Reflection by Aidan Troy
Way back in 2001 at University in Rome to complete a Licentiate in Theology, I was required to prepare and publish a thesis. What subject should I choose? A Passionist in the community of Ss John and Paul, Rome, where I lived, suggested that I look at the writings of Jean Vanier, Founder of l’Arche. I took his advice.
Eventually, I defended my thesis on ‘Community in the Writings of Jean Vanier’. It was a labour of sheer love as I traced his life from Canada to war-time England and eventually to France. Searching for his community, he found his call in sharing the rest of his life with God’s children who suffered with handicaps of many kinds. He found that in loving and being loved, the neediest of us is changed and healing is possible. L’Arche was born as the Ark that would receive people whom others found difficult to accept and love.
Little did I know in 2001 as I left Rome for a new assignment in Belfast that the writings of Jean Vanier would play a crucial role in my life there. A very violent protest broke out aimed at preventing children going to school due to sectarian divisions. This became known as the Holy Cross School Protest. For three months, each day with their Parents, I walked to and from school with 225 of the most wonderful children between the ages of four and eleven that one could hope to meet.
If needed, I would have died for those children and at times, nearly did. The protest ended, and the children went on with school. They and their families shaped me for the rest of my life. I thank God for these blessings.
Many times, during those months on the road to and from school I thought of the love and care shown by Jean Vanier in his situation. I cannot be compared to him, but his example and writings gave me courage to go on when I was afraid, and doubts set in. Jean Vanier maintains that love and care work miracles in others and convert and grow the carer. I found this to be true and of great value.
A few years after the Holy Cross protest ended, Jean Vanier came to give a talk in Belfast. After it was over, I waited for two hours to speak to him – so many were those ahead of me. I told him my little story about Rome study and its value to me during the dark days of the school protest. He smiled with that unforgettable smile that was his ‘trademark’. It was my duty, I felt, to thank him for his witness to Jesus and the Gospel.
After coming to St Joseph’s in 2008, a priest from Derry in Ireland, a great friend of Jean Vanier, invited me to a retreat given at l’Arche, Trosly. Every second year, this retreat was given by Jean Vanier to a group of Irish priests. He would talk each morning and afternoon for one hour without as much as note to read from. His only book was the Bible. His words came from the heart. Before a Penance Service, he would lead a washing of the feet of each other. In his late eighties, he would kneel down and wash other’s feet in imitation of Jesus.
Jean Vanier went home to God last Tuesday in a Paris hospital. His final message was simple – “God is good and whatever happens it will be the best.” I thank God for Jean Vanier and all the people who have touched my heart along the way of my life. Without them, where would I be?