My critical attitude was nullified
It was 1974, I was an aimless twenty-year-old living in my parent’s house in Victoria, B.C. Canada. Somehow, through coercion, or perhaps the Holy Spirit, my mother, a person of strong faith and an exuberant Sister Margaret O’Donnell, co-conspired to have me attend a Jean Vanier retreat being held in Vancouver. So rather than attending the Van Morrison concert that was scheduled at that time, I found myself at a four-day, live-in, Jean Vanier retreat in a high school in Vancouver.
At that time, I was rather a negative, apathetic individual so this retreat initially was completely out of my comfort zone. I reluctantly trudged down to the first session in the gymnasium amidst a mob of uninhibited, joyful slice of humanity. As he loped to the stage, carrying his well-thumbed red RSV bible and no other notes, this tall, lanky individual sat down into a chair and proceeded to talk about faith, human dignity, inclusion, Jesus’ message of love and the agony experienced by those marginalized by their disabilities. The misgivings I initially harbored soon dissolved as I sat transfixed by Jean’s open address. In his gentle, compassionate, intelligent presence, Jean Vanier completely drew me in and has been a force in my life ever since. His vision for the world was so compelling, his radical commitment to forming community with people with disabilities and his deep faith and familiarity with scripture and matters of the faith all contributed to my sense of discovering Truth.
One evening while trying to process this retreat, I was walking the hallways of the school we were staying in when a door opened, and it was Jean. He beckoned for me to come in however, after such a schedule I insisted he probably needed his sleep more than a chat with me. Undeterred, he invited me in and we had a very engaging conversation sitting on the end of his bed. What a blessing!
That was forty some years ago and throughout my life I have managed to stay connected to L’Arche, either visiting communities in different cities, advocating for people with disabilities, attending Jean’s retreats and reading his many books. I am currently on the Board of L’Arche Edmonton and for the past five years have been privileged to serve our six homes and the day program.
I am now retired from a wonderful career in education in Catholic schools and looking back over those thirty-odd years, I can honestly say that Jean Vanier and his L’Arche vision informed many of my decisions in working with students, families and teachers.
As a twenty-year-old know-it-all, my critical attitude was nullified by this man who spoke so persuasively to my heart. Now as a seasoned sixty-four-year-old, I look back on all the many blessings Jean Vanier has inserted into my journey and as he faces his mortality, I will keep him deep within my heart in prayer.
Julian Di Castri
St. Albert, Alberta