Jean Vanier Wins The Templeton Prize
The news that Jean Vanier has been awarded the world's leading prize for progress in religion — a prize given to Mother Teresa in 1973 and to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1983 — is cause for both joy and pride among Canadian Christians. Jean Vanier, son of the most outstanding couple ever to serve at Rideau Hall, Georges and Pauline Vanier, founded the L'Arche movement a half-century ago.
L'Arche is an international network of communities where people live and work together with those who have intellectual disabilities, animated by a vision of "mutually transformative relationships where those who help are transformed by those they encounter," according to a Templeton Foundation press release.
Vanier discovered that the people society typically considers the weakest enable the strong to recognize and welcome their own vulnerability. He began quietly in northern France, in 1964, when he invited two intellectually disabled men to come and live with him as friends. The movement has since grown into 147 L'Arche residential communities operating in 35 countries, including L'Arche Daybreak north of Toronto. (I have magnets from their craft shop on my fridge.) There are more than 1,500 Faith and Light support groups in 82 countries that similarly urge solidarity with those who have disabilities. Five decades of living with deeply vulnerable people led the devoutly Catholic Vanier to a profound understanding of weakness and of common humanity. He delivered the Massey Lectures in 1998, later published as Becoming Human.
"To become fully human is to let down the barriers, to open up and discover that every person is beautiful. Under all the jobs you are doing, responsibilities, there is you," Vanier said. "And you, at the heart of who you are, you're somebody also crying out, 'Does somebody love me?' Not just for what I can do but for who I am."
The witness of Jean Vanier is desperately needed in a time of increasingly disposable lives. In 2004, I was privileged, together with the Anglican and Dutch Reformed chaplaincies at Queen's University, to host Vanier on a campus visit. After his lecture, he was asked how he thought his native Canada and his adopted France were doing in regard to people with disabilities. Vanier noted that there was an unprecedented level of services for the mentally disabled. It was possible for them to go to school with other children, to work alongside other adults. Yet, the picture was also bleak, as it is estimated that as many as 80 per cent of children diagnosed in utero with Down's syndrome and other abnormalities are aborted. It is possible that it will become harder to live together with the intellectually disabled at L'Arche homes as few are permitted by their own parents to be born.
So about Jean Vanier, my admiration is unalloyed. Yet I was a little unsettled by a statement he released upon the Templeton Prize announcement: "Before being Christians or Jews or Muslims, before being Americans or Russians or Africans, before being generals or priests, rabbis or imams, before having visible or invisible disabilities, we are all human beings with hearts capable of loving."
It's true enough that before being Americans or Russians, we are fellow human beings. It is also true that we are human before we are Christian, though not all Christian believers are human, as there are legions of angels who worship Christ better than we ever could. Yet the suggestion that we can set aside religious differences in order to love one another is at best an awkward formulation. At worst, it is rather too much John Lennon's "Imagine" and not enough Jean Vanier and his fathers in the faith.
Vanier did not mean that we should abandon our religious convictions. Among other problems, setting aside one's religious convictions does not lead to the heroic virtue that produces a movement such as L'Arche. Because L'Arche is open to all, Vanier does not emphasize its Christian character; but it would be impossible to imagine L'Arche beginning without Vanier's Christian faith.
Vanier's statement only mentioned Christians, Jews and Muslims, so perhaps he is gently acknowledging that it is necessary to believe in one God in whose image and likeness we are made. Independent of the belief that all of us share in the imago Dei (image of God), it is not self-evident that the weak and the vulnerable are worthy of the respect and love that the L'Arche movement extends to them and receives from them. Prenatal diagnosis cannot detect the imago Dei, which is why their results constitute a death sentence for so many.
The capacity to love is universal. To love universally is rather less universally mandated. To love the weak is possible for all, but is it not particularly Christian to see in the weak, in the least of these, the presence of Christ Himself? To see the divine presence especially in the weak? To think that salvation, as indicated in Matthew 25, depends upon our care for the poor, the afflicted, the sick, the imprisoned, the vulnerable? Moreover, to love one's enemies is a specifically Christian mandate. It's not at all clear that care for the weak and the development of peace would be advanced by thinking of ourselves as human beings, fallen and sinful, before we think of ourselves at Christian disciples.
Jean Vanier is one of the great Christian disciples of our time. That's cause for admiration and emulation. At 86, he is growing old. His life shows that the Gospel never does.
Sri Lanka For A New Saint
In January, I made my first visit to Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka, for the visit of Pope Francis, who canonized Joseph Vaz there. Vaz was a missionary priest from Goa (Portuguese India) who came to be known as the Apostle of Sri Lanka.
Papal visits, planned long in advance, rarely coincide with unfolding news events. But this visit, coming only days after a surprise presidential election result that some more-euphoric local commentators likened to the rise of Václav Havel or Corazon Aquino, meant that Pope Francis arrived at a moment of rare national harmony, with genuine hope for renewal and reconciliation after years of civil war and authoritarian rule.
History and euphoria were two striking features of the visit. There was recent history, meaning the civil war that ended in 2009, and the immediate history of the election, yet there was also the longer history of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, highlighted by the canonization of Saint Joseph Vaz, who arrived in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) after the Portuguese had lost the island to the Dutch. In 1658, the Dutch commander there would write home that "the entire Popish gang and its idolatry has now been banished."
Vaz entered Sri Lanka clandestinely in 1687 and ministered secretly to beleaguered Catholics, some of whom had not been to Mass in decades, until his death in 1711. The stories of Saint Joseph Vaz are quite similar to those of Saint Edmund Campion, the martyr who had arrived in Elizabethan England a century previous — though Vaz arrived disguised as a beggar, while Campion came undercover as a merchant.
With that history in mind — of a Catholic Church that had survived persecution and was revived by recusant lay faithful and a few missionary priests — the simple fact of a papal visit, even if Francis was the third pope to visit, is of historic significance. British Catholics who were astonished at the sight of Vatican flags flying along the Mall in London during Pope Benedict XVI's visit in 2010 would have appreciated how Sri Lanka — a Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim country with a small Catholic minority — draped the highways and city thoroughfares with the same flags, welcoming the head of the popish gang himself — to employ older language — encouraging his flock precisely to be missionaries to the wider Sri Lankan population.
No one would begrudge the long-suffering Sri Lankans the fiesta-like spirit of those days, but one could wonder if the euphoria meant that what Pope Francis actually had to say was being heard.
Sri Lanka is nearly unique in its religious landscape. It has a large Buddhist majority not untouched by aggression and violence, which is otherwise an oxymoron in the Western imagination of Buddhism. It has significant Hindu and Muslim minorities, while Catholics are still numerous enough to constitute seven per cent of the population. Protestant adherents are fewer still. The question then of interreligious dialogue and the Church's mission is relevant here as it is in few other places. How should Catholics present the Christian Gospel amid Eastern religions in Asia? Indeed, in 1997, Saint John Paul excommunicated a Sri Lankan priest, Tissa Balasuriya, for his faulty attempts to present Jesus Christ in the pantheistic categories of the East. While Balasuriya was reconciled in 1998, the case highlighted the important theological issues at stake in the Church's Asian mission.
So when Pope Francis said at an interreligious meeting that "for such dialogue and encounter to be effective, it must be grounded in a full and forthright presentation of our respective convictions," he was stating an important, and contested, principle. It appeared to get no notice whatsoever, in contrast to his acceptance of a saffron shawl from the Hindu representative. It may have been that no one was listening, so delighted were they with the Holy Father's presence alone.
The bishops should certainly have been listening. Yet after the papal Mass, one spoke of the Holy Father helping Sri Lankans "to forgive and forget" the conflict and violence. Francis had, to the contrary, spoken several times about the importance of facing the truth about the past, indirectly indicating his support for the kind of exercise that Saint John Paul used to call the "healing of memories." To forget the past was never suggested.
Francis is the master of the vivid gesture, one that can speak louder than words. On apostolic journeys, it makes him an enormously effective preacher. This time though, it seemed as if the preacher's actual words were forgotten.
Aside from the papal visit, the trip to Sri Lanka gave me the occasion to study the life of Joseph Vaz and the history of the Catholic Church on that island. His life was one of severe persecution by Dutch Protestants. His story hit rather close to home for me, as our Convivium project is a collaboration principally between Roman Catholics and the Dutch Reformed. Joseph Vaz was from Goa, from which my own ancestors hail. If I had been born three centuries earlier, might I have been a priest in Goa, encouraged by Joseph Vaz to make the dangerous trek to Ceylon to minister to Catholics being persecuted by the ancestors of those with whom I now work on Convivium?
It's not possible to know, of course, and I rather doubt that I would have had the missionary stuff of which Saint Joseph Vaz was made. Or perhaps I would have. Perhaps the ancestors of the friendly Calvinists at Convivium would have opted for a more convivial persecution. To think about that is to give thanks that today we can still engage our differences seriously while offering a common witness. Was it better then, when theology was taken seriously in shaping our common life, and so Catholics and Calvinists were at loggerheads? Or is it better now that we can make common cause contending for Christianity amid a culture that cares little if we are Catholic, Calvinist or just curlers?
I think it is better now, but I admire the heroism that was required then. I am not sure what Saint Joseph Vaz would think, but perhaps from Heaven he might offer some intercessory prayers for our project, astonishing as he might find it.
The Making Of Saints
The 35th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador fell on March 24, and it was a happy occasion this year given his beatification as a martyr, which will take place on May 23. It's happy news for those, like myself, who consider the anti-totalitarian martyrs of the 20th century — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maximilian Kolbe, Edith Stein, Aloysius Stepinac, Jerzy Popieluszko — to be lights in a dark century.
Archbishop Romero was killed by agents of the State as he offered the Holy Mass. The previous day, he had called for the armed forces to ignore government orders to arrest, abduct and kill their political opponents. The government's answer came swiftly enough. At Romero's funeral, violence erupted again as the government and its right-wing militia allies moved against the enormous crowd, preventing the Mass from being completed. The murder of Archbishop Romero at Mass and the violence at his funeral Mass brings to mind the first chapters of Mark's Gospel, where it is the demons who recognize Jesus as divine before His own disciples do. The regime of El Salvador seemed to have a better sense of the spiritual power of the Mass than most ordinary Catholics do.
The course of Romero's beatification is an important story about saints in the contemporary Catholic Church. It is often said that the Church "makes" saints, which is not accurate. Only God's grace can do that. Saints, after all, are those who are in Heaven; and no one "makes" it to Heaven but is transformed by grace into the sort of person who would be suitable for Heaven. Officially recognized saints — the blesseds who are beatified and the saints who are canonized — are held up as models to the rest of us, to encourage and help us, for we are fellow workers with the saints.
The current process of recognizing saints was substantially revised a generation ago. On January 25, 1983, Pope John Paul II signed two apostolic constitutions, or legislative documents. The one thought more important at the time promulgated a new code of canon law: the Church's supreme legal code. That reform had been worked on for nearly 20 years. The other document, Divinus Perfectionis Magister (The Divine Teacher), reformed the rules for the recognition of saints. It has had a greater impact in the life of the Church, which is as it should be, for saints are the Church's mission, while law is a means to that end.
Since the reforms of Pope Urban VIII in 1625 and 1634, the process of beatification and canonization was modelled on an adversarial court process. A candidate would be proposed and then a designated official — the so-called devil's advocate — would argue against beatification. If the candidate survived that process and various miracles were authenticated, a new blessed or saint could be declared.
John Paul changed all that, dispensing with the adversarial process and the devil's advocate and reducing the number of miracles required. The adversarial process was replaced by a historical-biographical one, where theological experts rather than canon lawyers evaluated the evidence of sanctity. As George Weigel, John Paul's biographer put it, "Scholarship replaced legal advocacy" and the "new procedures were aimed at making the process swifter, less expensive, more scholarly, more collegial and better geared to producing results."
And results it did produce, not only in the number of new blesseds and saints but also in the number from recent times. Moreover, the Catholic faithful began to expect saints to be made sooner rather than later. Indeed, at the funeral of John Paul, the great saint-maker himself, the crowd chanted santo subito! — a saint now!