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Jean Vanier… To Love And Be Loved

August 21, 2017 Featured Today No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

Jean Vanier was born on September 10, 1928 in Geneva, Switzerland. His father, Major-General Georges Vanier, served as the 19th governor general of Canada. Jean received a broad education in Canada, England, and France. He served with the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy. He earned a doctorate in philosophy and taught at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. He produced his first book in 1966, Happiness as Principle and End of Aristotelian Ethics.
He was 36 years old and at a crossroad in his life. What goals would he pursue? He had aspired to be a naval officer. Yet, with his education, broad experience, and keen intelligence he could have just as well sought a career as an academic, a foreign diplomat, or a writer. What motivated him, however, was more spiritual. It was as improbable as it was worthwhile.
In 1964, having left academia, he founded L’Arche, an international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. L’Arche is the French word for “(Noah’s) Ark,” a symbol of hope. Vanier had been appalled by the fact that people with developmental disabilities, especially those with Down syndrome, were institutionalized and therefore deprived of the dignity and respect that was their birthright.
“We must do what we can do diminish walls, to meet each other,” he stated. “Why do we put people with disabilities behind walls?”
The success of the L’Arche communities has been astonishing. Vanier has established no less than 147 of them in 35 countries. “I am struck,” he explained, “by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”
Vanier understood that the desire to love and to be loved is something every person longs to experience. In 1971, he and Marie-Helene Mathieu co-founded Faith and Light which also works for people with developmental disabilities. It has spread to over 1,800 communities in more than 80 countries.
For his work, Vanier has received numerous awards: The French Legion of Honour, The Templeton Prize, The Order of Canada, the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award and the Community of Christ International Peace Award. Numerous high schools throughout Canada are named in his honor. On September 27, 2016, he received The Peace Abbey Foundation International Courage of Conscience Award for his lifelong commitment to building a world of inclusion for individuals with disabilities.
His fame is not only international, but cosmic. In 2010 asteroid 8604 was officially named “Vanier” in his honor.
Vanier’s immense success and the extravagant, though well-deserved, praise that he has received, however, stands in stark contradiction with prevailing social attitudes toward people who have developmental disabilities. Attitudes toward the unborn who carry the gene for Down syndrome, for example, are light years from the acceptance and care that is characteristic of L’Arche and Faith and Light.
Down syndrome can be detected prenatally. According to the medical journal, Prenatal Diagnosis (volume 19, issue 1), 92 percent of Down syndrome confirmed pregnancies are aborted. In addition, when a Down syndrome baby is born, doctors often encourage the mother to abort the “defective” child and try again. One may recall how Sarah Palin was criticized for not aborting her Down syndrome son, Trig. Statistically, one out of every 691 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome.
There is, however, hope on the horizon. In March 2016, Indiana became the second state, after North Dakota, to ban abortions because of Down syndrome. Mike Pence, while governor of Indiana, signed legislation banning doctors from knowingly aborting an unborn baby solely because of a genetic disability such as Down syndrome.
Dr. Jerome Lejeune, who discovered the genetic cause of Down syndrome, insisted that the medical establishment could find a cure for its unborn carriers if it did not spend its energy on killing them.
The realism and effectiveness of Vanier’s working motto “to love and be loved” is evidenced in many individual cases. One noteworthy example involves Dr. Harley Smyth, a world-class neurosurgeon. When his daughter, Anna, was born with Down syndrome, some doctors suggested that he institutionalize her at three years of age when she was entitled to free medical care.
The idea was repugnant to her father and prompted him to ask: “In the elimination of the obvious heartache involved in the receiving of a mentally retarded child into the family of man, what else might we eliminate?”
That question was answered in a dramatic way, for the victim in waiting could very well have been Dr. Smyth himself.
He was fond of taking Anna to an indoor pool for swimming lessons. One day at the pool, when she was seven years old, she noticed a freckle on her father’s back that looked different from the others. “Doctor fix it!” she said. Smyth asked a plastic surgeon at the hospital to examine the curious spot.
The “freckle” turned out to be a malignant melanoma, an insidiously dangerous form of skin cancer, but caught by Anna at an early stage. In gratitude to his daughter for possibly saving his life (as well as the lives of Dr. Smyth’s future patients), he would sometimes introduce himself at pro-life conferences as Anna’s dad.
The contribution of Jean Vanier toward accepting people with developmental disabilities remains incomplete as long as they are routinely aborted precisely because of their condition. It is ardently hoped that the numerous schools named after Vanier honor him not only on their stationery, but in the classroom. Vanier has expressed his horror by the high rate of abortions for babies with Down syndrome.
Jean Vanier, who is now in his late eighties, continues to live as a member of the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, 50 miles north of Paris. He has authored some 30 books, dealing with philosophy, theology, tenderness, acceptance, tolerance, and love.
With regard to the last, an abiding conviction of his is that “to love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth and their importance.”
Amen.

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