It was more than twenty years ago that I met Fr. Robert Vachon, a La Salette Missionary. I soon discovered an extraordinary colleague; at once a scholar, a humanist and a humble man. Here is someone committed to universal reconciliation and harmony on our planet. The reconciliation he articulates, amazingly, results not in spite of differences, but in and because of them. Over time, I have come to know him as someone in awe of human diversity, open and incredibly accepting of others.
He is courageous, allowing the threads of integrity and honesty to weave the tapestry of his life. His prodigious writing, enduring organizational achievements and always gracious personal manner exemplify an intercultural expression of reconciliation for twenty-first century humankind. This spirit of reconciliation has developed throughout a long and fruitful life. Here is a glimpse of this journey, taken from personal conversations, interviews and his writings.
A Challenging and Promising Beginning
An only child born to a French-Canadian mother and Franco-American father, his early childhood was marked by hard work and perseverance in the midst of economic hardship. Responding to a youthful desire to become a priest, upon the recommendation of a local plumber, Mr. Petrin, he entered the La Salette Seminary in Enfield, New Hampshire.
He remembers his early years at school as a time when he “wanted to be first”, academically and in sports. “I wanted to be the best hockey player who went through the seminary.”
One highlight of Robert’s novitiate year on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was an introduction to the work of the French Dominican priest, Père Sertillange. Soon thereafter, he had the impetus to explore his own inner journey and life commitment.
One day, sitting alone near the shore, he saw a seagull flying above and within his “being suddenly arose a powerful mystical question” that would stretch, challenge and indeed plague him all of his life, “why are we living – where is life leading me?” He said “it just took hold of me, like scales that came off my eyes. It was sudden, powerful, and metaphysical!” This awareness actualized a profound trust in God that sustained Robert in his own quest for integrity, in the challenges of community life, encounters with people of diverse ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds and in constructively engaging the unexpected obstacles and detours of life.
Rome and the Holy Mountain of La Salette
An excellent student, Robert studied philosophy and theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. Despite having to endure physical ailments – “piles from the cold and the wine”— Robert “loved the experience of Rome” and was called un bravo ragazzo (a good guy) by Padre Antonio, a legendary presence in Rome.
During these six years, Robert made an annual retreat at the La Salette Shrine in France. Immersed in the natural beauty and silence of the mountains, he probed the relationship between the historical Jesus and the Apparition of Mary. “Very early in my reflection, I came to see the historical apparition and the message of La Salette as one Christophany”, he said. “La Salette seemed to me to be an historical illustration… expressing the great mystery of reconciliation.” He measured his faithfulness to La Salette in his faithfulness to the spirit and reality of reconciliation.
Vatican II and New Attitudes
After ordination, denied a request to participate in the worker-priest movement in Europe, Robert returned to the United States as a professor of theology. Later, in the 1960s, the era of the Second Vatican Council, the faithful of the Roman Catholic Church were invited to aggiornamento, a time of renewal. Ecumenism was actively promoted.
This historic opening deeply resonated with Robert who sensed a profound call to identify himself with the poorest, the famished and to let himself “be seized by the presence of Christ”. His question: “How might this ‘fresh breath of the Holy Spirit’ influence his life in his desire to be faithful to Christ?”
As often happens in life, during intense searching, one discovers unexpected sources of insight close at hand. For Robert, it was an unexpected article in the review, Jubilee, by Dom Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk, titled “The Church and Hinduism”. Similarly, in passing a Boston bookstore, his eye was caught by a book featured in the window, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism by his future mentor Raimon Panikkar, a Spaniard, professor at Harvard and priest of the diocese of Varanasi, India. This literature enabled him to recognize India as a place not only where people experienced poverty, hunger and a disenfranchised life but also where people would be able to teach him something about the suffering Christ. Soon thereafter, a desire to visit India was planted.
Immersion in India and Beyond
Fr. Robert finally traveled to India. He did so, not as a curious tourist or scholar, but rather eagerly experiencing and living Oriental life as profoundly as possible. He bathed in the sacred River Ganges, hoping to exit “a better priest and religious, a better man, a better servant of all”. Living for some months in an ashram, he was exposed to Hindu and Buddhist thought and ascetic practice.
Eventually, Robert’s journey took him to Dharmsala and a visit with the Dalai Lama. Their conversation focused on a “dialogue among religions”. He described the Dalai Lama as very open to other spiritualities, deeply respectful of Thomas Merton, yet faithful to his own Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Years later, Robert would welcome the Dalai Lama on his first visit to Canada in Montreal at Saint Joseph’s Oratory. This immersion in India kindled in Robert the yearning to actively encourage ecumenical and interreligious dialogue between the West and Asia. With a deep appreciation of religious pluralism, Robert forged ahead to actualize the La Salette message of universal reconciliation, dedicated to “the promotion of mutual understanding among religions and their coming together in charity and truth and… the struggle against those evils which now compromise the salvific plan of God and the dignity of the human person” (La Salette Rule of Life, #23).
Serving 40 Years at the Intercultural Institute
Intercultural Institute of Montreal. Here he has been at home for more than 40 years. His early initiatives pioneered interreligious, intercultural dialogue. He abhorred the West’s promotion of modernity, progress and development as superior to other cultures.Returning from India, Robert was named Director of an organization founded by the Holy Cross Fathers and Brothers that would become known as the
Consequently, the Institute created a space that enabled an open encounter among peoples of the great religions of humanity, encompassing the diversity of world cultures and civilizations.
Fr. Robert and the Institute promoted a variety of initiatives to foster an authentic dialogue among cultures and religions. These efforts ranged from seminars, colloquies and ecumenical exchanges to especially a research journal, Interculture, which Robert initiated and has continued to edit, publish in French, Italian and English and distribute in thirty countries around the world. It has become a forum to explore the plurality of cultures and religions within the human community.
A Harmonic Vision of Reconciliation
Fr. Robert Vachon’s innovative thinking is best expressed in reconciliation as less a reality to construct than a harmony in which to enter. He states it this way:
“Reality is reconciliation; we are only small members of the Great Reconciliation which daily plays out between the divine, the human and the cosmic.” Whenever we can remain detached from the constraints of competition among cultures and refuse to compare the relative value of each culture, then opportunity arises to realize an intercultural perspective which affirms that cultures, irreducibly different, are not incommunicable. Harmony and understanding are possible “not despite differences, but in and because of them”.
“Our task: to create first in ourselves a milieu where we will be able to birth a global human tradition where the cultures and religions of the world not only mutually respect each other, but recognize each other as dimensions of each other, mutually nourishing each other and in a living symbiosis, creating and discovering the seeds of a new humankind.”
left half: from left: Kaientaronkwen, Mohawk elder; Kalpana Das; Fr. Robert Vachon,
M.S., 1981; right half: Three directors of Intercultural Institute of Montreal, 40th
anniversary, 2003: from left: Miss Kalpana Das, Fr. Jacques Langlais, C.S.C., and
Fr. Robert Vachon, M.S.
Note: Joseph J. Baxer, Director of the Intercultural Institute of Connecticut, has written a book on Fr. Robert Vachon, M.S., entitled, An Intercultural Life: Robert Vachon: A spiritual journey engaging religions and cultures, Xlibris, 2007, 216 pgs.