Catholic Values Column: Jean Vanier and the problem with ‘living saints’



The legacy of another so-called modernday saint went up in flames Saturday, when it was revealed that Jean Vanier, a proponent for individuals with disabilities who died last May, lived a public life of deceit. 

Vanier, seen by many as a saint during his 90 years, manipulated at least six women into having sexual relationships with him under the guise of spiritual direction, found L’Arche Internationalcommunity of individuals with intellectual disabilities and their supporters founded by Vanier.  

According to a press release from L’Arche USA, Vanier was accused of this manipulative behavior as well as emotional abuse several times between 1970 and 2005. He would convince the women, who were not disabled, that their sexual relationships were an extension of spiritual direction, at times making perverted comments such as, “This is not us, this is (the Virgin) Mary and Jesus,” and, “It is Jesus who loves you through me,” according to L’Arche’s report. 

And until last week, no one had a clue. 

A perennial candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, Vanier fooled everyone, from Mother Teresa to Pope Francis, who called Vanier in his final days and, upon learning of his death, said, “Thank you to him and thank you God for having given us a man of such great witness.”  

Journalists, too, were blind to Vanier’s monstrosities. Noted journalist and Crux editor John L. Allen mourned his death by saying, “Catholicism loses a living saint” with Vanier’s demise. JD Flynn of Catholic News Agency described Vanier in 2019 as “a committed Catholic. His faith was at the (center) of his mission and ministry. 

Many took to Twitter following L’Arche’s announcement to express their disbelief and sorrow at the news that someone they looked up to as a saint turned out to be anything but. Flynn was one, saying his son was named after Vanier. The Rev. James Martin, SJ, said he admired Vanier and considered him a saint. The Rev. Matthew Schneider, LC, made similar remarks and said, “That is gone now.” 

Vanier is just the latest person whose life was immortalized and canonized before it ended. This glorification is indicative of the need for instant gratification that’s seeped into how people talk about holiness and sainthood. People are drawn to and want to celebrate what or who they think is holy, and they don’t feel a need to wait for the Church to confirm what they believe to be true. 

Vanier’s legacy prior to last week is one proof of that. Other proofs are the praising of former cardinal Teddy McC, the cult surrounding the founder of the Legion of Christ and predator Marcial Maciel, and so on. I submit that another would be the “Santo Subito” calls that broke out at John Paul II’s funeral. 

In no way am I claiming that the pontiff was guilty of sins like Vanier, McCarrick, Maciel and others, or anything remotely close to that. But I use this example to show that we have become accustomed to celebrating a person’s presumed sanctity rather than praying for the repose of their soul. 

John Paul is unquestionably a saint as recognized by the Church; there is no doubt of that. But a common struggle of many Catholics I know, including myself, has been reconciling the man who was the youth’s pope, the stalwart opponent of communism and proponent of Marian devotion with the same man’s actions of elevating McCarrick and supporting Maciel’s work. It’s difficult to deal with this reality when one recognized him as a saint before the Church did in her due course. 

It is more important to realize that sanctification is never guaranteed, no matter how holy we perceive a person to be. We must, therefore, pray for a person’s soul before we ever ask for their intercession. As the Rev. Thomas Petri, OP, tweeted, “The rush to canonize people needs to give way to praying for their souls.” 

So enough with the premature statues, buildings and private canonizations honoring people like Varnier, McCarrick and former West Virginia bishop Michael Bransfield. Bring back the devil’s advocate in the investigative process of canonizations and wait for the Church’s verdict. If canonizations are infallible, then allow for a due process proper to that finality.  

But above all, pray for souls, dead and alive, and for their conversion to Christ.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you. Considering the church’s bureaucracy, the layers of people between informants and the Pope, and the role and corruption of Cardenal Sodano as gatekeeper at the Vatican, it is reasonable to believe that JPII did not receive the evidence or believe the sex abuse accusations against Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ. However, he might still be guilty of negligence. Only the good Lord will know… and it’s too late to judge.

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