Jean Vanier greeting Jenn Power and Silas Donham.
-by John Gillis
L’Arche founder Jean Vanier passed away peacefully on Tuesday, May 7th, in Paris surrounded by relatives. He was 90 years old.
In a release from the same day, L’Arche noted that Vanier “leaves a long life and legacy of exceptional achievement,” L’Arche International Leader Stephan Posner noted.
“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.”
Vanier founded L’Arche in 1964 in response to the treatment of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in institutions. L’Arche grew quickly across France and the world and continues to welcome people of many faiths and cultures.
Today, L’Arche includes more than 150 communities in 38 countries including 29 communities and two projects in nine provinces across Canada. More than 10,000 members welcome and celebrate people with intellectual disabilities, fostering growth and allowing everyone to share their talents and abilities.
Companion of the Order of Canada, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and Templeton Prize recipient, Jean Vanier received many honours and awards for his groundbreaking work and inspiring vision of a more human society where each person - regardless of their age, abilities, or background - has a place and contributes their gifts. He shared this vision through 40 books, countless public talks, and interviews. Yet to the community of L’Arche, “he was simply Jean, our founder, guide, and companion in the journey.”
Mukthar Limpao is the community leader of L’Arche in Cape Breton.
Limpao had the pleasure of meeting Vanier on three occasions during his years with L’Arche.
“The first time I met Jean it was at L’Arche (Trosly), his home, and it was a beautiful encounter. Cape Breton always held a special place in Jean’s heart and he would always ask about his friend Little Eddie (Johnson). Vanier always placed a great emphasis on the importance of each person, their value, and their gifts that they have that they can bring to the world. Jean tried to be a simple man. He was a lover and a follower of Jesus. Jean believed in the importance of accepting our humanity and our vulnerability and encouraged us to embrace this. This week, it has been important for us to be present with each other,” Limpao told The Oran.
Limpao added that Jean’s passing will only make the L’Arche community closer to him and he encouraged everyone to reflect and read Vanier’s books, listen to his audio tapes, and to learn more about his vision and the L’Arche community.
Tom Gunn, current principal of NSCC’s Strait Area Campus and founder of L’Arche Cape Breton, was a long-time friend of Jean Vanier. Gunn first heard about Vanier while he was in high school and his girlfriend at the time, who later became his wife, told him about a retreat Vanier was holding in Halifax.
“When I met him, it changed my life. I was 19 years old and it was 1974,” said Gunn.
“Vanier had an authenticity and goodness that was very striking. There is a Buddhist term of ‘loving kindness’ and I think that embodied Jean. He had that way about him,” Gunn added.
Gunn organized Vanier’s visit here to Cape Breton to 1986 and he noted that Vanier really wanted to build a connection with the Mi’kmaq people. Jean was in We’koqma’q for four days, giving talks at the Federal school, at the Reserve, and there were about 500 Mi’kmaq people that came to a gathering that was held in Malagawatch. Jean had a special fondness for Cape Breton and for L’Arche Cape Breton. In 1997, we organized another visit and he came again and he spent four days in Glace Bay and we had an event where 6000 to 8000 people came out to the Bayplex,” Gunn added.
“It’s wonderful to see the worldwide attention on Jean this week. It’s a reminder with all that’s going on in the world of the goodness and the message that he had,” said Gunn.
Biography (from Vanier’s website)
Vanier’s childhood and spiritual search
Jean Vanier was born a Canadian citizen in 1928, the fourth of five children. His father, Georges Vanier, governor general of Canada from 1959 to 1967, had a diplomatic career that took the family to France and England where Jean spent his childhood.
Jean entered the Royal Navy College in Dartmouth in 1942 at the age of 13. In the middle of the Second World War, the young man embarked on an eight-year career in both the British navy and later the Canadian navy – an experience that shaped him. However, he felt called to a different life and began a spiritual quest. In 1950, he chose to leave the Canadian navy where a promising career awaited him. The following years were, for Jean, a time of searching for meaning and of deepening his faith. He reflected during those years on how he could live the gospels more fully in his daily life.
He joined Eau Vive, a centre for theological and spiritual formation for lay people. This centre, headed by Dominican Father Thomas Philippe, had members from many different countries. Jean Vanier began his doctorate on the ethics of Aristotle, which he defended in 1962. It would become his first published work in 1966, titled “Happiness as Principle and End of Aristotelian Ethics”. In 2000, he published “A Taste of Happiness” to make the wisdom of Aristotle widely accessible in clear, straightforward language.
L’Arche: A Story of Encounter
At the end of 1963, Vanier lent a hand to Father Thomas, who had just been made chaplain of the Val Fleuri in Trosly-Breuil, a little village situated on the edge of the forest of Compiègne, in the Oise. The Val Fleuri was a small institution that welcomed about 30 men with intellectual disabilities. Later Jean returned to Canada where he taught a term at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, his classes in ethics quickly becoming popular with students. When the term ended, Jean returned to Trosly and began to learn about people with intellectual disabilities.
A simple request for friendship led to Vanier inviting two men with intellectual disabilities to come live with him in Trosly and that was the beginnings of L’Arche.
In writing on Vanier, writer Pamela Cushing noted:
“In exploring what it means to be fully human, Vanier invites us to observe the tension in our world between the pressure to achieve mastery or control, and our longing to find ways to live at peace with our own and others’ imperfections. Where modernity privileges progress and perfection, Vanier has drawn attention to imperfection and fallibility as important and overlooked aspects of being human. Vanier believes that highlighting the universality and centrality of our shared fragility has the potential to unite us in commonality: “The weak teach the strong to accept and integrate the weakness and brokenness of their own lives.” Vanier’s narratives reveal how people really blossom when they are welcomed as they are, with their gifts and their weaknesses together. Importantly, while acknowledging the humanness of our imperfection, Vanier also insists that we continually take responsibility to strive to grow towards freedom and serving others in spite of this.
“Strength and mastery can be impressive, yet they tend to divide people in competition and the regular disappointment of not measuring up.”
“Instead of seeing the disabilities of people, I think Vanier saw the gifts,” Tom Gunn concluded.
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