One of the greatest Catholics, as well as one of the greatest human beings of this or any age, died this week: Jean Vanier. When people look back on our time, he will be one of the greatest figures towering over the wreckage we have made of it. As people reckon the first century as the “time of Christ” and not as the “time of Tiberius”, and speak of the 13th century as the Age of Aquinas and not of Frederick Barbarossa, so may they look back to the time of this giant and recall that, for all the failures of our culture and our Church, still it could claim him as one of its children (though of course, he was first and foremost a child of God and that is why he was able to oppose our insane age with his goodness). And I have no doubt that in his love and charity, he is praying for us, unworthy as we are of his prayers.
I have very little I can say to or about Jean Vanier that does not sound like foolish prattle. He was, at bottom, a disciple of Jesus Christ. His life is inexplicable apart from his relationship with Jesus. And that is what it was: a relationship. Jesus was not, for him, a subject or topic. He was a living person with whom Jean was vitally engaged on a moment-by-moment basis as his Lord. His treatment of other people–and above all of the least of these–was utterly related to his relationship with the Christ who is in those other people. The beauty of it–of him–brings tears to my eyes just thinking of it. I owe him a personal debt because I have a friend who was one of those gifted and graced with Down syndrome and given the joy of encounter with a L’Arche Community here in Seattle.
I weep for our loss in losing Monsieur Vanier, but not for him. If there was ever a human being I have believed instantly walked into the beatific vision and heard, “Well done, thou good and faithful”, it is Jean Vanier.