Monday, June 1, 2015

Vanier discovered the art of being human through the disabled

Vanier found a hidden world of anguish
At the end of a steep hill in the neighbourhood where I grew up, there stood a house shrouded in mystery. Adults whispered about a “retarded” child who lived there and who was confined to a room. They argued about whether or not his parents should put him in a “home”.

I was both fascinated and afraid when I passed by the house. I had no context for the comments I overheard. I wondered about the boy, about his appearance, how he spent his day, was he lonely, and would he hurt me if he came out of the house.

That was in the mid 1960’s around the time that Jean Vanier, the 2015 Templeton Prize winner, visited an asylum, a “home”, in Trosly, France.  It was the house of my neighbourhood on a grand scale and he was as ignorant of it as were the people in my neighbourhood.  


He discovered a hidden world of anguish, shame and hopelessness, a place where intellectually disabled people were shut away from sight. So, he took action, inviting two of the men who had no family to live with him. Their mutually transformative experience of living as peers - eating, doing chores and, sometimes, fighting - gradually began to attract others.

This was the humble beginning of L’Arche, a unique organization of 147 communities around the globe that fosters the mutual transformation of all its members – whether able or disabled.  Emphasizing our common humanity, L’Arche is a sign of hope for the world, demonstrating that people of different cultures, religions and  abilities can live together in peace. 

The liberating experience of L'Arche embraces vulnerability
Vanier’s experience in that first L’Arche community was liberating.  Freed from the culture of success where people are valued for their abilities and achievements, Vanier discovered what it means to be fully human.  In Vanier’s experience and thought, to be fully human means to discover that each individual is a treasured part of the human family; before being a Christian or a Jew, before being an American or a Russian, before having visible or invisible disabilities, we are a person. 

When Vanier speaks of what it means to be fully human, he embraces the vulnerability that many of us try to hide. For Vanier, the story of every individual is the discovery of one’s fragility; we are born, grow and die in weakness.

Living with vulnerable people has taught him that the cry of the disabled for love is the common cry of every person. It is a cry that echoes the heart of God. When people are loved for who they are, not for what they can do, the spirit soars and they can enter more deeply into relationship. “To become fully human is to let down the barriers, to open up and to discover that every person is beautiful. Under all the jobs and responsibilities, there is you.” 

Vanier made a lasting impression in a small town
I first heard of Vanier in the 1970’s.  My late mother-in-law, who was instrumental in bringing Vanier to our diocese to give a retreat, said of him,  “He preached the gospel by the way he lived.”  He made a deep and lasting impression on her, as he did on other individuals who attended that retreat, and who, despite the passing of decades, still speak about him with great clarity.

One woman, who told me of her retreat experience, said the content of the retreat was secondary to Vanier himself. He opened up a God of love to her with his gentle manner and the love in his eyes.  Listening to Vanier, she said all these years later, “was like sitting as a child at the feet of the Master”, adding, “he could have said anything and reached me.”

Another individual described Vanier to me saying, “He is the most authentic person I have ever met. His commitment to the gospel was remarkable and he was living it beautifully.”  

Posing a tough question
The Templeton Prize, valued at approximately US $1.7 million, honors an individual who has made an extraordinary contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.  While it is clear that Vanier’s Christian faith and love of Jesus is at the basis of his lived theology, he is not pushy about creed.  When asked what he would say to a person who does not believe in God, Vanier replied, “Do you believe in love? You don’t need to believe in God. God is love. The important thing is not belief - but can you grow in love?”

That may be the tougher question.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Loyola decision protects religious freedom

"Church and state can work together for the common good"

In 2008, as part of the continued secularization of the Quebec school system, the province adopted a mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) Program to replace religious education in schools. A statutory provision gives Quebec’s Minister responsible for education the discretionary ability to grant an exemption from the ERC program if a school offers an alternative, equivalent program. Loyola, a private Catholic high school run by the Jesuit order for over a century, applied for and was denied an exemption because the proposed program would be taught from a Catholic standpoint and not from a neutral position.

The objectives of the ERC program are the “recognition of others” and the “pursuit of the common good”.  Through the program’s three components - world religions and religious culture, ethics, and dialogue - students are expected to develop attitudes of openness, diversity, tolerance and respect. They are to learn the skills necessary for engaging in respectful dialogue with others who hold differing views. Loyola had no quarrel with the goals and competencies of the provincially mandated ERC program but wanted to teach from the Catholic perspective that animates the school.

The Court found that the minister failed to proportionately balance the objectives of the ERC program and the religious freedom of the individuals of Loyola’s faith-based community. The minister erred in her presumption that the ERC program could only be taught from a secular, neutral stance. Loyola’s version of the curriculum could achieve the goals and the competencies of the ERC program.

While the justices of the Court ruled unanimously in Loyola’s favor, they were split 4-3 on the remedy. The majority referred the matter back to the Minister for reconsideration, while the minority recommended that Loyola be allowed to proceed with its proposed program.

In the majority decision, Justice Abella writes, “Preventing a school like Loyola from teaching and discussing Catholicism, the core of its identity, in any part of the program from its own perspective, does little to further the ERC Program’s objectives while at the same time seriously interfering with the values underlying religious freedom.”

At the same time, the decision reaffirms the role of the state in administering education in religious schools. The state does not have “to abandon its objectives by accepting a program that frames the discussion of ethics primarily through the moral lens of a school’s own religion.”

Writing for the minority, Chief Justice McLachlin and Justice Moldaver did not see a problem with the discussion of ethics occurring through Loyola’s Catholic lens. “Loyola’s teachers must be permitted to describe and explain Catholic doctrine and ethical beliefs from the Catholic perspective. Loyola’s teachers must describe and explain the ethical beliefs and doctrines of other religions in an objective and respectful way. Loyola’s teachers must maintain a respectful tone of debate, but where the context of the classroom discussion requires it, they may identify what Catholic beliefs are, why Catholics follow those beliefs, and the ways in which other ethical or doctrinal propositions do not accord with those beliefs.”  To prevent them from doing so would render Loyola’s teachers “mute.”

I welcome the Supreme Court decision from my perspective as a Catholic who supports faith-based schools and the rights of individuals who choose those schools. I welcome it, too, as a former teacher with experience in both the Catholic and public school systems, and as a Canadian who values the freedoms of our secular democracy. 

Lauded as a victory for religious freedom, in my view, this decision strikes a balance between religion and secularism. On one hand, the Court affirms the legitimacy of the state in prescribing and regulating curriculum in religious schools. State oversight helps to prevent religious indoctrination and the intolerance that accompanies it. On the other hand, the decision protects freedom of religion. A religious school may teach from the perspective of its tradition and doctrines provided its beliefs or practices do not “conflict with or harm overriding public interests.”

At a time in Canadian history when the courts are frequently asked to rule on cases that pit religion and secularism, Loyola serves as a reminder that church and state can work together for the common good.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Pastor Lee: A man with a mission

Disabled son inspires drop box for abandoned babies
Pastor Lee Jong-rak of Seoul, South Korea is a man with a mission. The documentary film The Drop Box tells his story. 

In  2009, after a mother left her baby on his doorstep one cold night, Lee created a system to safely receive abandoned babies.  He installed a drop box equipped with a bell on the side of his home. The sign above the drop box reads, “Please don’t throw away unwanted babies. Please bring them here.”   It is a message reminiscent of the words of Mother Theresa who said “…please don’t destroy the child, we will take the child”, while speaking about abortion in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Since its installation, Lee and his wife, Chun-Ja, have received six hundred babies. They have either adopted or become guardians of fifteen abandoned disabled babies.

A source of controversy
Lee’s drop box has been a source of both praise and controversy. Some critics think the drop box enables mothers to abandon their baby, while others think it interferes with social programs that provide counseling for mothers, making them aware of other options and of the consequences of abandonment for both mother and child. There are concerns about the anonymity of the drop box; children without birth records do not officially exist and are vulnerable to abuse and trafficking.

Lee’s drop box, like many other well-intentioned charitable works, is indeed a band-aid solution to a social problem. This, however, does not invalidate its important role in preserving lives.  To draw an analogy between the story of the child who throws one starfish back into the ocean when there is an entire beach of starfish that she cannot save, Lee’s drop box makes a difference to those babies whose mothers choose the drop box over abandoning them on the street where the possibility of death is very real.

Faith is at the heart of Lee's story
Faith is at the heart of Lee’s story. He clearly feels that God has called him to this task, a task that he executes selflessly, without counting the cost. Lee suffers from sleep deprivation, diabetes and high blood pressure. Then, there is the emotional toll of his ministry, which comes through poignantly when Lee talks about Hannah, who was born with brain damage and died unexpectedly at age six. Lee’s lingering sense of loss is palpable, as is his concern about the future of his children when he can no longer care for them.

The inspiration for Lee’s drop box came from his son, a severely disabled twenty-six year old who was hospitalized for fourteen years. Lee admits that accepting his son was difficult and prompted serious existential questions. “Why did God give me this child? I wasn’t grateful for this baby.”  Through his struggle to find answers, Lee came to see in his son the preciousness of each human life. He named him Eun-man, which means “full of God’s grace.” 

Lee’s devotion to the disabled reminded me of the work of Jean Vanier, who founded the first L’Arche community for developmentally challenged adults over 50 years ago.   Vanier, who sees and accepts imperfections as part of being human, has said, “The weak teach the strong to accept and integrate the weakness and brokenness of their own lives.” 

This may be the purpose that Lee alludes to when he describes Eun-man as his teacher, and when he says of the disabled babies that others would throw away, “They’re not the unnecessary ones in the world. God sent them here with a purpose.” 

A critical message for our time

Mother Theresa, Jean Vanier and Pastor Lee have a message that is critically important for our time: every life has value and purpose. As a society, we struggle with this message. It contradicts the parallels we draw between human dignity and quality of life with bodily vigor and intellectual vitality.

Vanier wrote in Becoming Human, “As soon as we start judging people instead of welcoming them as they are – with their sometimes hidden beauty, as well as their more frequently visible weaknesses – we are reducing life, not fostering it.” 

In the process, we reduce our own humanity. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Assisted suicide is not the only answer to suffering

"We operate under a false premise when we equate the suffering arising from disease, illness or disability with a loss of dignity."

The Supreme Court of Canada rules in favour of physician assisted suicide
It is eloquent, persuasive and based in law; it almost had me convinced that physician assisted dying is the correct response to suffering.

In the Carter decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a competent adult who consents to death, and has a “grievous and irremediable medical condition (including illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition” has a right to physician assisted dying.  The ruling does not restrict physician assisted dying to those who are terminally ill.

The Court found that a total ban against physician assisted dying is broader than necessary to achieve its objective of protecting  “vulnerable persons from being induced to commit suicide at a time of weakness”.  In the view of the Court, the consequences of the prohibition impinge on the individual’s right to life, liberty and security of the person.

In the words of the Court, “the prohibition deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable. The rights to liberty and security of the person, which deal with concerns about autonomy and quality of life, are also engaged. An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy. The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person.”

As I read through the lengthy decision, it was difficult not to let the logic of the Court inform my belief on the matter.   It is hard to argue against the individual’s right to autonomy and dignity when I like to make my own decisions, and have no wish to endure suffering, nor watch someone else endure it.

Still, I have issues with physician assisted dying.

A different view of suffering
My attitude towards suffering differs from the negative approach towards suffering implied in the term “dying with dignity”, and endorsed in the Carter decision. In my view, the human person is created in the image and likeness of God. This divine stamp on the individual sanctifies every human life, and gives each of us an innate and inviolable dignity.

We operate under a false premise when we equate the suffering arising from disease, illness or disability with a loss of dignity. I have known people to endure each of these with great dignity, allowing their suffering to transform them, and in the process, their relationships and those who cared for them. Rather than losing their dignity, they grew in graciousness.

Archbishop Antonio Mancini of Halifax-Yarmouth, in a homily I happened to hear while visiting Halifax a few days after the Supreme Court decision, addressed our struggle to make sense of suffering.  “When there is no meaning to suffering, it is only pain, and of course people are afraid… But where there is meaning, where there is love and proper care, where there is community support, suffering can become sacrifice. Sacrifice is not just another word for ‘put up with’. It literally means…to make something “sacred”. To take suffering and to transform it with meaning is to make the reality of suffering a manifestation of the holy and the sacred.”

While this view of the relationship between suffering and dignity differs from that of the majority of Canadians and of the Supreme Court, there is the same desire to act compassionately towards those who suffer. From this standpoint, the compassionate response begins with a willingness to share, not to avoid, the suffering of another, and encompasses support and care.

For those who do not applaud this decision as one giant step forward for Canadians, and who seek an alternate response, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a statement that may be helpful. The bishops recommend that legislators interpret the decision as narrowly as possible so as not to open the door to euthanasia. They urge governments and professional associations to implement policies that will protect the freedom of conscience of health-care workers who oppose physician assisted dying. And, they renew their call for universal access to quality hospice-palliative care.

Undergirding these action points is an unshakeable belief in the sanctity of human life as a reality that defines the human person, and in the power of love to ease the transition from life to death in even the most difficult of situations.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Day: a brief history

Love is in the air today
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at
"Hearts Falling From Sky"
Love is in the air, and with it, red roses, chocolates in heart shaped boxes and jewelry. Today’s symbols and celebration of the romantic love that we associate with Valentine’s Day have little resemblance to its ancient Roman and early Christian roots, both of which involved some violence.

The ancient Roman fertility feast of Lupercalia
In the middle of February, the ancient Romans celebrated Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture. While the festival involved a blessing of crops with the blood of sacrificial animals, there were also rites for human fertility.

The festival opened with the sacrifice of a goat for fertility, and a dog for purification.  The goat’s hide was turned into strips that were then dipped into the sacrificial blood. The strips were used to whip young women, who lined up to be beaten because they believed that the whipping would make them more fertile in the coming year.  Later in the day, a lottery paired up the city’s unmarried women and men for the remainder of the year. Sometimes the lottery got it right, and couples that fell in love were married at the end of the year.

During the 5th century, by which time Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman empire, Lupercalia was outlawed, and in its place, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 Saint Valentine’s Day.

Saint Valentine defies an emperor 

Saint Valentine was a third century Christian priest who lived during the reign of the Emperor Claudius II. Claudius had prohibited young people from marrying because he thought that unmarried men made better soldiers than men with wives and children.  Valentine defied Claudius’ edict and continued to perform marriages in secret.  In 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to a brutal execution that included beating, stoning and decapitation.

A legend associated with Valentine’s imprisonment and execution has done much over the centuries to establish the man as a romantic figure.  According to the story, while he was in prison, Valentine healed the daughter of one of the Roman judges who was to decide his fate, and he fell in love with her. On the day of his execution, he sent her a note, and signed it, “From your Valentine”, the salutation immortalized in Valentine’s Day greetings.

The association of the feast of Saint Valentine with romance began to gain traction in medieval times when written Valentine’s Day messages began to appear. This may have had something to do with Geoffrey Chaucer, who in his poem “The Parliament of Fowls” (1380) linked Valentine’s Day to love; on Valentine’s Day all the birds known to man chose their mates.

Towards the middle of the 18th century, friends and lovers of all social classes exchanged symbols of affection. By 1900, commercial cards began to replace handwritten notes, and at some point, Valentine’s Day morphed into the hugely successful commercial celebration of today.

Valentine's Day ejects money into retail coffers
In the United States, an estimated 200 million roses are grown for February 14, when 180 million Valentine’s Day cards will be exchanged, and six million couples will become engaged. According to its Valentine’s Day Consumer Spending Survey, the National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates that the cost of all this love in the air will reach a staggering $18.9 billion this year.

Here in Canada, we are less extravagant. According to the Retail Council of Canada, in 2013 Canadian shoppers averaged $37 on Valentine’s Day purchases. That same year in the United States, American shoppers spent an average of $130.97, and this year’s NRF survey suggests that amount will increase to $142.31.

The roots of Valentine’s Day go deep into the past, to a pagan fertility festival and the martyrdom of a priest whom legend remade into a figure of romantic love. Since medieval times, it has been a day to express and exchange tokens of affection. So whether it is a simple card or an expensive piece of jewelry, whether you spend a little, a lot, or nothing at all on Valentine’s Day, love is in the air; breathe it in!