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Entries from February 2020

Beyond Jean Vanier: Protecting the Legacy of Service to the Vulnerable

Printed courtesy of the Globe and Mail

In a time when the reputations of the great, the influential and our cultural shapers can deconstruct with surprising if distressing regularity, the shock factor is often minimized. Not so in the case of Jean Vanier.

Following the disclosure of findings from an investigation ordered by L’Arche International, the world is now aware that at least six adult women alleged that the L’Arche founder, a Canadian icon revered universally for his philosophy of care for the disabled, sexually and emotionally abused them.

This is devastating news; there is no way that it can be soft-pedalled.

The investigating team did its homework. L’Arche International is to be applauded for undertaking the difficult but necessary task of prioritizing justice for the victims over safeguarding the reputation of the founder, who died last May at 90.

The investigators unearthed information available only through access to Mr. Vanier’s private archives and the conclusions of a canonical inquiry into the spirituality and behavior of Mr. Vanier’s “spiritual father,” controversial Dominican friar and theologian Pere Thomas Philippe.

They examined extensive correspondence between Pere Philippe and Mr. Vanier over the many years of their relationship. They also looked at detailed knowledge of the various efforts by the Dominican superiors in France to censure and limit the activities and ministry of Pere Philippe, and at recent inquiries around accusations against Mr. Vanier of “consensual” sexual relations.

This is one godawful mess.

The investigators establish incontrovertibly the malign influence of Pere Philippe on Mr. Vanier, his specious claim for a unique spiritual stature dependent on his peculiar mysticism, his power in the confessional to dispense special graces and his exalted sense of himself as a mediator of divine love that is reminiscent of Rasputin’s magnetic and perverse power over the Romanovs. We have seen the paradigm before.

Charismatic figures who cloak themselves in an attractive spirituality that allows them a hold over their followers dot our religious and secular history. Their sense of personal entitlement, their persuasive and gentle presence and their empathy with the vulnerable is a tried formula, and it is insidious.

Pere Philippe’s eccentric if not heterodox Marian theology and his ministry were denounced by Rome. Head office did the right thing. His own order sidelined him. But he came back and his return was, according to the investigators, in great measure facilitated by Mr. Vanier.

More troublesome is the data that indicates Mr. Vanier emulated the corrosive pastoral approach of his spiritual father in his own counselling and behavior. The sins of the spiritual father, as it were.

We have seen again and again how this works.  The BBC2 documentary, The Church’s Darkest Secret, aired last month and explores the history of abuse by the influential and dynamic former Anglican Bishop of Gloucester, Peter Ball, whose quasi-monastic community of young men was a den of abuse and control. Yet so many in high places, including the Prince of Wales, considered him a friend, sought his counsel and dismissed rumors of his immoral and destructive behavior (one of his charges committed suicide) as vicious calumny.

There is a strange irony in that Pere Philippe’s brother, Marie-Dominique, a University of Fribourg philosophy professor and a founder of his own order, the Community of St. John, has been unmasked as a serial abuser and his original foundation subject to dissolution. The sins of the spiritual brother, as it were.

In the end, although this is not the end, one can draw some conclusions. The explosive combination of spiritual and erotic intimacy should be seen for what it is rather than posing as a special innocence, an entitled relationship. The deep pathology that runs through centuries of Catholic teaching on sexuality—a pathology marked by a deep fear of sexual pleasure with its body versus spirit dualism—needs to be recognized for its destructive potential. And the aftershocks of patriarchy reverberate throughout all of society. It’s time for a new and healthier anthropology.

The Vanier case doesn’t happen in isolation. None of our spiritual celebrities are bulletproof.

The Archbishop of Lyon, Philippe Barbarin, noted that although personally cleared on appeal of his conviction of neglect regarding the notorious pedophile Bernard Preynat, his reputation will be forever tarred by the scandal. So, too, Mr. Vanier’s. The enormous good accomplished by his ministry to the disabled and his numerous books and public lectures are now imperiled.

All the more reason to laud L’Arche International for its honest, spin-free approach. It understands the stakes are high. There is a grander legacy to protect: service to the vulnerable.


Michael W. Higgins is the distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University.


Is the House Worth Rebuilding?

Is the house worth rebuilding?

The question is not meant to be heretical or disrespectful. It is meant to challenge each of us to understand the crises that confronts us within the Church—the abuses, the immoral cover-ups, the diminishing membership, the aging and dwindling of women religious and the absence of priests to replace the dying and retiring clergy.

Nonetheless, we continue to hear the pious platitudes. As one enthroned member of the Curia stated recently in response to the clergy shortage: “The great question is a renewed experience of faith and evangelization.” It seems we can justify the many regions in the world where there is a priest shortage using pious platitudes.

The recent document issued by Francis on the Amazon synod shouts with pious platitudes for “awakening new life in communities,” but go figure out for yourselves how you can receive the Eucharist regularly. The Evangelicals must be ecstatic about this Vatican document because it is rooted in the clerical notion that the old wine skins are good enough. I guess that may be true since there is now much less wine to fill them.

More importantly, based on the comments that Jesuit Fr. Hans Zollner shared at a Villanova University conference, “the level of trust on bishops is below zero.” Zollner is a professor of psychology and president of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Although his address focused on the abuse crisis and the Church leadership’s cover-ups and blatant lack of transparency, when such platitudes spew from leadership, the days of awe are long since gone. If Eucharist is central to our faith, then address the issue head-on rather than use double speak.

These shortages have resulted in solutions such as parishes being placed in clusters with a single priest, importing priests whose language and customs are foreign to today’s educated parishioners and a new breed of seminarians who relish wearing the clericals more than the smell of the sheep. We have a rich and wonderful tradition in the Church served by many dedicated and faithful priests. Yet it seems that “the going my way” mentality still flourishes and, in the end, the declining membership is staggering. Former Catholic in this country alone are the second-largest “denomination.” But that seems to be fine as leadership throws platitudes like bread on the water to feed the hungry.

Millennials and X-generation youth simply are not buying any of this duplicity. Then again, maybe this is truly the Spirit working to cleanse His House.


John J. Petillo is president of Sacred Heart University.


Discovering Your True Vocation Leads to Transformation

On a recent visit to Washington D.C., I decided to visit the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It was there, in the basement crypt, that Dorothy Day had gone on December 8, 1932, to pray for her vocation. In The Long Loneliness Dorothy writes about the circumstances of her prayer. It was five years after her conversion, prompted by the joyous birth of her daughter Tamar. Tamar’s father, Forster, was stubbornly opposed to marriage, and so in becoming a Catholic, Dorothy felt she had to separate from him. But this loss was compounded by another—her sense of estrangement from the radical movement that had also drawn her to God.

In December 1932 she traveled to Washington to cover a Communist-inspired “Hunger March of the Unemployed.” As she stood on the sidelines, watching this ragged parade of men, she wondered why Catholics were not leading such a march. It was December 8, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and it seemed appropriate to take her question to the Shrine. There, she lit a candle and offered a prayer “which came with tears and with anguish that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.” And when she returned to New York she found Peter Maurin waiting for her—a Frenchman 20 years her senior, who spoke with a thick accent and who began at once to lecture her about his scheme for promoting the social message of the Gospel. It was not at once, but over a matter of days, that it dawned on her that this was the answer to her prayer. Five months later, on May 1, 1933, at a Communist rally in Union Square, she and a few companions distributed the first issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper—the beginning of a movement that would become her home for the rest of her life.  

As I offered my own prayer in the chapel that day, it occurred to me that when Dorothy met Peter Maurin, her heart was like dry kindling, to which he added the spark. His message would have meant nothing to her if she had not offered that prayer  for some sign of her vocation.

And that goes to the question of vocation itself. In editing Dorothy’s letters, All the Way to Heaven, I was struck by the contrast that marks the letters preceding her meeting with Peter Maurin, and those that follow one year later. Whereas before she was a struggling freelance writer, a young convert still finding her way in the church,  one year later she is the confident editor of her own newspaper, the leader of a lay movement, a recognized name in both church circles and the social movements of the day. One often observes, in the annals of the saints, that once they discover their true vocation their whole personality is transformed; they find a vitality and focus that had previously been lacking. As Dorothy herself often said, “You will know your vocation by the joy it brings you.”

But her letters reveal another aspect to this story. While in her memoir she described confronting  a choice between “God and man,” the story was not as clear-cut as all that. For five years after their separation she continued to write Forster, begging and cajoling  him to give up his stubborn pride and agree to marry her. But in the end she realized that this was not to be. On December 10, 1932, she wrote what would be her final letter to Forster in many years. Despite her deep love for him,  she acknowledged, “It is all hopeless. . . I have really given up now, so I won’t try to persuade you anymore.”

This letter, addressed just two days after her visit to the Shrine, offers a new context for appreciating her prayer with “tears and anguish.” In letting go of Forster, and in that same week meeting Peter Maurin, it was as if one door closed while another opened on the rest of her life. If it had been up to Dorothy she would have married Forster and raised a houseful of children.  There would have been no Catholic Worker. It is thus striking to consider that everything she achieved in her subsequent life occurred because of the frustration of her heart’s desire.

As I left the Shrine that day, with Dorothy much on my mind and heart, I thought back on myself, 45 years ago—a young man of 19 when I first met Dorothy Day, not knowing at the time how this encounter would shape my life and point me in the direction of my work and vocation. And I offered a prayer, with tears and gratitude, for the joy it has brought me.


Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books and the author of many books.


In Praise of Not Knowing

In his December column ‘Apologies, Apologies, More Apologies,’ my fellow blog contributor Myroslaw Tataryn challenges clerical certainty. “The human mind can never fully fathom the divine,” he writes. “Yet, somehow, over the centuries, the Church has forgotten that humility and succumbed to the temptation of assuming we can know the mind of God. We have invested our hierarchy with a claim of knowledge and authority in matters divine that allows for no declaration of: ‘I do not know,’ or ‘I am not sure.’

I do not know. I am not sure. I have been musing on this uncertainty about the divine as we make the quarter turn in the Celtic calendar from winter to spring, from darkness to light, on St. Brigid’s feast day, February 1. Brigid is both goddess and saint, the day both pagan and Christian. Brigid of Kildare governed a monastery in the sixth century, one where lived communities of both men and women. Another Brigid was Celtic goddess, or even three or more goddesses. The stories of the saint are infused with magic and myth. She is liminal, one ‘in between,’ born on a threshold at dawn, neither in nor out of a house, neither in day nor night. There is no either/or here, but rather both/and. The Irish seem fine with that. The date “is a mixture of many of these layers,” writes the Irish folklorist Michael Fortune, “where we pick and choose aspects which make sense for us on our own personal level.”

This space of uncertainty is challenging yet potentially transformative, as the recent precipitous decline of the institutional Church in Ireland, formerly one of the most resolutely Catholic nations in the world, suggests. In a 2018 America article titled “The Uncertain Future of Catholic Ireland,” James T. Keane describes the drop in Irish vocations (82 ordained at Maynooth seminary in 1899, six in 2017) and Mass attendance (over 90 percent of the population in the early 1970s, around 30 percent in recent years) but also notes that this turn away from the institutional Church is not an indication of ebb in religious practice and spiritual life. What seems to be happening is the awakening of a new kind of “church.”  Keane quotes Rev. Michael Collins, formator at Maynooth: “From one perspective, something is dying. But from another perspective, you can see that we are in a liminal space: Something new is emerging. There’s something very vibrant happening. That sounds almost like a contradiction, but I think it is the reality.” As Keane notes (and I concur based on my own experiences of faith practices in Ireland), there is an “endurance and even growth of other sources of Christian nourishment in Ireland, including pilgrimages, public novenas and frequent visits to nontraditional worship sites, such as the Marian shrine at Knock or the many healing wells and legendary ‘thin places,’” both Christian and pagan. At such sacred places the materiality of things (“thisness,” as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins construed it) seems quite important. On the eve of St. Brigid’s feast day, for instance, people weave Brigid’s crosses out of rushes and leave pieces of cloth outside overnight for the saint’s blessing. Those things are believed to have healing properties, offering protection and balm throughout the year. At holy wells, cairns, forest shrines, and other pilgrimage destinations, one finds items from daily life left by believers: holy cards and medals, candles, rosaries, photographs, toys, cups, cloth, statues—prayers incarnate that can be seen, touched, held.

One of the most consoling stories of faith for me now is paradoxically one told by the Italian philosopher and self-described “atheist” Gianni Vattimo. Riding in a car driven by his nephew, the philosopher took out his rosary and began to pray, like his old auntie used to do when he would drive her places. He said he felt the desire to pray, did it automatically, but no longer had the certainty of his youth that there was a God to pray to. I do not know. I am not sure. Recently I met a woman whose brother was dying. She told me she had walked 15 miles to the shrine of Chimayo, a pilgrimage destination north of Santa Fe, to bring him back holy dirt, believed to have healing properties. I carry my grandmother’s rosary wherever I go. The woman also treasured the rosary of her grandmother, who had raised her and her brother. We discovered we shared a disinterest in the prayer but loved the object, feeling the beads worn smooth by our grandmothers’ hands. We prayed the Hail Mary haltingly together, without the beads, not in the way of our grandmothers. Something new is emerging. A dear friend suggests I am a better chaplain because of my uncertainty, my knowing that saying I do not know is all I can say now truthfully. And yet there are those moments like the encounter with the woman that have little to do with dogma, creeds, or what any institution insists is truth. Are these not glimpses of ‘church?’


Jennifer Reek is a writer, teacher and chaplain.