Jean Vanier: a champion for all of us

Members of the L’Arche Community in West Norwood, London, share a happy moment.

Jean Vanier’s life is a story about “changing”  and relationships – for himself and others around him.

In the early 1960s, Vanier was yearning for something deeper in his life after enjoying successful stints as a naval officer and university professor. After visiting an institution for people with disabilities in Trosly-Breuil, a small township just north of Paris, France, it become apparent to Vanier that the members of that community were crying out for friendship and love.

It was precisely at this moment where Vanier found his true vocation, and so, “… the adventure of L’Arche  began.”

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, is pictured in a 2011, photo. Vanier, a Canadian Catholic figure whose charity work helped improve conditions for the developmentally disabled in multiple countries over the past half century, died on 7 May at age 90. Photo: CNS, courtesy Jean Vanier Association

Vanier’s encounters with members of the institution prompted him to invite two men living in that institution to share life with him. This radical invitation of friendship and hospitality has changed the lives of these two gentlemen in more ways than we will ever understand.

But this call to arms also changed Vanier’s life: “Little by little I began thinking I could do good for them, but then as the days and months moved on, I began to discover what they were doing for me. Transforming me, changing me. I thought I was going to teach them something, and suddenly I was discovering they were teaching me quite a bit”.

Furthermore, Vanier retells: “There was a beauty in these disabled men that was being crushed at the large, dismal, violent institution in which they had been put. These men were persons and precious to God, and so it seemed right, even evident, for me to do something about their unjust situation.”  Since the beginnings of L’Arche, Vanier took it upon himself to create genuine, authentic and sustained communities of belonging.

Vanier understood belonging as “… a place where we grow to maturity and discover what it means to be human and to act in a human way. It is a place we need in order to live and to act in society in justice, in truth, without seeking power, privileges and honours for our own self-glory. It is the place where we learn to be humble but also audacious and to take initiatives in working with others.

Palestinians with intellectual disabilities make felted wool ornaments, Nativity sets and other gift items from the wool of Bethlehem sheep at the Ma’an lil-Hayat in Bethlehem, West Bank. Ma’an lil-Hayat is part of the international L’Arche network founded by Canadian Catholic philosopher and theologian Jean Vanier in 1964 for people with intellectual disabilities. Photo: CNS, Debbie Hill

It is the place where our deepest self-rises up into our consciousness and so we become more fully ourselves, more fully human.”

For myself, I have been truly blessed to have personally known Vanier for a short time. He has had a profound impact on my life, and I will forever be indebted to him for his witness and friendship.

In closing, Vanier frequently spoke about the “little things” in our lives – things like: fidelity to love, fidelity to prayer, fidelity to mercy, fidelity to being in a relationship with others and with Jesus.

These are the real things that matter – not money, power, ego, elitism or status. We have much to learn from Jean Vanier – a life well lived.

Author Zachariah Duke is pictured with Jean Vanier. Photo: courtesy, Zachariah Duke

Dr Zachariah Duke is Acting Academic Dean, Acting Head of Learning and Teaching and Lecturer in Theology at The Catholic Institute of Aotearoa, New Zealand and a volunteer of L’Arche.