Jean Vanier Register file photo.

Before meeting Pope, Vanier talks about joy, tenderness, acceptance

By  Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
  • March 21, 2014

VATICAN CITY - On the eve of meeting Pope Francis, Jean Vanier spoke about the importance of joy, tenderness and practical resistance to the "throwaway" culture.

Vanier met Pope Francis at the Vatican March 21 during a trip to Rome to mark the 50th anniversary of L'Arche, the international federation of communities he founded where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together.

In an interview published March 20, the Vatican newspaper asked the Canadian Vanier about the approach and gestures that the paper said he has in common with Pope Francis, including the Pope's teaching that modern society treats anyone who is poor, weak or different as "trash or leftovers."

"Feeling guilty about existing and not having a place in the world is a horrible feeling," Vanier told the Vatican newspaper. Too many of the L'Arche members, who live in 145 communities in 40 countries, have felt that way at one time or another.

The L'Arche experience, he said, is about accepting, valuing and loving people as they are. Those whom the world considers to be healthy, whole and successful need to learn to open their arms and their minds to others.

"It's easy to understand that the weak need the strong, but perhaps what is more difficult is that the strong also need the weak. We need those who are small and vulnerable," he said. "We need the poor in order to discover our poverty. Living with people who are wounded, we discover our own wounds. And, perhaps, accepting the wounds of others, we learn to accept our own."

Vanier also was asked about his — and the Pope's — emphasis on the role of joy in the Christian life.

In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis wrote: "There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved."

Vanier told L'Osservatore Romano, "I don't think the first form of evangelization is to proclaim Jesus. The first evangelization consists in offering everyone a place where they can laugh, dance, celebrate and experience a sense of belonging." Joy, he said, "comes from feeling you belong to a community, from being happy together, from no longer being alone. The greatest means of evangelization we have today is small communities where there are happy, joyful people who care for one another."

The newspaper also asked Vanier to talk about "tenderness," especially in the gestures of Pope Francis.

"Tenderness is a special gift of the Spirit," Vanier said. A touch that is tender and respectful "offers security, reveals the importance and sacred value of the other and becomes an exhortation to grow."

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