Saturday 22 February 2020

The tragedy of Jean Vanier: Saint or Sinner? - A personal reflection

I like many in the Catholic world, am still reeling with shock over the news that broke this morning of allegations against Jean Vanier for sexually abusing six women between 1970 and 2005. According to the internal report initiated by L’Arche International, “sexual relations were instigated by Vanier, usually in the context of giving spiritual guidance.” Although “None of the woman he abused were themselves disabled…these actions are indicative of a deep psychological and spiritual hold that Jean Vanier had on these women”

What are we to make of all this? In the eyes of many Vanier was a living saint. He founded the L’Arche community in 1964 to provide care and dignity for the mentally and physically disabled. Vanier has been an inspiration to many. His homes for the disabled are well respected as places where those with disabilities live and work as equals alongside those with none. His philosophical and spiritual writings display a deep and profound vision of the human person made in the image and likeness of God.  The great and the good have recognised the unique contribution that this disciple of Christ has made to the lives of the weak and the vulnerable. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and awarded both the Companion of the Order of Canada and the Templeton Prize, which he received in 2015 from the Archbishop of Canterbury. I myself heard him speak and met him briefly several years ago and was deeply moved by his words and his manner. And yet today, we have the shocking news that Jean Vanier had another side to him, and it is alleged, he abused the trust of women who came to him for spiritual guidance.

I must confess, I felt absolutely gutted when the news broke this morning. After a few moments of disbelief and then another twenty minutes or so of scouring the internet for different versions of the story, I did, what I should have done straight away, and went to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in my house.

I sat with the Lord for a while and allowed the anger, frustration and disbelief to settle and then sat with simple question: Why? Why him? Why did he do it? Why now after he is dead? Why? And I seemed to get by way of an answer back: Why not him? I was stunned at this answer and sat with this for a moment longer….why not him? Well, I responded to the Lord,  because he is has done X Y and Z for the sake of the Gospel, because he was inspiration, because I liked him… because he is a good man….I waited in prayer but heard  nothing.  Them in the silence, I seemed to hear the words from scripture: ‘Only God is good’.

Only God is good.

It seems to me that Jean Vanier is in a sense both an icon of the Church and of every Christian. Now, before you stone me, hear me out. No one is good, not completely. All of us are sinners in need of the mercy of God, all of us - without exception. It’s no good saying I’m not like that, I haven’t done that….all of us, if we are honest with ourselves, harbour thought of greed, gluttony, anger, lust, pride, deceit, envy, sloth (to name a few!) and, what is more, all of us have acted on these in various ways and to various degrees throughout our lives. If you think you haven’t you are deluded or you are a liar. People are very quick to judge, and social media is full of comments like “He was a vile man” – but this simply is not true. Or at least if it is true, it is true of everyone. Jean Vanier wasn’t a good man, but nor was he a bad man – he was sinner in need of the mercy of God. A sinner who God used for his glory, a sinner who did incredible things for the kingdom and at the same time a sinner who did awful things, and allegedly, terrible things. This is not a defence of his alleged behaviour, rather it is a call to remember to love the sinner and hate the sin. Christ taught us not to judge and not to condemn people – we condemn the behaviour but never the person.  For those of us who are quick to condemn we, all too often, miss the plank in our own eyes whilst pointing out the splinter in our neighbour.

So how is Jean Vanier an icon of the Church and or every Christian?  Well, because the Church, made up of individual Christians, is a body of sinners in need of the mercy of God. There is extraordinary goodness, sublime truth and beauty in the Church and in the lives of individual believers, just as there was in the life of Jean Vanier. Equally, however, this beauty, truth and goodness co-exists alongside evil, filth and corruption in the Church, in our lives and clearly in the life of Jean Vanier.

The mystery of God is that he entrusts his greatness and beauty to us broken and fragile human beings. As St Paul writes, we are simply the ‘clay jars that hold this treasure’ (2.Cor 4:7) It is the treasure we worship, it the treasure that transforms us not the clay jar!

When we are tempted to worship the Church, or we worship ourselves or when we worship and individual (Jean Vanier was a hero to many of us) we will always be left wanting and we will always be disappointed. When, however, we worship God, we remember that he is the one that brings forth beauty truth and goodness. When we remember that only God is good then we will not be so shaken when the human condition reveals its fallen nature – even in the most tragic of ways.

The allegations made against Jean Vanier are indeed tragic, awful and deeply disturbing. Abusive behaviour of any kind must be dealt with and institutions must always find the most appropriate ways to safeguard members. We must pray, we pray particularly for the victims who were courageous enough to come forward and of course we must pray for the L’Arche communities across the world that must be devastated by this news, and of course we pray for Jean Vanier's soul.

I think it’s important to remember, however, that this news, as devastating as it is, does not undo the enormous good that Jean Vanier did. He was a sinner in need of the mercy of God, he did bad things and he did good things. We rightly condemn the bad things and work to repair the damage, we rightly  praise the good things, but we must leave the  judgement of a person to God and to God alone - for only God see’s the full picture, only God can read the human heart.

As Christians and as a Church we are, perhaps, too quick to make heroes and villains out of people. An event like this is perhaps a reminder to us to fix our eyes on Christ - for only he is good. Fixing our eyes on him, let us put everything we have into the hands of the Divine Mercy of God.

As I end, I am reminded of a quote from BBC’s Dr who;

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

The 12th Doctor


  1. I agree wholeheartedly to your words and they give me strength to cope with the news on Jean Vanier's evil deeds. We can only pray for him. Gisela from Germany

  2. Thank you Gisela, I felt it was important to write, it helped me work things through and I pray that it is of some help to others. Pray we must. God bless you.

  3. A well written reflection....I'm also guilty of quickly judging and forgetting all the good he has done in his's indeed a good reminder the only spotless human yet divine that walked on this earth was Jesus Christ

  4. Thanks Shelina, the whole thing is pretty awful and this in no way excuses his behaviour but I thought it was important to reflect on how good and evil exist side by side in our lives and to maintain the hood that l'Arche clearly is.

  5. Thanks Luke, and good to conclude with wisdom from the Doctor. Jean Vanier, an inspiration for sure x

  6. How interesting! I've heard of l'Arche, but know nothing of Jean Varnier. I must say I agree, Luke, with your assertion that we must hate the sin but continue to love the sinner. God, we are told, loves all of us (with all our flaws). We should try to do the same, surely?

    1. Agreed David. I guess the challenge is also to see that justice is maintained and people are safeguarded at the same time - a balance we need the Holy Spirit for. Hope all is well :-)