Handicapped Are Teachers of Civilization of Love, Jean Vanier Says

Founder of L´Arche Communities Presents Papal Lenten Message

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 5, 2002 (Zenit.org).- The founder of L´Arche communities presented John Paul II´s Lenten Message for 2002 this morning in the Vatican Press Office.

Canadian Jean Vanier, born in 1928, founded L´Arche in France in 1964, in order to give a family, a community, to mentally handicapped people. Today there are 117 L´Arche communities in 29 countries.

In 1971, Jean Vanier founded the Faith and Light movement, communities which meet together regularly and include people with developmental disabilities, their parents and friends. This is the text Jean Vanier gave to the press.

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I am always impressed by the way John Paul II, day after day, proclaims a way of love, a vision of the «civilization of love.» Is this just a dream? Is this civilization possible? We live in a world filled with conflicts, inequalities, a world where selfishness, hatred and violence so often seem to overshadow the works of love. What can each one of us do to change things and to bring hope to our world?

In his message for Lent, the Holy Father calls us to «give freely,» because we «have received freely.» He calls us in a special way to welcome each person regardless of their qualities or defects, and to accept responsibility for the sick, the marginalized, the poor and the exploited.

For 37 years now I have had the privilege of living with men and women with learning disabilities who have often known the pain of being mocked, rejected and excluded. People with mental handicaps are amongst the most oppressed people; they are not wanted in our stressful world of competition.

Many consider them a nuisance, a disturbance, less than human, having no real value. A recent survey in France has shown that 96% of the women who know that the child within their womb has a handicap, seek an abortion. I would like to bear witness here, however, to the «power» of these so called «powerless» people, their capacity to open hearts, to help people become more truly human, to lead people into the mystery of the Gospels and a meeting with Jesus.

We cannot, however, ignore that children born with a severe disability are a scandal, humanly speaking. Maybe it is only the Gospel message that can help us to enter into the mystery of their lives.

We know that each person is important, unique, precious for Jesus. People with learning disabilities have a special importance for Jesus because in all their apparent incapacities, they are more open to love. They may not be able to develop their intellectual capacities but they are people of the heart, people yearning for relationship. That is why Paul affirms in his letter to the Corinthians that God has chosen the weak and foolish in the eyes of the world in order to confound the strong and the so called clever; that those who are weakest, «the least presentable» are necessary to the Church and should be honored (see 1 Corinthians 1:21; 1 Corinthians 12).

Over these last 37 years I have also met and accompanied a number of young and less young volunteers who have come to L´Arche and to Faith and Light. In our 120 L´Arche communities they share their lives, living and working daily, with men and women with disabilities. In the 1,500 Faith and Light communities they meet regularly with people with disabilities and their parents. Some have become faithful friends of people with disabilities, committed to them. And I can testify to how this friendship with the weak has led them to growth in maturity and wholeness and in faith in Jesus.

Antonio is a young man with severe mental and physical disabilities. He had an incredible, beautiful face, and a capacity to touch hearts. When you called him by name, his face would light up. Many of us regarded Antonio as our «teacher,» because so many of us have trouble accepting ourselves as we are. We may be able to walk and talk and learn, but our handicaps are more interior, we have difficulties with relationships.

We are often filled with prejudices, closed up behind protective inner walls or barriers. We have difficulty forgiving others when they have hurt us. We frequently want power over others who quickly become rivals. Sometimes we are angry or in depression. Antonio showed us how to accept our limits and to work with them so that we become more whole. If you had visited Antonio he would have touched you by his smile, his self acceptance, his thirst for love and friendship. You would also have been touched by the young volunteers along side of him. If you had asked them: «Is it difficult to be with Antonio and to care for him?» You might have been surprised by their answer. «I had been taught to be strong, assertive, aggressive so that I could get a good job. Later, at work, I had to struggle, to be the best, in order to climb the ladder of promotion and have more money. Antonio has led me into a completely different world: the world of community, mutual listening, of growth in compassion, where each person is important however weak, able, or disabled.»

I can witness that many young volunteers who come to our communities live an experience of transformation. Jesus is waiting for them in the poor and the weak. They discover something fundamental about being human and about being a follower of Jesus.

First of all, they gradually discover their own hearts, their own deepest self. People with learning disabilities are crying out for affection, faithful friendship, and understanding. They have a mysterious way of breaking down barriers around peoples´ hearts. They awaken what is deepest within us: our hearts and our desire for relationship. We see in the parable of the «good Samaritan,» how the wounded Jewish man left lying in the street somewhere between Jerusalem and Jericho touched and awoke the heart of the Samaritan who was passing by.

Many other young people today want to go to poorer areas of the world, to share their lives with people in the slums, in refugee camps, in schools for disadvantaged children. They also live an experience that transforms their lives. They realize that they can do something beautiful with their lives just by being with people, learning to love them intelligently. They also realize how closed and prejudiced they were before, how they were only concerned about their own immediate family, or group, or religion, or culture and they begin to understand how richer cultures oppress the poorer ones.

This shared experience with suffering and weak people helps them to discover what it means to be part of the human family. They discover that to be human and to be Christian means to love people. Things and projects are important but should always be orientated towards people. Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher says that when societies put too much emphasis on acquiring things, they tend to lose the importance of relationships. And yet the treasure of we human beings is precisely relationships, the heart. The road to conflict resolution and justice can only come through dialogue, relationship and love.

Many young volunteers come to our communities wanting to do good to the poor, but what they discover is that it is the weak and the poor who are healing and transforming them, leading them into compassion. Many discover or deepen their faith through compassion. It is a road to Jesus. They discover that God is waiting for us in the poor and the weak. Then they discover that Christianity is not first of all a theology, a catechism, or moral laws, but a relationship with a person, the person of Jesus. Isn´t that what John, the beloved disciple, reveals when he says in his letters:

«Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God and whoever loves is born of God, knows God» (1 John 4).

«But if any one has the world´s goods and sees his brother in need yet closes his heart against him, how does God´s love abide in him?» (1John 3:17)

In our broken world, many young people feel confused. Some, when they discover the cha
os in the world and in themselves, in their own violence, and disordered sexuality, can fall into a life of chaos. Others just want to do what everybody else is doing. They seek to ignore the chaos, not question the values of society, and just want security, money and success. Still others see the chaos which can make them insecure. They look for strong groups which give them security. They need to feel that they are strong and on the right side.

Still others take the rather insecure road of compassion. They want to be with the broken of our world. But they discover also how broken they themselves are. To grow in love they need help. Through compassion they discover community and their need for a deep, personal relationship with Jesus. They discover the meaning of Eucharist and the washing of the feet. They discover the Church, a community of believers, and they begin to cry out for unity amongst all followers of Jesus and of all of humanity.

In our world of confusion and brokenness, L´Arche and Faith and Light are like schools of relationship, schools of the heart. We learn through moments of hardship, when we touch our own violence, how much we need help in order to love intelligently. We need the support of community and good spiritual accompaniment to grow to greater wholeness, maturity and union with Jesus.

«Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you» (Luke 6:36-38).

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