Jean Vanier at his interview in 2007. Photo by Nathan Denette/National Post

Charles Lewis: One-on-one with the great Jean Vanier

  • May 21, 2019

In 2007 I started a new assignment as the National Post’s religion reporter and editor. It was at a time I was digging deeper into Christianity so I thought it would be a perfect fit for me. 

The idea got a tepid reaction from my editors and I was left with a noncommittal, “Let’s see how it works out.”

There was concern our readers would not want so much religion coverage, but those fears turned out to be unwarranted.

Fortunately, I got lucky with a few good scoops off the bat — always a good way to start a new beat.

Then manna fell from Heaven. I was offered an interview with the great Jean Vanier. Thrilled does not come close to what I felt. But I also felt intimidated. What do you ask a holy giant? 

About a year before I had read Vanier’s Drawn Into the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John and was deeply impressed by the man’s insight into that mystical Gospel. Vanier’s book presented an opening into the deep spiritually of St. John, something I had not sensed before reading the Gospel without a guide. 

Vanier founded L’Arche in 1964 to give homes and comfort to those with physical and mental handicaps. I thought it would be a good idea to visit a L’Arche house before the interview and so a few days later an invitation for dinner came from one of their Toronto homes. 

This kind of environment was utterly new to me. I admit I was ashamed at my level of discomfort being among so many hurt and disabled people. That discomfort, though, made me realize the nobility of what L’Arche was doing. To work there one would have to have an extraordinary amount of love, the kind that can only come from the grace of God.

On the morning of the Vanier interview, I drove to an airport convention centre where 2,000 Catholic high school students were to hear from Vanier. I assumed they would treat this as a chance to goof around and to be free of boring classrooms. 

As Vanier walked to the stage he was suddenly mobbed by dozens of teens in the manner of a rock star. The others cheered wildly. Vanier had a huge smile. He loved them and they adored him. He spoke to them as equals and they soaked up every word.

Then later that day I met Vanier at the home of a friend who was hosting his visit to Toronto. I was warned before the interview there was only one ground rule: Do not ask him whether he would one day become a saint. He hates that question, I was told.

The great New Yorker Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement and whose cause for canonization is under way, also hated the question. When asked about sainthood, she reportedly said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

I had not planned to ask Vanier about sainthood, but when the aide told me not to I thought, “Now that’s a good question.” After all, everyone referred to him as a “living saint.” 

Many who get interviewed often can seem weary of the process. Not him. He was utterly engaged and looked me in the eye with every response. He was also beautiful to look at, something I rarely say about an interview subject, male or female. He was physically handsome, but there was something more, a rare intangible.

He also surprised me by some of his answers. I asked him about the pro-life movement, of which he was and remains an icon. His candour took me back.

“I say to those who are pro-life, ‘You say you don’t want people to have abortion.’ OK, I’m in agreement. But then we must give help to those mothers. To remain just on a legal principle of right or wrong without commitment … that is something wrong. I’m a little frightened of anyone who is pro-life who doesn’t get committed.”

I did ask him about sainthood. He said to be seen as saintly would elevate him above others and people would forget the hard work done on the ground by him and L’Arche workers.

He said it was for that reason he was not sure Mother Teresa should be canonized.

“People will now say Mother Teresa is a saint,” Vanier said. “But are they really listening to her message? There can be danger of focusing on the person more than the message.”

With all respect and humility I disagreed then and disagree now. Saints are models — pointing to a holy way to live, a Catholic way to live. We need them more than ever.

If Jean Vanier is not a saint, then who is?

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Register.)

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