April/May 2016 - Vol. 85

Jean Vanier 
On Community and Growth
Quotes from the writings of Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche Community  

Community - a place of belonging, and growth in love
Today many young people are seeking communities - not ones that are closed up and inward-looking but communities that are open to the universal, the international world; that are not limited to their own culture, that are not frightened ghettos but are open to the pain and injustices of the world. That is why so many flock to Taize or join groups that are international. That is why so many new communities feel called to found sister communities in developing countries. It is as if a community cannot continue to exist in its own culture if it is not linked to similar communities in other cultures. This arises not just from the desire to 'do good' in the Third World, but also from the discovery and acceptance of the gifts of these countries, which may be less developed econ­omically but which frequently possess a deep and true sense of humanity.

For many centuries, communities were linked to institutional chur­ches, but today in many places the influence of these churches is waning. Many young people see them as irrelevant, cut off from the reality of the world. But at the same time, with the break­down of the family or in the face of injustices - particularly in Third World countries - there is a new cry for togetherness and community within the Church. This is very evident in the basic communities in Latin America, but it is also evident all over the world. The Synod of the Roman Catholic Church, when consider­ing the Laity in 1987, described the parish, for the first time in an official document of the Roman Catholic Church, as 'a community of communities'. Yes, there is a new realisation that community is the place of meeting with God or, as Martin Buber says, 'the place of theophany'.1 It is the place of belonging; it is the place of love and acceptance; it is the place of caring; it is a place of growth in love. Individualism and materialism lead to rivalry, competition and the rejection of the weak. Community leads to openness and acceptance of others. Without community people's hearts close up and die.

Community as Caring
If community is belonging and openness, it is also loving concern for each person. In other words we could say it is caring, bonding and mission. These three elements define it.

In community people care for each other and not just for the community in the abstract, as a whole, as an institution or as an ideal way of life. It is people that matter; to love and care for the people that are there, just as they are. It is to care for them in such a way that they may grow according to the plan of God and thus give much life. And it is not just caring in a passing way, but in a permanent way.

Because people are bonded one to another, they make up one family, one people, one flock. And this people has been called together to be a sign and a witness, to accomplish a particular mission which is their charism, their gift.

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.

Esther de Waal writing about the rule of St Benedict says:

It is noticeable how both the abbot and the cellarer are constantly concerned about the brethren, caring for each singly in all their uniqueness rather than with the community en bloc, that ideal which seems to haunt so much contemporary ideology. The common life never becomes a piece of abstract idealisation or idealism. St Benedict would probably have appreciated Dietrich Bonhoeffer's aphorism: 'He who loves community, destroys community; he who loves the brethren, builds community.'2
I began L'Arche in 1964, in the desire to live the Gospel and to follow Jesus Christ more closely. Each day brings me new lessons on how much Christian life must grow in commitment to life in community, and how much that life needs faith, the love of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit if it is to deepen.


1 "We expect a theophany of which we know nothing but the place, and the place is called community" (Martin Buber, quoted by Parker J. Palmer).
2 Esther de Waal, Seeking God (Collins/Fount, London, 1984, p. 139.

Excerpts from Community and Growth, Revised Edition, by Jean Vanier, Copyright © 1979, 1989. First published in Great Britain in 1979 by Darton, Longman and Todd ltd, London, UK
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