By Barb Arland-Fye
Inside a rustic chapel 4,000 miles away from his Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, Bishop Martin Amos presented a peace award to Jean Vanier for fostering total acceptance of people as they are — with and without disabilities.
The 84-year-old philosopher, writer and man of prayer accepted the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in the French village where he began L’Arche a half-century ago. Inspired by the Gospels and social justice activists such as Dorothy Day, he has made it his mission to create a sense of home, of belonging, of family, for adults with intellectual disabilities.
In 1964, Vanier moved into a small stone house in Trosly with Philippe and Raphael, who had previously lived in an institution. That gesture of compassion has blossomed into an international federation of 150 L’Arche communities worldwide, including one in Clinton, Iowa. Vanier chose the name L’Arche, the French word for both the ark and the arch, connecting his project to Noah’s Ark.
Vanier’s extraordinary contribution to peace, demonstrating how it begins with the individual, warranted the decision to travel abroad to hand-deliver the award, Bishop Amos said. “Very early in his encyclical Pope John XXIII talked about one fundamental principle: that each individual person is truly a person. Without this basic principle all other rights and duties, all the injustices are on shifting sand,” the bishop noted in his remarks during the July 7 award ceremony in Hosanna, the L’Arche community hall in Trosly. Presentation of the actual award occurred later that evening, during Mass in the L’Arche community’s chapel, because the award had been inadvertently left in a guest house. When Vanier learned of the snafu as he was preparing to give his acceptance speech, he smiled and quipped he’d expect something like that to happen at a L’Arche event.
“Over the years L’Arche has been led by the beautiful, gentle and tender hand of God,” Vanier said in his remarks. “So many wonderful men and women of different cultures, churches and religions, or without religion, seeking ways of peace, have come to share their lives with those who are weak and fragile and have been transformed by them. They have discovered the wisdom hidden in the hearts of those who are weak and they have grown in love and wisdom.”
Addressing Bishop Amos, Vanier noted that “many of those to whom you awarded this prize before me were heroes for peace (among past recipients were Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day and Archbishop Desmond Tutu). Some were imprisoned for their courage and determination for peace. Some were assassinated. How is it you turned to us? We are a strange and crazy bunch in L’Arche.”
Not crazy, but lovable and endearing, as Bishop Amos discovered during dinners at L’Arche homes in Clinton (last month) and in France where he received bear hugs, smiles and lots of attention. At L’Arche in Trosly, where Vanier established his first house, Olivier gave the bishop a bear hug and asked him (in French) whether he knew the late pop singer Michael Jackson. Olivier said he could dance like Michael Jackson and offered to demonstrate. Deborah, a young woman wanting to show off her English skills for Bishop Amos, looked at him and repeated a phrase she’d probably heard in a movie: “I love you, baby!”
The bishop laughed and listened as L’Arche assistants, who share life with people with disabilities, interpreted and explained what the French housemates were saying. At both houses the bishop visited in France everyone sang a prayer of thanks to God before and after the meal. At La Colombe house in Cuise la Motte balloons hung from the living room ceiling, evidence of an earlier party.
“Feast days, birthdays are all occasions for parties and for fun; we pray with all our heart, but not long hours,” Vanier explained in his acceptance speech.
At La Colombe some of the housemates expressed enthusiasm for Pope Francis. Matthieu, the house leader, pointed out that the pope “speaks in a way that people understand.”
“Members of the L’Arche community give witness to what we all should do: show total acceptance of people as they are, with their limits, their strengths, their gifts,” Bishop Amos said. “As Jean Vanier said, it really is about relationships.”
The quality of community life centers on relationship, Vanier said during an interview with The Catholic Messenger. “It’s not just doing for; it’s doing with.”
L’Arche members illustrated that quality in a performance during the award ceremony done with movement and narrated in French and English.
The story centered on God trying to find a good place for human beings to meet him. The performers took the 200 or so members of the audience on a journey to meet God. They discovered that God is to be found deep within in the human heart. The heart is the place of intimacy, of encounter. “That’s where I will go to wait and to meet with humankind,” God says at the end of the performance.
Vanier appeared deeply moved by the performance; his love for L’Arche is clearly evident in his actions as well as words. During Vanier’s speech, L’Arche member Pascal DeNardo stood close beside him, even though Pascal hadn’t been invited to do so. He felt he belonged there, and Vanier never gave the impression that he wasn’t welcome.
The Pacem in Terris Coalition, which chose Vanier for the award, represents the Diocese of Davenport, St. Ambrose University, Augustana College, The Catholic Messenger, Churches United of the Quad City Area, Congregation of the Humility of Mary, Muslim Community of the Quad Cities, Pax Christi Quad Cities, Sisters of St. Benedict, Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton, Iowa, and Sisters of St. Francis, Dubuque.
This is the first in a series of articles leading up to the local celebration of the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, to be held Aug. 25 at 2 p.m. in the Rogalski Center at St. Ambrose University, Davenport. That celebration will honor L’Arche and its founder, Jean Vanier, whose acceptance speech — videotaped in France — will be shown. Members of The Arch/L’Arche community in Clinton will sing during the event and lead a sing along afterwards.
Published with permission from The Catholic Messenger, Newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport.