What’s In Jean Vanier’s Name?
J.D. Flynn is head of the Catholic News Agency, and a canon lawyer. He and his wife Kate adopted two Down syndrome babies. Later, Kate gave birth to a child they conceived naturally. They named him Daniel Vanier Flynn — after Jean Vanier, the Catholic founder of L’Arche, the ministry that defends and celebrates the dignity of mentally disabled people. As parents of Down syndrome children, the Flynns really cherished Vanier and his witness.
The Flynns recently learned, along with the rest of the world, that Jean Vanier, who died last year, was almost certainly a sex abuser (of non-disabled adult women he manipulated). I wrote about that here. Kate immediately wanted to change their little boy’s name. J.D. ponders this out loud in this heart-rending essay. Excerpts:
It is possible he struggled, I think to myself. That he didn’t want to do what he did. That he was trying, for decades, to get away from it. That he was ashamed, and he didn’t know how to stop.
But he grievously misrepresented himself.
He wrote and spoke of relatively benign flaws with the appearance of great humility, while concealing his criminal abuse. He pretended not to know about the abusive practices of his spiritual mentor — even while they mirrored his own. He left women scarred and hopeless, he blasphemed God himself, and he never owned up to any of it.
People thought he was a kind of spiritual master, and even while he rebuffed them, he knew they kept thinking it. And, in one way or another, with books and lectures and documentaries and appearances, he let them.
All of that has led me to something like a crisis of faith. At its worst, it becomes nearly a kind of epistemic despair.
Of course, that feels like a cliche. It is a cliche. But it is no less true for its banality. I thought this man was holy, and he wasn’t. And now I am surprised to find myself wondering if holiness is real.
If he wasn’t holy, I thought to myself those first few days, was anyone? If he spent a lifetime meeting the peculiar demands of loving people with disabilities, and wasn’t transformed in holiness, can I be? Is no one really freed from sin?
McCarrick made me angry, but he never made me question the Christian proposition. I never expected that he was holy. That someone I already thought lukewarm turned out to be wicked was no real surprise. Other bishops too, who have proven to be wicked, have evoked in me no emotional response. I’ve known too many bishops, as men of flesh and blood, vice and virtue, to expect them to be any particular thing.
I know this is why God gives us the Church. I know that the Church, in her wisdom, and through the test of time, carefully discerns men and women of heroic virtue — saints worth imitating and venerating. But the Vatican’s saint-making department is an office full of sinners, some of them facing criminal investigations. Believing that God works through those guys to help people know who was really holy takes faith. I know it’s true, but in the days after the Vanier news, I found myself plagued by doubt.
The apologetic answer I have at the ready is not yet a consolation. I laugh, because I’ve offered it before to suffering friends, and no one has told me how hollow it sounds.
Read it all. I strongly urge you to. It feels like it’s written in blood from an open wound.
I appreciate very much the final graf I quoted above, about how the apologetic answer is not (yet) a consolation. That is something very hard for religious people who have not gone through this kind of ordeal to understand. I never experienced a betrayal within my faith of the intensity or kind that the Flynns have, but me being me, I identified so profoundly with those who did — victims and their families — that it might as well have happened to me, given the effect it had on my faith. What Flynn writes about is deeply familiar to me. As I recall from those days, I just wanted to slap people who were quick to deploy lines like “well, churches are full of sinners,” and lines like that. They may have been, and may be, true, but yeah, nobody tells you how hollow it sounds when you’ve lived through, or seen up close, the effects of sexual abuse and betrayal within the Church.
Did you ever read All Quiet On The Western Front? There’s a chapter in that novel in which the soldiers are back from the World War I front on rest and relaxation, and go out for a beer. All the people back home congratulate them for their courage, for their patriotism, and so forth. They thank them for their service. But the soldiers feel so alienated from all that. These well-meaning people know nothing about what it’s like to be in the trenches, day in and day out. To kill, and to see your comrades die. To know suffering intimately.
The hollowness that J.D. Flynn talks about, when well-meaning Catholic apologists offer comfort with apologetics — it’s the same kind of thing. As I recall, what you want to say is, “Just shut up. Stop it, right now. It sounds like you are trying to comfort yourself, not me. I need you to sit with me and feel the shock and the pain that I’m feeling, and accompany me through it. We can talk about apologetics later.”
Is this anything you’ve experienced?
Do you think the Flynns should change their child’s name? I do. I didn’t at first, but the more I think about it, the more I think it should be done. He’s only two. He will never know.