Like many Catholics, a few weeks ago I watched online the funeral mass for L’Arche’s founder, Jean Vanier. Those who know the mission of L’Arche are familiar with Vanier’s commitment to building communities that welcome people with developmental disabilities, not out of conventional charity, but out of a desire to nurture friendships that recognize the gifts of all. At its best, L’Arche models a kind of community that is sorely needed right now in the Catholic Church.
Although L’Arche’s model of community cannot be uncritically duplicated in the Catholic Church, either in the ornate halls of the Vatican or at the poorest parish, there is much to learn from its witness to the Gospel. David Gibson, in a recent column on this blog, pointed out how clericalism has bred a culture that awards “the jockeying for power and position.” He, like Pope Francis and many others, identified it as a root cause that allowed the sex abuse crisis to spiral for so long and, globally, in so many forms, from pedophilia to the sexual harassment of seminarians to the rape of women religious.
Clericalism is the antithesis of the L’Arche model. Imagine, for example, if during formation and throughout their vocation, seminarians and priests were to spend time in communities that are similar to L’Arche’s understanding of community. L’Arche invites the laity and the ordained to come together around a shared recognition that each of us carries weaknesses, each of us harbor our own disabilities, even if they are not classified as “developmental disabilities.” It is a model of hospitality as well as a school in humility. The ostensibly weak are the mentors and friends of the supposedly powerful. The jockeying of power that is the hallmark of clericalism jars irreconcilably with the spirit of L’Arche.
The Catholic hierarchy and institutions, meanwhile, are scarred from the sexual abuse crisis. And how many of our young people would recognize the moral and spiritual authority of our ecclesial leaders? But when my students read a chapter from Henri Nouwen’s beautiful book, Adam, I am struck by how many students respond to Nouwen’s spiritual growth through his encounter with Adam, one of the people of the L’Arche-Daybreak community with the greatest disabilities. Adam, Nouwen insists, served his L’Arche community as a teacher, a counselor and even a kind of missionary in the sense that Nouwen firmly believed that Adam had a unique vocation from God to proclaim the Gospel to others through his disabilities. It was Adam, Nouwen came to realize, who extended hospitality and friendship, Adam who blurred the lines between ordained and lay, Adam who was Nouwen’s center of community and who best exemplified L’Arche’s form of hierarchy, in which people whom society would normally put at the lowest are in fact the center of communal living.
Vanier frequently criticized the typical pyramidal structure of our society in which those at the top are honored with power and wealth, and everyone else must climb the pyramid as far as possible or be left behind. As he writes in Living Gently in a Violent World, “Jesus came to change a world in which those at the top have privilege, power, prestige and money, while those at the bottom are seen as useless.” Vanier observes that just as Paul teaches in the First Letter to the Corinthians that the weakest are the most indispensable to the Body of Christ, so too “the weakest and least presentable are indispensable to the church.” But, he points out, “I have never seen this as the first line of a book on ecclesiology.” Vanier, of course, is not denying that there needs to be people with specific leadership roles. (Nouwen continued in his vocation as a priest even after joining L’Arche.) But L’Arche demonstrates how leadership can take on different forms, thereby creating a community of mentors and friends. Those supposedly at the top (a director, a chaplain and so forth) are learning and growing in friendships based on mutuality and dignity with those whom society would deem as useless.
L’Arche then provides a spiritual model for Catholics of all stripes to reflect upon ways in which leadership can involve people of all abilities and vocations, be they lay or ordained. It is an inspiration for a kind of Christian community desperately needed in this turbulent and dispiriting time in the Church.
Brent Little is an assistant lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.