We need strong voices like Jean Vanier's to fight against utilitarianism

In my last blog there was an oblique reference to the Holy Father’s age. At the same time my brother, who works for L’Arche, the organisation begun by Jean Vanier in the 1960s to create small community homes for people with learning disabilities to live alongside their carers, has sent me Vanier’s January “Letter to his Friends”.

Jean Vanier, like the Holy Father, is now in his mid-eighties and his friends have finally got him to move to a little house next to the chapel in the L’Arche community at Trosly, in France. It means that he will not have to walk far to be in the company of Christ in the tabernacle. Yet leaving his familiar surroundings where he has spent the last 36 years is a wrench, Vanier writes: “We do not know what new birth will bring. Little ones are in the womb of their mother for nine months. ..For the little ones, it is also a time of mourning because they have had nine months of a protected life (in my case, 36 years). So it is for me, living a time of surprise and mourning. Pray that I will welcome everything with joy.”

He speaks movingly of living in a hermitage “where I can live the last years of my life on the path of weakening that leads to the final and first encounter face to face and heart to heart with God.” And answering the question, what makes an old person’s life still worthwhile? He responds, “I can do small acts of tenderness and love to reveal to the different ‘others’ {those with learning disabilities] their beauty. At L’Arche we are not militants for a cause, but rather witnesses of hope.” Looking at the wider society with all its problems, Vanier finds the answer in “creating communities of welcome where people can grow, develop, find confidence in themselves and discover the deep meaning of their lives.”

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For Jean Vanier and for Pope Benedict, as for all Christians, it is their faith that gives both present and ultimate purpose to life. And it is the same faith that finds life valuable and precious even in old age. This will be the battle-ground of the future, as our society increasingly ages: between those whose religious faith teaches them that life is still valuable when it is no longer useful and those whose pragmatic, utilitarian outlook will increasingly urge the opposite. Lord Falconer and his ilk haven’t gone away; they are waiting in the wings for a more propitious moment. We need strong prophetic voices like Jean Vanier’s to challenge them.

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