Jean Vanier: Apostle to the marginalized

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"For he who is least among you all is the greatest." - Luke 9:48

"I tell you, whenever you did this for the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me!" - Matthew 25:40

By Mark Rondeau

One of the spiritual giants of our time, Jean Vanier, died Tuesday in Paris at 90.

In his intense quest to live the words of Jesus, Vanier founded L'Arche (the ark), an international network of communities in which people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together. He also co-founded Faith and Light, which assists those with learning disabilities, and their friends and family, by fostering friendship, prayer, celebration and sharing.

In a 2015 article in Commonweal magazine, one of Vanier's biographers, Michael Higgins, wrote of Vanier's "decades-long commitment to providing a special kind of sanctuary, a place where the emotionally and physically challenged can school us in the ways of love."

The Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine America, said "Jean Vanier showed us, like few people ever have, the overwhelming power of gentleness. Not only in his ministry with the disabled but in his voice, his demeanor, his very presence. During his life there was no one I thought more deserving of the title 'living saint.'"

This man so intensely concerned with serving the disadvantaged came from a prominent, influential Canadian family. He was born in in 1928 in Geneva, Switzerland. His father, Georges, a hero in World War I, was representing Canada there as a military adviser to the League of Nations.

At age 13 in 1942, during World War II, Jean asked Georges permission to attend the Royal Naval College in England. So, in his early teens Jean took a voyage by ship through u-boat infested waters to begin a naval career.

"My adolescent years were taken up in the world of efficiency, controlling and commanding others," Vanier wrote. "I was a technician of destruction. My last ship was the Canadian aircraft carrier 'The Magnificent.' However, after a few years, I felt called by Jesus to take another path, the path of peace."

After leaving the navy in 1950, he took a doctorate of philosophy in Paris. For a while he considered becoming a priest but did not pursue the option. Then he started teaching philosophy at the University of Toronto.

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"Deep down, I had this desire for a life of community with the poor, rooted in the Gospel," Vanier wrote six decades later.

Through a priest mentor, he visited a small institution in France for people with intellectual disabilities. "It was there I discovered the plight of men and women who had been put aside, looked down upon, sometimes laughed at or scorned. They were seen as misfits of nature, not as human beings," Vanier wrote.

In 1964 he took two men from an asylum, Raphael and Philip and they began to live together in a small, run-down house in Trosly-Breuil, France. "I did not know I was founding the first of many L'Arche communities. I simply felt called to live with these two men who had suffered rejection and a lot of inner pain and perhaps with a few others like them," Vanier wrote in 1988. "I soon started to discover the immense pain in their hearts. When we talk of the poor, or of announcing the good news to the poor, we should never idealize the poor. Poor people are hurt; they are in pain. They can be very angry, in revolt or in depression."

However, there was a rewarding side to all this, too. Three decades later Vanier wrote in one of the last of his 30 books of those first years "We laughed a lot, we were happy. We spent out happiest times in the kitchen, around the table. So many unforgettable moments."

He added, "Then L'Arche grew, so wonderfully, through the gentle hand of God. If I was the engine behind it, no one was more surprised than I. We were simply responding to an urgent need."

Requests came in from around the world for help in starting similar communities. Though inspired by Christianity, the L'Arche movement gradually welcomed several other world religions. Today it includes 140 communities in about 40 countries on five continents. There are 18 L'Arche communities in the United States. Two of the nearest communities to Bennington are in North Boston and Erie, Pennsylvania.

"Together, we started to discover unity on a human level. We witnessed the possibility of shared happiness, despite our cultural differences," Vanier wrote. "What's more, we found that life with people with intellectual disabilities is a source of unexpected joy. Many of them reveal an immense, sensitive and loving heart. Our international community grew quickly."

Over the years, Vanier's interest and writings expanded from scripture — especially the Gospel of John — and interpersonal growth and human relations into the areas of interfaith understanding, community development, and peace.

"Little by little, I was transformed as I discovered a new vision for our society," Vanier wrote. "Thanks to L'Arche, we learned that living with people with a disability is a way to heal our hearts, which are so often closed, and to go out and meet all those who bear the disability of marginalization and oppression. Transformed by the weakest, we discover that together we can work for a transformation of our societies. The most fragile open us up to hope."

A note on sources

I never met Jean Vanier, though I would have liked to, nor have I ever visited a L'Arche community. If I feel almost like I knew him, it's from reading several of his books and other writings by and about him. There's also a wealth of Vanier videos on YouTube. The books quoted in this article are: "From Brokenness to Community" 1992, based on two 1988 lectures at Harvard Divinity School; "Becoming Human" 1998; and "A Cry is Heard: My Path to Peace" 2018. This was his next-to-last book, kind of an informal autobiography, summing up his long life. I also used material from the Associated Press in this article.

Mark Rondeau is the Banner's Night Editor and Religion Editor. Reach him at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com.


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