Farewell to Humanitarian, Jean Vanier

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June 1, 2019


The community of Saint John’s, the Graduate School of Theology and Seminary, and the world as a whole are diminished by the recent death of Jean Vanier, one of the leading humanitarians of the 20th century. His efforts in advocating for marginalized people and as a bearer of peace will live on in the community-based organizations that he helped found – L’Arche and Faith and Light.

Vanier was born a Canadian citizen in September of 1928, the fourth of five siblings. Much of his childhood was spent travelling and relocating, as his father – later Governor-General of Canada from 1959-67 – had a diplomatic career that eventually took Jean and his family to England and France in the years just prior to World War II. Vanier entered the Royal Navy College in 1942 at the age of 13, entering into an 8-year enlistment in both the British and later Canadian navies. In the late stages of the war, while visiting his father in Paris in early 1945 , Jean and his mother volunteered to assist survivors of Nazi concentration camps – this event was a profoundly moving occurrence for Vanier, and one he never forgot. He continued to serve through the end of the war and beyond, but in 1950, Vanier, who for some time had been feeling a strong inner calling to do something else, resigned his commission with the Royal Canadian Navy and began his personal quest.

After leaving his naval commitments, Vanier joined Eau Vive, a centre for theological and spiritual formation for lay people, which was headed up by Dominican Father Thomas Phillipe. Pere Thomas became Jean’s teacher and spiritual counselor. The next several years were a time for deepening his faith, reflecting upon how to live the gospels more fully in his day-to-day life.

After some years studying with Father Thomas, Vanier travelled back to Paris and began to study as an undergraduate, eventually completing a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1962. Vanier returned to Canada and began teaching philosophy classes with St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. He was not able to forget his last encounter with Father Thomas, however, who had just begun a chaplaincy at a small institution for men with intellectual disabilities in Trosly-Brueil, a little village about an hour northeast of Paris. In 1964, Vanier returned to France to work more with people suffering with these disabilities. He invited two men with these conditions to leave the institutions where they lived and join him in Trosly-Brueil, which eventually became the establishment of the first L’Arche community, where people with disabilities live with those who care for them. Within a very short time, other communities were founded and the L’Arche movement was underway. Since that time, over 150 communities have been created over more than 20 countries and five continents.

During the beginning years of L’Arche, Jean discovered  the need for better communication between the communities who supported those with developmental disabilities and the new information being researched and discovered that might benefit those within these populations. Along with Marie-Helene Mathieu, a French disability rights activist, Vanier founded the movement of Faith and Light, an international forum for people with disabilities, their family and friends. There are now over 1,500 Faith and Light societies in over 80 countries around the world.

Jean Vanier’s life was significantly influenced by his encounters with some of the great peacemakers of the world. Because of his father’s diplomatic career, influential politicians Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill were family friends. Jean became close to Mother Teresa, as well, visiting her many times in India; additionally, he had several personal meetings with Pope John Paul II, who was quite moved by his work. He received numerous awards for his work, including the Companion of the Order of Canada in 1972, the Legion of Honour from France in 2003, and in March 2015, Vanier was awarded the Templeton Prize in recognition of his advocacy for people with disabilities and his contributions to a broader exploration of helping the weak and vulnerable. On September 27, 2016, Jean Vanier received The Peace Abbey Foundation (USA) International Courage of Conscience Award in Trosly-Breuil, France, for his lifelong commitment to building a world of inclusion for individuals with disabilities. The Graduate School of Theology and Seminary is also honored to recall that in 2000, Jean Vanier was selected to receive our Dignitas Humana Award, which recognizes and encourages the efforts of individuals who do exceptional work on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.

Vanier lived in the initial L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, until his death on May 7, 2019. Even after his retirement from the administration of the International Federation of L’Arche in the late 1990s, Jean spent time counseling, leading retreats and lectures, and encouraging projects for new communities. He has demonstrated a lifetime of concern for the less fortunate and the dispossessed, and he continues to invite us to recognize the gifts and lessons that those who have been rejected by society can offer.