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1928 - 2019
Philosopher, writer, religious and moral leader, founder of communities for people with and without intellectual disabilities… and above all, a follower of Jesus, a peacemaker…
Jean could potentially have risen high in the navy. But horrified by the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, he felt increasingly drawn to prayer, and finally heeded an inner call to leave the navy and devote himself to peacemaking.
He could also have had a successful academic career after attaining a doctorate on Aristotle. He was an inspiring philosophy teacher, but instead of going up the normal ladder of success, he realised that his call was elsewhere. He redefined what success is. For him, it was about relationship and not the ‘tyranny of normality’ as he later expressed it.
“The fundamental principle of peace is a belief that each person is important. Do you believe you are important? Do you believe that we can do something to make this world a better place?”
– Jean Vanier –
MAN OF FAITH
His deepest desire was to follow Jesus, from whom he received his inspiration and support, and to live the gospel radically and faithfully. Having given up the search for impact and status, he encountered people with intellectual disabilities, and discovered a fullness of life and joy in the littleness of daily life with them.
“I strongly believe that God is hidden in the heart of the smallest of all, in the weakest of all, and if we commit ourselves to him, we open a new world.”
– Jean Vanier –
The turning point in Jean’s life was in 1963*, with his first visit to an institution for people with intellectual disabilities. Their profound ‘cry for relationship’ touched his heart. His response was simple: buy a house, and invite a few men with an intellectual disability to come and live with him. This was the start of L’Arche. Faith and Light followed a few years later, founded with Marie-Hélène Mathieu. Carried by a wave of enthusiasm, both communities spread across the world.
Today L’Arche has 154 communities in 38 countries; Faith and Light has 1,500 communities in 83 countries, communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities can find a place of belonging, eating at the same table of fellowship, sharing life together. He inspired Faith and Sharing in North America, and Faith and Friendship in Northern Ireland. Intercordia, another inspiration of Jean, encourages students to live an inter-cultural experience among poor and marginalised people in developing countries.
He was a tireless advocate for people rejected and on the margins of society, inspiring many other organisations that exist for people with intellectual disabilities. His message found an echo in many hearts, whatever a person’s religion or world-view. His own deep desire to follow Jesus led him directly to welcome anyone willing to share their lives with people with intellectual disabilities and to work for justice.
MAN OF MUTUAL RELATIONSHIPS
For over 50 years, he lived the ups and downs of community life with people with and without intellectual disabilities. He enjoyed faithful friendships not just with people in L’Arche Trosly, the community he founded in France, but in many different countries where L’Arche and Faith and Light spread. He learnt through the dailiness of community living the need to go beyond the generous serving of those in need, to the joy of being in communion with them.
“Jean Vanier wasn’t afraid to sit down and eat dinner with people with an intellectual disability. That’s what he wanted to do: to invite people to his house. At L’Arche it is not just about getting the support hours I’m entitled to; it’s about caring for people as friends.”
– Richard Keagan-Bull, member of L’Arche London (who has an intellectual disability)
Jean’s life dream was to reveal the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities, gifts of the heart, to a world in need of such gifts. He discovered that the one who is different is not a threat to be feared, but a treasure that can enrich our lives. He wrote over 30 books, translated into 29 languages and was filmed many times, always passionately sharing his insights into human vulnerability, community and spirituality.
Jean received many honours such as the Paul VI International Prize, given by Pope Jean Paul II, Italy, 1997, the Rabbi Gunther Plaut Humanitarian Award, Canada, 2001, the Templeton Prize 2015,... but perhaps the greatest honour Jean was given, was when Jean-Pierre Crépieux was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, the first person with an intellectual disability to receive this, the highest honour in France.
MAN OF UNITY
Jean changed our understanding of people with intellectual disabilities and what it means to be truly human. He saw people with intellectual disabilities as source of life for us all, as change agents in society. His dream was for a revolution of tenderness, making society more compassionate, more inclusive. He wanted the heart put into the care of others. He broke down the barriers of division separating people, desiring a world where each one is valued as unique and precious.
He came to see that L’Arche had a gift to offer the world. It was a sign that it is possible to live in communities where difference is seen as a gift and not a threat.
MAN OF PRESENCE, A LISTENER
Jean inspired countless people. Many people would say, “I feel better in his presence, I feel loved and heard.” When asked what she thought of Jean Vanier the first time she heard him, Angelika Mandaiker from India did not even mention his talk: “I was so touched by the way he listened, by the way he was present to each person.”
After attending a retreat or talk by Jean many felt a call to change their lives and discovered their life’s purpose. After meeting Jean at a 1971 retreat, Jo and Pat Lenon were immediately struck with his humanity and compassion: “It was through him that we discovered our vocation in L’Arche. His words ‘I trust the Spirit working in you’ led us to found a community of L’Arche (Calgary) and to choose L’Arche as our life’s vocation.”
MAN OF CELEBRATION AND FORGIVENESS
Jean learnt over the years that “Forgiveness and celebration are at the heart of community.” He said, “These are the two faces of love.” Jean Vanier, “Community and Growth”. He knew he was no saint. At the last international L’Arche meeting he attended, he asked forgiveness for any he might have hurt through his single-mindedness on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities.
When looking back on his life Jean would often say with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes, “Wasn’t it fun? Didn’t we laugh?”. He wanted each person to discover, what he had discovered: how friendship with a person with intellectual disabilities can free us to truly live a life of celebration and hope and so build a better world. He believed that we can change the world, one heart at a time, the first heart being our own.
“The greatness of a person lies in his heart.”
– Gandhi –