Jean Vanier was the founder of L'Arche, a community supporting people with disabilities. Register file photo

Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, dies at 90

  • May 7, 2019

It is not a cliché to say Jean Vanier practised what he preached.

He believed in the dignity of every human being and, through more than half of century of humanitarian work, created communities that ensured the dignity of society’s most vulnerable members.

Mr. Vanier, founder of L’Arche and co-founder of Faith and Light, author of some 30 books, member of the Order of Canada, winner of the Templeton Prize, member of France’s Legion of Honour, member of the Order of Quebec, died May 7 in Paris of cancer. He was 90 years old.

A kind of village elder to the world, Jean Vanier permanently changed the fate of intellectually disabled people everywhere by demonstrating how the care of a community could open their lives to meaning, joy, hope and trust not just the lives of the disabled, but the lives also of those live with them and care for them.

“Jean Vanier’s legacy lives on. His life and work changed the world for the better and touched the lives of more people than we will ever know,” L’Arche Canada spokesperson John Guido said in a prepared statement.

Toronto’s archbishop, Cardinal Thomas Collins offered prayers for the repose of Mr. Vanier’s soul.

“Inspired by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Jean Vanier taught us to value the dignity of every individual,” said Collins in a release. “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.”

Over the past year Mr. Vanier gradually entered into the sort of frailty and weakness natural to his age, before entering palliative care in France in April. His death was attributed to cancer.

The son of former Governor General of Canada Georges Vanier and Pauline Archer, whose cause for sainthood as a couple remains active, Mr. Vanier was educated at boarding schools in England, France and Canada. Though his father disapproved, Mr. Vanier entered the Royal Navy at Dartmouth Naval College in England in 1942 and became an officer serving on various warships from 1945 to 1950. In 1949 the young officer transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy.

Along with his military career, Mr. Vanier nurtured a deepening and very traditional Catholic faith, spending long hours at prayer on the deck of ships as he kept watch. By 1950 he felt he needed something more than his naval career could give him. He resigned his commission and began theological and philosophical studies, leading to his PhD in philosophy from Paris’s Institut Catholique in 1962.

From Paris he moved on to teaching philosophy at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. But his academic career was still not satisfying his hunger for meaning. In the ferment of the Second Vatican Council, Mr. Vanier began to explore religious life guided by Dominican Fr. Thomas Philippe. It was Philippe who urged Mr. Vanier to visit psychiatric hospitals in northern France. There Vanier met institutionalized men with intellectual disabilities who were brutalized and neglected.

One of these men asked Mr. Vanier, “Will you be my friend?” From that moment, the international L’Arche movement of communities dedicated to people with intellectual disabilities began. With Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, two formerly institutionalized men, Vanier established the first L’Arche (meaning “The Ark”) community in an unheated, tumbledown stone house at Trosly-Breuil, north of Paris, in 1964.

Speaking to The Catholic Register last year, Mr. Vanier seemed still surprised that this precarious experiment had grown to 152 communities operating in 37 countries for the benefit of approximately 10,000 core members the intellectually disabled people who form the core of every L’Arche community are called “core members.”

“I began in a rather dilapidated house. I didn’t realize it was something rather new,” Mr. Vanier said in an April 2018 interview. “What I really see is the hand of God. Doors started opening. Money started coming. It was just the hand of God, as if somewhere the pain of God was somewhere that the littlest people, the weakest people were being rejected.”

By 1968, L’Arche was on its way to becoming international with its second foundation just north of Toronto in Richmond Hill. Mr. Vanier had been invited to give a retreat to Toronto diocesan clergy. He insisted on opening the retreat to lay people and religious. At the end of that series of talks, the Canadian missionary order of women known as Our Lady’s Missionaries were so anxious to see Mr. Vanier’s experiment extended that they donated farmland they owned near Richmond Hill, Ont., for the establishment of L’Arche Daybreak.

Daybreak was not just the first international L’Arche. It was also the first ecumenical community, led by the Anglican couple Steve and Ann Newroth, who had been assistants in the expanding number of L’Arche houses in Trosly-Breuil.

“Canada has had a significant influence on the development of L’Arche since the early years,” said Guido in an e-mail to The Catholic Register

L’Arche’s embrace of multiculturalism and interfaith communities all began in Canada, particularly under the guidance of Fr. Henri Nouwen, the Dutch-born theologian and spiritual writer who lived several years at Daybreak.

Over these years, Mr. Vanier was transformed by his own movement. From the tall, reserved, conservative and serious Catholic and former naval officer, he became the grandfatherly, twinkle-eyed friend of people who could never read his books or care anything at all about his academic accomplishments.

“Living with people with disabilities is so simple. You have fun together,” he told The Catholic Register. “They’re not intellectual people. They’re not people who are going to have big discussions about finance, politics, philosophy. They like to have fun.”

It was the experience of living at L’Arche that made Mr. Vanier’s ideas about community and a meaningful life more than just an intellectual proposition, said long-time Vanier collaborator and former L’Arche director Sr. Sue Mosteller of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Toronto.

“I don’t think we got it until we had lived there for a time,” she told The Register in 2018. “There’s a hidden message. I think most of us, when we listen to the beatitudes and we hear ‘blessed are the poor,’ we think that’s why we should run and help them because they’re so poor in their soul. That’s too bad. Because the hidden message is that the poor are the ones who are transforming us…. The real message is not to go out and help the poor, but to go and be open to what the gift is that you will receive.”

“Jean didn’t just talk. He lived it,” said Pamela Cushing, director of the Jean Vanier Research Centre at King’s University College, Western University in London, Ont. The establishment of the research centre was announced just days before Vanier’s death.

Because he was in such demand as a speaker and writer, Mr. Vanier often spent as many as 200 days a year away from his home in Trosly-Breuil. But he carried his L’Arche community in his heart and spoke about them everywhere he went.

“He lived a humble life and a simple life at home,” said Cushing, who spent years at Trosly-Breuil working with Vanier. “It was just such a candle on a hill kind of thing.”

Vanier’s writing and teaching about disability and community formed the core of a curriculum still taught in Ontario and Alberta schools.

When Canada was debating a Supreme Court decision that struck down criminal code provisions against assisted suicide Mr. Vanier intervened, pleading for a culture that would treasure and affirm life.

“We must ensure that the best safeguards exist, while redoubling our commitment to caring for one another in the most fragile moments of each of our lives,” he said. 

Mr. Vanier was never a political firebrand or social critic, but he proposed a revolution, said Cushing.

“Political change is important, but it has to come from the right place,” she said. “He understood that political change that comes out of a sense of self-righteousness or even noblesse oblige or condescension is usually not satisfying.”

Mr. Vanier’s revolution of tenderness requires of us a change of heart and mind.

“The reality of being human is the reality of being with people who have joys and pain, suffering, sickness and all the rest,” said Vanier. “(L’Arche) is essentially inspired by Jesus, but essentially coming to the aid of people.”

“That can seem simplistic, but to live differently is what’s really hard,” said Cushing.

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