Homily – May 12, 2019

On May 7th Jean Vanier died at the age of 90 in a hospital in Paris. He lived an interesting life. He served in the British and Canadian navy. He was an intellectual and for a time a professor at St. Michael’s University in Toronto. His life and career changed completely when visiting a psychiatric hospital in France one of the patients there asked him; ’will you be my friend?’ It dawned on Jean Vanier that beyond the limited psychiatric care and counselling this man was receiving the man needed a friend, a relationship with another human being. Will you accept me as I am? That request, ‘will you be my friend?’ was the beginnings of L’Arche, a world-wide network of homes for men and women with intellectual disabilities.

As our parish bulletin reminds every week our parish motto is; belonging, believing, becoming. I found out recently that the Toronto District Catholic School Board that chosen the same motto, ‘we belong, we believe, we become.’

Everyone wants to belong to someone or some group of people. Jean Vanier recognized that need in the simple question of a man most saw people as a simpleton, ‘will you be my friend’. Will you let me into your life? That’s when he opened his life and his heart to men and women with intellectual disabilities and limited social graces who are often brutalized in the institutions meant to help them where they are seen as ‘cases’ not men and women who have their own dignity, hidden though it may be.

Will you be my friend? At this time in our lives, in this time in history we are challenged by this question, will you be my friend. As Canadians, as Catholic Christians there should be no place in our lives for bigotry or racism or xenophobia, that fear of the stranger. Politicians here and abroad are playing on the fear of the stranger, the immigrant or the refugee. These good people are declared to be a threat to our way of life. They will be a burden on our country or a threat to our own job security. If they are allowed to live in our country they should take on Canadian ways and leave their own cultures behind.

Propaganda like this can destroy us, it has destroyed countries before, we think of Nazi Germany, and it can do it again. The bombing of synagogues and mosques and churches are hateful and inhuman acts done by narrow minded and ignorant people.

Will you be my friend? Will you accept me for whom I am? Will you see beyond the color of my skin, see beyond my dress code; see beyond my place of worship. Will you make your own, as followers of Jesus Christ, his welcoming words, come to me all you find life burdensome and I will refresh you. Will you recognize my human dignity as a child of God? Will you be my friend?

That simple question asked of Jean Vanier changed his life. Can that same question challenge us to admit any bigotry or racism hidden in our hearts?

One personal story. From 1968 to 1974 I was the religious superior of the Passionists in Canada. I was attending a meeting at Queen of the Apostles Retreat Centre in Mississauga. The main speaker was a priest from Spain. He clutched a Bible to his chest and spoke almost in whispers. He oozed spirituality of some sort. Hard to take.

During a break I went for a walk. On my way back to the retreat house an automobile stopped and I was asked if I wanted a ride so I got into the back seat and sat next to Jean Vanier and Mother Teresa. Couldn’t believe it. They were guest speakers at this retreat. They both spoke for about 15 minutes and had to move on. There messages were simple and to the point. They were different ways of answering the question, ‘will you be my friend?’ A refreshing break from our bible clutching soft speaking preacher. A cherished memory.

It is a simple question, a challenging question, will you be my friend?