On May 7th, 2019, Jean Vanier died at the age of 90. Jean was a renowned philosopher, writer and humanist. He founded two international organisations for people with intellectual disabilities.
Jean Vanier was born a Canadian citizen in 1928. He was the fourth of five children. His father was the Governor General of Canada from 1959 to 1967, which took the family to France and England, where Jean spent his childhood.
Jean entered the Royal Navy College in Dartmouth in 1942, at the age of 13. During the Second World War, he embarked on an eight year career in both the British navy and later the Canadian navy. In 1950, Jean left the Canadian navy, as he felt called to a more spiritual life. For several years, Jean reflected on how could live the gospels more fully in his daily life.
He joined Eau Vive, a centre for the theological and spiritual formation for lay people. In 1966, he published his doctorate on the ethics of Aristotle, titled, ‘Happiness as a Principle and End of Aristotelian Ethics’. In 2000, he published ‘A Taste of Happiness’ to make the wisdom of Aristotle widely accessible in a clear and straightforward way.
The Founding of L’Arche
In 1963, Jean assisted Father Thomas, who had just been made the chaplain of Val Fleuri in Trosly-Breuil, France. The Val Fleuri was a small institution that catered for thirty men with intellectual disabilities. Jean went back to Canada for a while but returned to Trosly to learn more about people with intellectual disabilities. Jean visited a psychiatric hospital in a suburb in Paris and was so disturbed by the living conditions that he decided to buy a small house near the Val Fleuri and welcome two companions with intellectual disabilities, Raphael and Philippe. Within a short time, Jean founded other homes and sent out a call for help with his work. Many young people from across France, Canada, England and Germany answered the call and became assistants living with people with intellectual disabilities.
Jean Vanier’s work enabled him to understand that it is important for people to experience community. This enables them to understand life and disability. Jean’s work enabled people with and without disabilities to share their lives in a community and create a sense of solidarity. The organisation spread quickly to other regions, other countries and other continents.
Today, L’Arche is made up of 154 communities spread over 5 continents with 10,000 members.
In Memory of a Man Who Used His Time to Help Others
Pope Francis said Vanier stood up for those ‘who risked being condemned to death before they are even born.’ The Pope thanked Vanier for being such a great witness.
Bishop Georges Pontier of Marselle described the L’Arche communities as places which ‘radiate a joy, a friendship and a human depth that we need so much. These are places of Hope.’
Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins hopes that,
‘(Vanier’s) example of peace and gentle care live on through those he inspired for years to come.’
In 2005, Vanier was awarded the Gaudiem et Spes Award, the highest honour of the Knights of Columbus. He was described as a man of action: a man who used his time wisely, to the benefit of others and to make a difference in the world.
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson states,
‘We must now continue his mission.
We must rededicate our lives to the service and protection of others.
We must love as Jean loved.’