Guest Commentary

Philosopher Vanier saw people with disabilities as being blessed

FILE - In this March 11, 2015 file photo, Jean Vanier, the founder of L’ARCHE, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together, laughs during a news conference, in central London. Vanier, a Canadian religious figure whose charity work helped improve conditions for the developmentally disabled in multiple countries over the past half-century, has died Tuesday May 7, 2019 in Paris after suffering from thyroid cancer at 90. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)
FILE - In this March 11, 2015 file photo, Jean Vanier, the founder of L’ARCHE, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together, laughs during a news conference, in central London. Vanier, a Canadian religious figure whose charity work helped improve conditions for the developmentally disabled in multiple countries over the past half-century, has died Tuesday May 7, 2019 in Paris after suffering from thyroid cancer at 90. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File) AP

I took philosophy from a man who didn’t think taking time to interpret my poor speech was fair to my classmates. I wonder what my learned professor would have made of Jean Vanier.

Vanier, who died May 7 at age 90, was a French-Canadian who served in both the British and Canadian Royal Navies and was the son of the Crown’s Governor-General in Ottawa.

In 1945, Vanier met survivors of the Holocaust and five years later he left his naval career to study theology and philosophy.

In 1964, Vanier invited two men with intellectual disabilities to live with him in an apartment. The three lived and prayed together as Catholics.

Vanier was part of two broader movements. The first sought greater inclusion of all people with disabilities into the mainstream. About the time Vanier founded his first L’arche community, which would expand globally, Eunice Kennedy Shriver launched the Special Olympics.

Both Vanier and Shriver knew the joy and innocence those then called retarded had to share and each found a way to show them to the greater public.

At the same time, Vatican II had called for interfaith dialogue. Seeing a chance to use dialogue to help the people he had devoted his life to, he co-founded Faith and Light in 1971.

Faith and Light is a worldwide organization of small local groups of people with intellectual disabilities and their families and friends who meet to learn about the Christian faith, share it and have fun doing so.

The Diocese of Wichita has a Faith and Light community that goes back decades. I knew its founder, Sister Veronice Bornn, who also headed the diocese’s Ministry with People with Disabilities.

Bornn, who died six months ago, was a contemporary of Vanier. She had big brown eyes and exuded childlike innocence, wonder and joy while leading the ministry and later the local convent of the Sisters of of St. Joseph.

Currently, Myra Jacobs heads both the ministry and Faith and Light. (Full disclosure: Until May, I served for six years on the Ministry’s advisory council.) She also brings joy to her work and when she performs with the Faith and Light singing group, Faithful Flock.

I have heard Faithful Flock and they brought me joy. In that, you find what Vanier wanted the world to know about the intellectual disabled.

Throughout history, most viewed all disabilities as literal or figurative curses. Vanier saw people with disabilities as being blessed with many gifts, among them joy.

Joy. There’s that word again. That the profoundly disabled could offer joy to a philosopher seems contradictory. But so does an instrument of death, a cross, being a symbol of eternal life,

David P. Rundle is a Wichita freelance journalist
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