involved in a pseudo spiritual cult back in the 1960’s where the leader promised some type of enlightenment in order to sexually manipulate women.

      It was a weird era and those sort of things continue today but not in the same way they did back then or under the same guise.

      And to be fair, Mr. Vanier is deceased and can’t defend himself. Until everything is examined and corroborated the accusations are alleged, not proven.

  9. As the article says, “… we are being stripped of our heroes”, so with God’s help we look and learn from what caused the temporary “success” and eventual fall of those “heroes”, and we also learn more about our TRUE and FAITHFUL Catholic Heroes of which we have so many in 2,000 years in the Canonized Saints and the more numerous Anonymous Saints (the Iceberg Principle). We have plenty of Anonymous (non-recognized-non-canonized) Saints and others on the way there in the Church today. Jesus did not die in vain, blessing the past, present and future!

    Our blind acceptance of Satan and the World System’s indoctrination of a Catholic Inferiority Complex gives us either ROSE colored glasses where we live in an over-mystical, disconnected high or RED colored glasses where we don’t see much good in the Church at all and look only at political solutions (Satan loves both: the double pincer of death). Both are toxic, blinding and destructive.

    We need to see through Jesus eyes, so we can see through the smoke screen of “holy”, “loving”, “Catholic-ish” words into the heart of sacrificial faith-filled works: “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness!’…”, (Matthew 7:22-23). Beware of those who pretend to be more Catholic than the REAL Catholic Church! We have plenty of Real Heroes to follow, with Jesus at the top (1 Corinthians 11:1)!

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  3. SHROVE MONDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

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