Jean Vanier was an intellectual with an aristocratic upbringing and a first-rate philosopher who wrote dozens of books and received numerous honors, yet he had the wisdom to know that he had much to learn from the intellectually disabled person who sat next to him at the dinner table.
“He was a man both of the heart and of the mind,” said Vanier’s biographer, Michael Higgins, the author of “Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart” (Liturgical Press, $14.95).
Higgins, a distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, told Our Sunday Visitor that he is not surprised by the international outpouring of affection and esteem for Vanier, the founder of L’Arche communities who died at age 90 on May 7.
“The world at large sees in him a man of infinite compassion, someone who gave his life so radically to living with the disadvantaged that for 90 years he became a spiritual presence for people all over the world, irrespective of their political ideologies or theological positions,” Higgins said.
“He sought to live a radical Gospel message in its utter simplicity, and did so in a way that was characterized by its nonviolence, its peace and universality,” Higgins added. “The world saw him as its own, as a humanitarian of universal significance.”
Advocate for the rejected
Vanier, who also co-founded Faith and Light, a cross-denominational Christian charitable association, was more than a humanitarian. He was a lifelong, faithful Catholic who came to understand his prophetic vocation in teaching the world that those with intellectual disabilities have human dignity and their own gifts to offer.
“He revealed the value of people who were the most rejected, the most marginalized,” said Randall Wright, a London resident and film editor who directed “Summer in the Forest,” a 2017 documentary about Vanier and L’Arche.
Wright told OSV that Vanier, who never married, discovered “a joy in being small and weak,” and he found that being fully human is learning how to live in community with people who are different from oneself, including those who do not have the same intellectual capacity as others.
“He discovered the truth of who we are,” Wright said. “Jesus revealed himself to Jean, in very unexpected ways, through the people he was looking after. He discovered in them qualities that he felt he was lacking himself.”
In 1964, in a time when people who had intellectual and developmental disabilities were placed in institutions, Vanier founded the first L’Arche (“The Ark”) community in Trosly-Breuil, France. He invited two men to leave the institutions where they lived to share their lives with him.
Louis Pilotte, the national leader of L’Arche in Canada, told OSV that Vanier, in inviting those men to live with him in friendship, did not have any idea that he was starting what would become an international movement that today has 154 communities in 38 countries on five continents.
“Jean understood the needs of the people in the community, and of people in society,” said Pilotte, the former national leader of L’Arche France. Pilotte said Vanier told him and others up until the day he died that he was still learning important things from L’Arche residents.
“What was very impressive for me was how he was able to listen to reality,” Pilotte said. “He was not an idealist. He was a guy who was able to deal with reality. He was able to understand the needs of people with disability, people without disability, people of different faiths.
“I was impressed by his capacity to understand the place where other people were coming from,” Pilotte added.
An ‘extraordinary’ family
Vanier was born in Switzerland. His father was a former governor general of Canada and an ambassador to France. His mother was a devout Catholic. Higgins said Vanier’s grandmother’s spiritual director was a spiritual director to St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Vanier’s brother became a Trappist monk, while his sister, a physician, founded a L’Arche home in London.
“You could say holiness is in the DNA of the Vanier family,” Higgins said. “It’s an extraordinary family.”
As a young man, Vanier served in the British and Canadian Royal Navies as an officer. In 1950, he left the military to continue his studies, eventually receiving a doctorate in philosophy for his thesis on Aristotle. The focus was on happiness, which Vanier defined as “loving and being loved.”
“He discovered what it was that makes us truly happy, which is how we get on with people,” Wright said.
Vanier went on to teach philosophy at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. Despite a rewarding academic career, Vanier had a hunger for a deeper meaning in life. He explored religious life, and with the encouragement of a Catholic priest, Vanier visited psychiatric hospitals in northern France. He met men there with intellectual disabilities who had been abused and neglected. That would change the course of his life.
“Here he is, this man with this illustrious background, with all the trappings of privilege, and what does he do? He gives up his position at the University of Toronto,” said Higgins, who added that Vanier never used his privileged upbringing to his personal benefit.
“He never used his name to get himself into some kind of political network,” Higgins said. “What he does is he goes and lives with two men that he takes from a mental institution to establish a home.”
Honoring his legacy
More than 10,000 people today are members of L’Arche communities around the world. In those communities, people with and without intellectual disabilities share their lives, talents and abilities with one another.
“L’Arche just pulls you in. Never in my life did I imagine I would be in community with such extraordinary people,” said Jennifer Matthews, a leader in the L’Arche community in Greater Boston.
Matthews told OSV that the community’s motto is that no matter how difficult life can be, God will always provide.
Since the first L’Arche community in the United States was established in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1972, 17 more have formed across the country, and there are five emerging communities on the way. According to its website, each community is a nonprofit with its own board of directors.
To learn how to join or support L’Arche USA, visit larcheusa.org.
“What Jean really did was to transform not only the way that we look at people with disabilities, but how we think of ourselves, how inside of each one of us there are gifts, but there is also brokenness,” Matthews said. “If we can embrace difference, and if we can come together, that is what L’Arche is about. It’s about creating a space where differences are not singled out, but where they’re celebrated, where they’re embraced and where everybody’s gifts are offered and valued.”
In his lifetime, Vanier received numerous awards and distinctions, including the French Legion of Honor, the Companion of the Order of Canada and the 2015 Templeton Prize for his exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.
Those who knew Vanier told OSV the best way to honor his legacy is to read his writings, support local L’Arche communities, to break down barriers and reach out to embrace people regardless of their intellectual capacities or their religious and cultural backgrounds.
“I think the Vanier memory will be with us for a long time,” Higgins said. “In my personal view, I don’t think it will be long until his cause for sainthood is introduced.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.