By CNS and Marilyn Rodrigues
The death of Jean Vanier, whose ministry helped improve the lives of developmentally disabled people in dozens of countries, has drawn prayers and words of condolence from church leaders around the world.
Many who knew of his life and work regarded him as a living saint.
Jean Vanier, who died of thyroid cancer in Paris early May 7 at the age of 90, founded L’Arche in 1964, allowing people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them to share their lives while living in community in an atmosphere of compassion.
Dr David Treanor, national leader of L’Arche Australia, said the founder’s death was a great sadness. “His vision was one of radical welcome, inclusion and joy, where marginalised people with learning disabilities are valued and celebrated,” he said.
“He will be greatly missed by people from all walks of life who have been influenced and
changed by his teachings, which remain as relevant today as ever.”
In addition to his work with L’Arche, Vanier co-founded Faith and Light, and inspired the
creation of many other organisations. Eileen Glass, the director of fundraising and development for L’Arche Australia and friend of Jean Vanier, said that within the L’Arche community there was much sadness at his passing and a planning for a national gathering to commemorate the founder was underway.
“At the same time, there is immense gratitude for what he has brought to the world and to people with intellectual disabilities,” she said.
“I have been touched by the awareness people with a disability have of his importance in their lives, even if they never met him personally. They have a very deep sense that he understood them.”
President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference Archbishop Mark Coleridge tweeted that “Going down to the bedrock of human dignity, #JeanVanier rose above all the ideological dogfights … the world feels a bit smaller, colder and darker without him. RIP… as he surely will.”
Pope Francis was 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 on 7 May.
“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.
In Paris, Archbishop Michel Aupetit said he had recently visited Vanier in Jeanne Garnier hospital in the French capital.
“He was bright and joyful, all abandoned in the hands of God, like a child who will return to the Father’s house,” Archbishop Aupetit said in a statement from the Paris Archdiocese. “His life was consecrated to testify of the beauty of every man in this world and first of the most wounded. I share the sorrow and the hope of his relatives, and I fondly bless all the members of the Ark and Faith and Light.”
The president of the French bishops’ conference also paid tribute to Vanier, saying he “has been touched by human fragility”. Bishop Georges Pontier of Marseille credited Vanier for developing L’Arche communities, which “radiate … a joy, a friendship and a human depth that we need so much. These are places of hope.”
Related article: Vanier a witness to the Gospel
“Let us entrust to the mercy and tenderness of God the one who has just left and pray also for all the members of the communities of the Ark, as well as the faith and light communities marked by this death,” the bishop added in his statement.
Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins said Vanier “taught us to value the dignity of every individual”.
“In a world that increasingly pushes us to gauge success and worth by what we own or who we know, he reminded us that authentic love, friendship and community are what we really need,” the cardinal said. “May his example of peace and gentle care live on through those he inspired for years to come,” he added in a statement. “We give thanks to God for his life.”
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said Vanier “lived a life dedicated to the simple but inviolable belief that each of us is created in God’s image and that every single life is sacred and deserving of respect, protection and, most of all, love.”
Anderson presented Vanier with the Gaudium et Spes Award, the highest honor of the Knights of Columbus, in 2005, just hours after the death of St John Paul II. Anderson described Vanier as a friend and philosopher who was also a man of action.
Related article: L’Arche shares the love in Sydney
“We must now continue his mission. We must rededicate our lives to the service and protection of others. We must love as Jean loved,” he said. Bishops from England and Wales, meeting in Spain for a “study week,” heard of Vanier’s death “with deep emotion,” said Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
“For over half a century, he has inspired an entirely new appreciation of the gift of people with learning disabilities and revealed the most profound heart of human community,” Cardinal Nichols said in a statement. “We pray for him and his beloved L’Arche communities at this moment of loss. May he rest in peace.”
Hundreds of other tributes were tweeted from people who had met Vanier, participated in one of the communities emerging from L’Arche or Faith and Light or joined the retreats he led.
L’Arche International leader Stephan Posner said Vanier “left an extraordinary legacy”. “His community of Trosly, the communities of L’Arche, Faith and Light, many other movements, and countless thousands of people have cherished his words and benefited from his vision,” Posner said in a statement.
“He was a good bloke”
Eileen Glass met Jean Vanier in her 20s when travelling in Europe and assisted in setting up the first Australian L’Arche community in Canberra, L’Arche Genesaret.
That community gathered on the evening of its founder’s death to tell stories about the man who had inspired them. She said she was touched by the awareness people with intellectual disabilities had of his importance in their lives.
“They have a deep sense that he understood them,” she said. “One lady who is new to the community sat and listened to everyone telling stories about Jean and after a while she said, ‘He was a good bloke’. And we said, ‘Yes, that’s right’.
Eileen said that Jean Vanier brought into the world a particular charism based on his insight about people who are deemed to be weak and therefore rejected.
“When we enter faithfully into relationship with them, we are the ones who are healed. In fact, there is a mutual healing that takes place,” she said.
“It’s an extraordinary thing because for 2000 years the Church has cared for people but what he brought was very new.
“[Polish]Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko said that what Jean Vanier brought was a Copernican revolution.”
On a personal level, Eileen is grieving the loss of a friend.
“He was someone who inspired and encouraged me.
“If I had not met Jean Vanier my life would have been different, and L’Arche may not have come to Australia 40 years ago.”
A life of extraordinary compassion
The Swiss-born Jean Vanier left a promising career in the British and Canadian Royal Navies as a young man and, influenced by his friendship with a Catholic priest Father Thomas Philippe, invited two men with intellectual disabilities, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux to leave horrific conditions in institutions to come and live with him.
The radical experiment to remove people with disabilities from institutions and into communities of friendship paid off and today there are 154 L’Arche communities with 5000 members in 48 countries.
Jean Vanier spent the intervening years as an advocate for the poorest and weakest in society for which he has received numerous awards and been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
L’Arche (‘the ark’ in French) stresses the dignity and value of human life. Vanier also co-founded Faith and Light, an international organisation of small groups that support and celebrate people with developmental disabilities and their families.
L’Arche Australia is currently hosting screenings of Summer in the Forest’ in different
locations around the country. The film documents the experience of life in the community of L’Arche Trosly, which Jean founded.