As the leaves turn and the temperatures slowly fall, we prepare for all that comes with the changing season. During this time of year, besides raking leaves and storing flowerpots, I recently attended a candidate forum. One of the less controversial questions asked of the candidates at this forum was to name their favorite book or author. This may seem a somewhat irrelevant question, but I appreciate the insight it can give to the values of the candidate. Afterward, friends and I asked that question of each other. I thought of the book Community and Growth by Jean Vanier.
This book is about the L’Arche Communities in which Jean Vanier, a Catholic theologian and philosopher, started in 1964 in Paris. And by the time of his death on May 7, 2019, the number of communities expanded to 147 in 35 countries across five continents.
A L’Arche community can be described as a home where both those with cognitive or physical disabilities and those who do not have these disabilities live together. They equally contribute to the development of a home, community and lasting relationships. What is extraordinary about L’Arche communities are the equally dignified roles shared by the members. No matter their abilities, each member is recognized as a child of God, and they live together and care and learn from each other. Defined from their website, “at L’Arche, adults with and without intellectual disabilities share life and friendships in community.”
I have always found this to be an extraordinary model that teaches us not only the recognition of the dignity of each person but provides the opportunity to truly experience the importance and value of the vulnerable by encountering Christ in each person. To stay close to that understanding, belief and experience would be to never minimize the exploitation, dismissal, abuse or harassment of another person, especially the poor, vulnerable and powerless.
The message of L’Arche can be integrated into the mission of the Ministry of Safe Environment for Catholic Dioceses across the country. This ministry is not only a response to those abused by ministers representing the Catholic Church; it reminds us of our faith’s core belief that we are all children of God, especially the most vulnerable among us. The policies and procedures put in place for prevention, awareness and a just response are not only words on paper but have meaning and purpose. Every Catholic has a role in ensuring that meaning and purpose are embraced within their parish, school and local community.
Each year, every diocese within the United States has an independent audit to ensure that it is in compliance with the policies and procedures put in place to provide safe environments in all institutions within a diocese. And once again, the Archdiocese of Anchorage has been found compliant for the 2018-2019 audit year. But what does that mean?
It means that we have policies, procedures and standards in place which focus on the prevention of abuse towards our minors and vulnerable adults and response to anyone who has been harmed. These policies and procedures are a necessary and minimum step, but our faith calls us to go beyond compliance. It calls us all to embrace the core belief of the value, dignity and equal importance of each person, especially the vulnerable and poor. It calls us all to take an active role in educating and becoming more aware of all forms of assault on the dignity of a person.
So yes, as an Archdiocese and as clergy, employees, ministers and volunteers of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, we need to follow all safe environment requirements. We need to inform ourselves of the many efforts in place to ensure responsibility, transparency and accountability, and we need to accept our unique roles in ensuring that we all participate in a faith community that provides safety and security. But I believe more is asked of us.
What I continue to learn from the L’Arche model and the wisdom of Jean Vanier is that our society easily dismisses the poor and vulnerable because they do not have riches, power, influence, and they may require more time and patience. To truly embrace Christ in all people is to evaluate what we consider important. Is it power, riches and influence, or is it justice, charity and mercy?
In his book, Community and Growth, Jean Vanier states: “So many people enter groups in order to develop a certain form of spirituality or to acquire knowledge about the things of God and of humanity. But that is not community; it is a school. It becomes community only when people start truly caring for each other and for each other’s growth.”
What I believe the ministry of safe environment can do, with all of us working together, is prevent the abuse and exploitation of our most vulnerable, care for those who have been impacted by any form of assault and help us to embrace and experience the value and importance of all lives.