Jean Vanier: The Legacy of a ‘Giant in Humanity’

Friends and colleagues of the founder of L’Arche, who died Tuesday in Paris at the age of 90, tell the Register about his profound impact on them and on the world.

Jean Vanier (l) chats with his dear friend Paul Peeters, who is telling Vanier they will meet in heaven, Aug. 15, 2013.
Jean Vanier (l) chats with his dear friend Paul Peeters, who is telling Vanier they will meet in heaven, Aug. 15, 2013. (photo: Courtesy of Marguerite Peeters)

PARIS —  For more than 50 years, Jean Vanier dedicated his life to bring the loving embrace of God to those on the margins — particularly persons afflicted with mental disabilities.

Vanier, a Canadian Catholic philosopher and theologian who gave up a prestigious career in the Royal Canadian Navy to become a disciple of Christ, died of cancer at 90 in Paris, during the night of Tuesday, May 7.

“I want to express my gratitude for his testimony, as a man who knew how to read the Christian gaze on the mystery of death, of the cross, of illness,” Pope Francis told journalists aboard the papal flight returning from Macedonia to Rome on May 7. He highlighted the fact that Vanier worked “not only for the least ... but also for those who before birth face the possibility of being sentenced to death.”

In 2017, a heart attack compelled Vanier to retire to a period of prolonged rest, after a prolific life dedicated to countless projects and public interventions.

“I knew about Jean Vanier’s illness,” Pope Francis said on the May 7 papal flight, adding that he had called Vanier a week earlier.

Born in Geneva on Sept. 10, 1928, Vanier was the son of Canadian Maj. Gen. Georges Vanier, a war hero and diplomat who became governor general of Canada in the 1960s. He grew up in Europe, where, at the end of World War II, he assisted survivors of Nazi concentration camps with his mother. The experience had a decisive impact on his conception of human dignity.

But his permanent vocation to help those on the margins blossomed in 1964, thanks to French Dominican Father Thomas Philippe, his spiritual director, who was the chaplain of Val Fleuri, a center that welcomed people with intellectual disorders in Trosly-Breuil, a village in the Picardy region of northern France.

There, Vanier met Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux, two young men with mental disabilities. Their distress moved him to offer them the opportunity to leave the institution where they resided and live with him in a house he bought in Trosly-Breuil. He called the house “L’Arche” — “the Ark.”

Half a century later, this local humanitarian experience — based on Vanier’s vision of persons with disabilities and those who choose to care for them living together in community, with equal dignity and a mutual sharing of their respective gifts — has grown into the international L’Arche federation that welcomes people with intellectual disabilities, currently numbering 154 L’Arche communities in 38 different countries on five continents.


Breaking the Walls

In a world where the throwaway culture has gained additional ground in the decades since L’Arche began, its universal message of community and service has been a testimony to the sanctity of every human life. Vanier, who used to say “We change the world, one heart at a time,” starting from within one’s own heart, has been a continuing source of inspiration for people willing to grow similarly in humanity all around the world.

“Just like Pope Francis likes to speak about going to the peripheries, he used to speak about breaking the walls between those who think they have strength or intelligence and those who are set aside,” Dawn Barraqué, who founded L’Arche in Ivory Coast in 1974, told the Register.

Barraqué met Vanier as a young student in 1971 in Canada, where he used to go every year to give conferences at universities and prisons. Edified by his testimony, she decided to spend a year alongside him in Trosly-Breuil, before feeling a personal call to develop L’Arche in poor countries.

“Jean was a man of great discernment, and he understood it was the good time for us to start foundations in Africa. He used to say it is sometimes necessary to have the Holy Spirit’s boldness,” she said. “Because he trusted the Spirit, he could trust others, and this is how we could also trust other people and move forward.”


The Power of Trust

As Canadian academic Michael W. Higgins, professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut and author of Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart, points out, such mutual trust is “never based on status, skills or accomplishments, but on the fact the disabled, the disadvantaged can teach those who look after them.”

“Those who are successful according to the standards of this world need the disabled in order to understand their own vulnerability,” Higgins told the Register.

Trust was indeed the keystone of Vanier’s mission, which aimed at the great Gospel imperative to seek unity on earth. Such unity, in Vanier’s opinion, can be reached only if people go back to the very roots of their humanity, which reaches its most complete expression in their intrinsic frailty: In this sense, no one can connect us to the essence of our humanity better than people in need.

“They have the power to gather together people from very different cultural and religious backgrounds and to create a culture of communion between them,” Father Christian Mahéas, the general chaplain of L’Arche in France, told the Register.

When we assist and welcome the least of this world, he said, “we understand we’re honoring humanity as a whole.” Added Father Mahéas, “It goes beyond any division, and it is the strength of L’Arche, which gathers people of all faiths.”

When asked about Vanier’s legacy to the world, Higgins said the L’Arche founder was always convinced there was a “movement toward the unity of humankind, greatly compelled by the love of Jesus.”


An Integral Christian

Over the past few days, tributes and testimonies have abounded, giving thanks for Vanier’s remarkably fruitful life. His lay apostolate has left an impression and will continue to do so on generations of disability advocates and those they champion.

A doctor in philosophy, Vanier wrote more than 30 spiritual essays that focus on the search for happiness and reflect the deepness of his faith. Faith and Light, an association he created in 1971 with French disability-rights activist Marie-Hélène Mathieu to assist those with mental disabilities and their families through time-sharing, celebrations and pilgrimages, is now a leading international movement.

Vanier was also the recipient of countless international distinctions, such as the Templeton Prize, but he had very little interest in earthly honors. His thought has always transcended ideological and political cleavages, and he is seen by many, for this reason, as a “Christian prototype.”

“I have known him for decades through L’Arche, and I can tell you that all those who knew Jean were deeply transformed by his testimony of life,” Barraqué said, highlighting the grace of being transformed by a man who, “in the world’s eyes, could be seen as one of the poorest” because of his way of living.

Every year for more than 25 years, Marguerite Peeters, a Catholic journalist, writer and consultant to the Pontifical Council for Culture, spent the Solemnity of the Assumption with Vanier, who used to rest at that time at the Cistercian Orval Abbey in Belgium, near the house of her parents, Paul and Marie-Hélène Peeters. He used to regularly have lunch with her father and mother, whom he visited until their respective deaths in 2015 and 2017.

“This annual visit was an evangelical feast, a real visitation from a giant in humanity, a prophet and a great friend of God,” Peeters told the Register. “His delicate charity flew from his life of prayer, his intimate relationship with Christ. His visits at the end of my parents’ life, when they were at the gateway to eternity, had a particularly divine dimension.”


Serenity at the End

As he came nearer to his own turn to return to the Father’s House, Vanier welcomed his growing frailty with the serenity of a child of God, according to Father Mahéas. “He was in such peace,” recalled the priest, who accompanied him to his death. “His illness worried him a bit at first, but little by little, he prepared himself to welcome death with peace. And this is how he died.”

A few months ago, on his 90th birthday, Vanier recorded a video message in English (his mother’s native tongue) in which he disclosed his “10 Rules of Life to Become More Human,” a kind of spiritual testament. It was one of his last public appearances.

“I will remember him as a man who fought until the end to show us how to welcome our humanity in frailty and for the right of every human being to be recognized in his intrinsic dignity,” Father Mahéas said. “His message was greatly human and, above all, deeply evangelical.”

Europe correspondent Solène Tadié is based in Rome.