What Jean Vanier did for us all


The National Post, 8 May 2019

He would often remark that we desire to cure, but forget to care. For those with developmental disabilities, there usually is no cure. But the need for care remains

Jean Vanier was a giant of a man, towering over all he encountered. He was able to see farther than most. But he spent his life bent over, better to hear the little ones, better to serve those weighed down by neglect or indifference, better to kneel before the God who created them all.

Over the years I have written more laudatory things about Georges Vanier than I have about any other Canadian. He was simply the greatest Canadian ever. That was the conclusion of Maclean’s back in 1998, noting that the war hero, diplomat and governor-general lived a life that, in service to God and country, represented the very best of what Canada aspires to be.

If the biblical adage applies —by their fruits you will know them — the son of Georges and Pauline Vanier is a convincing testament to the holiness of the parents. Jean Vanier, who died at 90 on Tuesday in Paris, was described by many as a “living saint.” While saintly humility made him bristle at such talk it was a recognition of what was apparent to all.

Coming from a family which afforded him any opportunity, Vanier became a distinguished philosopher and lecturer at a young age. He lived his life though searching for more, according to his father’s vice regal motto: Fiat Voluntas Dei — May God’s Will Be Done.

In 1964, while his parents were resident in Rideau Hall, he understood that God was calling him to give his life to care for those with developmental disabilities. He had encountered in France the wretched conditions of prisoners with developmental disabilities and, with great biblical simplicity and radicalness, decided that he would do something about it. He would become their friend. He would offer them love. He did not expect that he would discover love in return.

He invited two such men to come and live with him in a ramshackle house in Trosly, north of Paris, where conditions were austere — no electricity, no indoor plumbing. In time, others would join, and he called this home L’Arche, “the Ark.”

It was a home that he provided. He would often remark that we desire to cure, but forget to care. For those with developmental disabilities, there usually is no cure. But the need for care remains.

Vanier’s vision was that all would live together, the disabled called “core members” and those who live with them “assistants.” The assistants provide for the physical needs of the core members. In Vanier’s model though, it is the core members who teach the assistants about the capacity to love, and to be loved. L’Arche homes are not intended to be efficient institutions that offer high-quality care; they are genuine communities in which all residents have gifts to offer, and lives to share.

Vanier lived at the L’Arche community at Trosly from 1964 until his death. After the death of Georges Vanier in 1967, his widow Pauline moved to Trosly. Leaving behind the life of a grand dame in Montreal, Pauline lived the last 20 years of her life amongst the disabled alongside her son Jean.

In all this Vanier was a true pioneer. Seeing the gifts of the developmentally disabled was just emerging in 1964. The Special Olympics, for example, would be established in 1968 by the American equivalent of Georges and Pauline Vanier, Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Vanier was not a holy simpleton. A gifted author who wrote dozens of books on theology, philosophy and spirituality, he delivered the 1998 Massey lectures in his native Canada. He was also an effective practical founder, as saints often are. He was able to institutionalize his vision of communities animated by Christian love, so that there are now 154 residential communities in nearly 40 countries, many of them now in non-Christian environments. There are 29 communities in Canada.

Vanier was also a pioneer in ecclesial life. He did not become a priest or monk, but lived a celibate life consecrated to his vocation. He was part of a new breath of the Spirit in the Catholic world in the 20th century: religious movements of lay people, consecrated to their service, living a common life of prayer and worship, but without being ordained or taking perpetual vows.

The gentle giant even had something of a religious habit, wearing at all times his pale blue shirt and a dark blue light jacket, whether at home in Trosly, lecturing around the world, or meeting the powerful of the Earth. He is one of the great Catholic founders of our time, and those who saw in him something of Mother Teresa, now a canonized saint, were not wrong.

Vanier was widely celebrated for being inclusive — the greatest of all secular virtues — and a symbol of the greater participation of those with developmental disabilities in social life. I recall hosting him at Queen’s University in 2005, when a packed public lecture hall hung on his every word, offering adulation that he clearly found disproportionate. When asked about the progress being made for the disabled, Vanier responded that while we treat the developmentally disabled much better now than in decades past, the vast majority of those with such disabilities are never born. In most “advanced” countries, a diagnosis of Down syndrome in utero is a death sentence. Vanier’s audience uneasily shifted in their seats.

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