A Happy Solemnity of the Chair of St. Peter! This is a picture of the Altar of the Chair of St. Peter at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We in the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter are observing this feast transferred from today to tomorrow, Sunday.
Meanwhile, I have been ill this week and consequently I apologize for the lack of blog posts. Instead, I have been binge-watching Shtisel, a series on Netflix about an extended family of ultra-Orthodox Jews living in Jerusalem. I highly recommend this series for its catholic—universal—portrayal of the human plight in the midst of a particular cultural and religious context. The portrayal of religion is marvelous. I only wish we had more genuine depictions of Catholic religious practice in our novels, movies and other art that show human foibles as men and women grapple with passions, longings, sin, religious strictures, worship and family.
It’s also really interesting to see how Jewish law permeates the lives of the characters and informs their choices, and in some respects has a protective influence—i.e. the laws form a hedge around the person so that perhaps graver sins are prevented. Which brings me to the revelations in the news today about the founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier.
They are serious, according to this report by the Catholic News Agency’s Courtney Mares:
Vanier died in May 2019 at the age of 90. He was the founder of L’Arche, an international community of individuals with intellectual disabilities and their supporters, and of Faith and Light, an ecumenical Christian association of prayer and friendship for those with intellectual disabilities and their families.
Last April, L’Arche commissioned GCPS, an independent U.K. consultancy specializing in the reporting of exploitation and abuse, to investigate Vanier’s link to Father Thomas Philippe, an abusive Dominican priest sanctioned by Church authorities in 1956, whom Vanier described as his “spiritual mentor.”
During the investigation, the inquiry received “credible and consistent testimonies” from six adult women that Jean Vanier initiated sexual behaviours with them often “in the context of spiritual accompaniment” over the period of more than 30 years from 1970 to 2005, according to the L’Arche summary report of the investigation’s findings.
The alleged acts with Vanier took place in Trosly-Breuil, France, where L’Arche was founded in 1964 and where Philippe and Vanier lived almost permanently until their deaths. All the testimonies mention the same procedure: The women received an invitation to go to Vanier’s room, under the pretext of receiving spiritual direction.
Jean Vanier, according to an internal report commissioned by L’Arche, sexually abused six women over the years, mostly in the context of spiritual direction. He also covered up for a priest he called his spiritual father, a priest who introduced sexual practices into his spiritual direction activities based on aberrant ideas not approved by the Catholic Church.
All over Catholic Facebook and Twitter, people are sharing their devastation at the news that this man who for many had an aura of saintliness about him could have been involved in such betrayal.
Vanier has special significance to Canadians because he is the son of Georges Vanier, beloved former Governor General of Canada (the Queen’s representative) and his wife Pauline. A cause for their sainthood has been underway for years.
I remember attending an event in Ottawa where Jean Vanier spoke back in 2006. Vanier entered the crowded room wearing his trademark blue jacket. He had a humble demeanor and seemed a little uncomfortable with the adoring gaze of the people in the room. Many gently pressed in to try to be close to him. The vibe seemed to be: here is a living saint! Maybe if he touches me something will rub off. It reminded me of a milder version of what I observed back in the 1970s when Eastern religions were all the rage among hippies in North America. Devotees of various gurus and cult leaders would hand over all all their critical faculties to someone they deemed to be on a higher spiritual plane.
It struck me as unhealthy then, and while there was nothing crazy about the behavior I observed in people trying to get near Jean Vanier, I did not share in the adulation, just as I don’t like the rock star adulation that can attach to the Pope, whoever the Pope is. I find it embarrassing.
We are admonished in Scripture not to judge and usually we think of this in terms of negative judgments—that we should learn not to sit on the judgement seat in the place of God criticizing people, condemning them or ourselves for that manner. This does not mean we give up discerning between right and wrong and observing the character of those around us, but that we stop occupying our petty little judgement-throne trying to usurp the place of God and instead allow the Holy Spirit to give us Light by which to see.
But giving up the judgement-throne also means giving up the positive judgement we make about people that can be just as problematic because they set us up for unrealistic expectations about fellow human beings. Adoring someone, putting them on a pedestal, also means breaking the First Commandment and putting someone in the place of God in your life.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker had one of the best pieces in reaction to the news about Vanier and his reaction to the news was similar to mine.
In a piece entitled “Jean Vanier and Total Depravity” he writes:
You know what? It doesn’t faze me. I’m not too disappointed by such news and I’m not devastated, and I think I know why. Rightly or wrongly, I was brought up in a religious setting which was built on a foundation of underlying Calvinism, and one of the tenets of Calvinism is the doctrine of “total depravity”. This is the doctrine of original sin on steroids. We were taught not only that “there is none righteous, no not one.” (Romans 3:10-12) but also “All your righteousness is as filthy rags.” (Isa. 64:6) and some of the preachers didn’t mind telling us that the translation of “filthy rags” was “menstrual rags.”
That was a shocker and emphasized the extreme vision of total depravity.
This Protestant doctrine is corrected by the Catholic truth that were are all created good because we are created in God’s image and likeness, but that we have all fallen through original sin and the wound of sin needs to be healed.
The true Catholic position is realistic. It teaches that we are indeed created good because we are created in God’s image and likeness, but it is also true that from the very first moment we are fallen creatures. We are people of the lie and the New Testament clearly teaches that the default setting is that we are condemned. The default setting–without God’s grace is that we are alienated from God.
Read the whole thing. It’s highly salutatory in light of the Vanier revelations and in the run-up to Ash Wednesday. Let’s endeavor to take the realistic Catholic position and repent, constantly repent.
There are huge temptations involved in being a spiritual leader and dealing with the adoration of followers. These leaders do terrible harm to vulnerable people if they fall prey to those temptations and cross the line into being predators. This is why perhaps some of the rules that limit bad behavior I am observing in Shtisel might be wise to bring back as a protection against these things, such as bringing back the grille for the confessional; ensuring all spiritual direction takes place in a room with a window or open door; and setting out some clear protocols as many Catholic dioceses are now doing.