A great light has dimmed. A man some hailed as a living saint has gone to his reward:
Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, has died in Paris, aged 90.
In a statement on L’Arche’s website announcing Vanier’s death, its leaders said: “Jean passed away peacefully today . . . In recent days, while remaining very present, he had declined quickly.
“We all know Jean’s place in the history of L’Arche and Faith and Light and in the personal stories of many of us. Jean’s life has been one of exceptional fruitfulness. First and foremost we wish to give thanks for that.
“In his last message, just a few days before he died, Vanier had said, “I am not sure what the future will be but God is good and whatever happens it will be the best.”
The son of a former Governor General of Canada, Georges Vanier, Jean Vanier was born in Geneva on September 10, 1928, where his father was en poste. He was educated at Dartmouth Naval College (now Britannia Royal Naval College) and served in the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy before moving to Paris to study philosophy. His first publication was his doctoral thesis on Aristotelian ethics.
In 1964, feeling the need to do something more meaningful with his life, Vanier bought a house in Trosly-Breuil, northern France, and founded L’Arche, a community for those with learning disabilities to live with their carers and be helped to grow to their full potential. L’Arche International now has 150 sites around the world.
Vanier co-founded Faith and Light with Marie-Hélène Mathieu in 1971. This is an international network of forums for those with learning disabilities, their friends and family. It now has more than 1,500 communities in 81 countries around the world.
From the L’Arche website:
In 1964, through the influence of his friendship with a Catholic priest, Father Thomas Philippe, Vanier invited two men with disabilities, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, to leave the institutions where they lived and to share their lives with him in a house in Trosly-Breuil, France.
There, in that small home in Trosly-Breuil, Vanier’s initial urge to “do something for” Raphael and Philippe grew to become a commitment to “being with” and “friend to” these two men. With that shift in heart and consciousness, a core belief of L’Arche emerged: that strength is revealed through weakness and human vulnerability, which given room to grow in trust, creates community. And, Vanier understood, the desire to love and to be loved is something every person longs to experience.Vanier has received numerous awards, including the French Legion of Honor, Companion of the Order of Canada, Rabbi Gunther Plaut Humanitarian Award, the Blessed are the Peacemakers Award from the Chicago Catholic Theological Union, and the 2015 Templeton Prize exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.
From the Jean Vanier website:
Where modernity calls us to privilege personal mastery, progress and doing big things, Vanier’s experience of living with people with profound impairment, and his spiritual reflection on this experience, lead him to focus on being with and for others, especially disadvantaged others – to cultivating sincere presence to others’ desires, being attentive to the beauty in all of our ordinariness, and being of meaningful service. The growth of L’Arche and Faith & Light show how powerful these insights are when executed well.
Jean Vanier’s leadership, writing and practical works cross religious and cultural boundaries. He is a theologian and philosopher who is fully engaged with the ordinariness of everyday life and from whom people from all cultures sense a deep and honest empathy for how hard it is to be, and to do, good in a complicated world. As a practitioner he is a witness to the transforming qualities of love, vulnerability, forgiveness and simplicity: spiritual qualities that are seldom heralded today.
UPDATE: Pope Francis says he spoke with him shortly before Jean Vanier died.
Pope Francis told reporters May 7 he had been kept informed about Jean Vanier’s failing health and had phoned him a week before his death.
“He listened to me, but he could barely speak. I wanted to express my gratitude for his witness,” Pope Francis said May 7, the day Vanier died in Paris.
“He was a man who was able to read the Christian call in the mystery of death, of the cross, of illness, the mystery of those who are despised and discarded,” the pope said.
But, also, Pope Francis said, Vanier stood up for those “who risk being condemned to death even before being born.”
“Simply put, I want to thank him and thank God for having given us this man with such a great witness,” the pope said.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him…
Below is an interview with Jean Vanier conducted by Christiane Amanpour last year.