Jean Vanier, ‘living saint’ who ministered to people with disabilities, dies at 90

Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities, appears in the documentary "Summer in the Forest." (CNS photo/Abramorama) 

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche and Faith and Light communities, which support people with disabilities and their families, died in the early morning of May 7 at age 90, surrounded by family, according to a statement from L’Arche. He had been living in a nursing home since mid-April.

Mr. Vanier inspired countless people with his simple message that people with disabilities are teachers.

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A former naval officer and professor, Mr. Vanier resigned from his teaching position to form the first L’Arche community, in which people with and without disabilities live and work side by side. He embodied an idea he often preached: that people best learn to love by climbing down, rather than up, the ladder of wealth and social success.

Randall Wright, the director of “Summer in the Forest,” a 2017 documentary about Mr. Vanier and L’Arche, said of Mr. Vanier: “He found a lot of answers through discovering, with joy, relationship with people at the bottom of society. And realizing that they have something which was on offer to him and in a sense hadn’t been on offer to him at the top of society, which is a kind of ability to be truthful about being human and not needing to put on the act of importance and authority.

Jean Vanier inspired countless people with his simple message that people with disabilities are teachers.

“And so I think what Jean did was declare that he was going to give up his life; he’s going to sacrifice for those people. He’s going to look after them his whole life. And when he did this, he had no idea that it would lead, in a sense, to success. He had no idea that people would be talking about this years later. It was just a way of declaring how the world should be,” Mr. Wright said in a phone interview.

Those who knew Mr. Vanier said that he was a physically towering yet deeply tender presence.

Krista Tippett, the host of the radio show “On Being,” interviewed Mr. Vanier in 2007. She described the experience in an email to America this morning. “Sitting with Jean was a transformative experience in and of itself,” Ms. Tippett wrote. “We called the show we created with him ‘The Wisdom of Tenderness’—a wisdom that radiated, [was] embodied, in his presence. Yet this tenderness was also a form of power, as paradoxical and true as the Gospel teaching the L’Arche communities took up as a way of life—that there is strength in weakness, light in darkness and beauty in what the world declares broken.”

James Martin, S.J., the editor at large at 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.’”

Father James Martin: “During his life there was no one I thought more deserving of the title ‘living saint.’”

Mr. Vanier was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1928 to a prominent Canadian diplomatic family. He grew up in France, until his family fled the impending Nazi invasion in 1940. The family moved to Canada, and shortly thereafter, at age 13, Mr. Vanier decided to join the British Royal Navy and began his studies at an English naval academy.

Mr. Vanier served in World War II with both the British Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy. In 1945, while on leave from his military service, he joined his mother volunteering at the Paris railway station where survivors of the Nazi concentration camps arrived after their liberation.

He described the experience to Maggie Fergusson of The Economist: “I’ll never forget the men and women who arrived off the trains—like skeletons, still in the blue-and-white striped uniforms of the concentration camps, their faces tortured with fear and anguish. That, and the dropping of the atom bombs, strengthened a feeling in me that the navy was no longer the place for me, that I wanted to devote myself to works of peace.”

Mr. Vanier would continue serving in the navy for five more years, until he resigned in 1950 to take undergraduate courses in Paris and pursue a more spiritual path. He considered becoming a priest and began discerning with his spiritual advisor and family friend, Dominican Father Thomas Philippe. Mr. Vanier’s formation was interrupted when Father Philippe received an order from Rome to cease his ministry for undisclosed reasons.

Rather than pursuing the priesthood, Mr. Vanier went on to earn a doctorate in philosophy from the Institut Catholique de Paris, writing his dissertation on the concept of happiness in Aristotelian ethics. During his studies, he lived alone and continued praying about how God might want him to spend his life, at one point taking up residence at a hermitage in Fatima. He taught philosophy at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto during the fall semester of 1963.

Over the Christmas break that year, Mr. Vanier visited the French mental institution where Father Philippe served as chaplain. There, he encountered the harsh conditions under which the patients lived, dismissed as “idiots” and locked inside, given nothing to do but take a two-hour compulsory nap each day.

This now-famous encounter inspired Mr. Vanier to purchase a small house in Trosly-Breuil, a town in rural France, in August 1964. Mr. Vanier invited two developmentally disabled men who had been living in institutions, Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux, to live with him in the cottage, which became the first L’Arche community.

We’re called to move ‘from repulsion to compassion and from compassion to wonderment.’ What a sentence for our world now.

L’Arche, named after Noah’s Ark, has today expanded to 149 communities in 35 countries on five continents. These houses and daytime communities are guided by Mr. Vanier’s philosophy that everyone, regardless of ability or disability, should be given opportunities to grow and learn.

Nathan Ball, who met Mr. Vanier as a volunteer at Trosly-Breuil around 1980, said in an email to America, “In those early years of L’Arche the only ‘charter’ we had was the beatitudes of Jesus. Jean loved to talk about his friendships with Jesus and with people who have an intellectual disability.... Through Jean’s insight, perhaps for the first time in the history of the church, people with an intellectual disability are seen, not as objects of charity but as a precious gift.”

In the early 2010s, several women without intellectual disabilities who had been spiritually accompanied by Mr. Vanier’s mentor, Father Philippe, reported that they had been sexually abused by the priest. L’Arche requested a church investigation that found him guilty of charges dating as far back as the 1970s.

Mr. Vanier expressed shock and sorrow in a letter, writing: “There is a tremendous gap between, on the one hand, the serious nature of these acts that generated such suffering in the victims and, on the other hand, the action of God in me and in L’Arche through Pere Thomas. I am unable to peacefully reconcile these two realities.”

Jean Vanier lived the beautiful mystery of our human condition that we need one another, young and old, strong and weak.

“That said,” Mr. Vanier continued, “in thinking of the victims and their suffering, I want to ask forgiveness for all that I did not do or should have done.”

Though Mr. Vanier’s Catholic faith shaped the first L’Arche house, the communities around the world have taken on an ecumenical bent, reflecting the predominant religious traditions of the surrounding areas and welcoming assistants and disabled “core members” of all traditions.

With Marie-Hélène Mathieu, Mr. Vanier also co-founded “Faith and Light,” an international organization of small groups that meet regularly to support and celebrate people with developmental disabilities and their families.

After spending a year and a half with Mr. Vanier at Trosly-Breuil, Mr. Ball decided to leave the community to undertake graduate studies in Toronto. “During my last visit with Jean before I returned to North America, he thanked me for coming to L’Arche, looked me in the eye and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Please do whatever you can to help.’ He was not asking me for a favor. He was not asking me to stay with L’Arche, although in fact, I have never left,” Mr. Ball wrote. He has worked for L’Arche for 20 years.

“This was a man who lived an unshakably committed life asking me to do the same. He was humbly, confidently and joyfully calling me to work for peace by helping to foster communities of love and justice in the world. Jean knew that none of us can go it alone and that when we try, we are bound to fail. Jean lived the beautiful mystery of our human condition that we need one another, young and old, strong and weak, and he was asking me to do the same. I will be forever grateful.”

Ms. Tippett wrote: “I keep thinking this morning about a notion of Mother Teresa that animated Jean and that he took up with such delight and vigor—that we’re called to move ‘from repulsion to compassion and from compassion to wonderment.’ What a sentence for our world now. He will continue to teach us.”

Mr. Vanier wrote more than 30 books and was awarded a number of honors including the Order of Canada, the French Legion of Honour, the Pacem in Terris Award and the Templeton Prize. He directed the original L’Arche house in Trosly-Breuil until 1990 and lived there until April 2019.

Correction: May 7, 2019
A previous version of the article stated that several women with intellectual disabilities reported being sexually abused by Father Thomas Philippe. The women did not have intellectual disabilities. 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Vince Killoran
2 weeks 5 days ago

What an amazing life of faith; what a wonderful legacy. Requiescat in pace

Steve Magnotta
2 weeks 5 days ago

Humbled and inspired. RIP.

Oz Jewel
2 weeks 5 days ago

Much clarification is necessary, I choose only a few key issues.
First, the headline is misleading. L'Arche, due to the persistent and sole vision of the founder Jean Vanier, ministered only to people with severe intellectual abnormalities, and this was sometimes accompanied by severe physical disabilities as well; initially only males and then mixed households.

Efforts by the Dominican priest Thomas Phillipe to poison the ministry with the Dorothy Day political views on the "poor and marginalised" had to be strongly resisted, as was his effort to make it a religious community under Rome.
Well before the first community was established, the Church had evidence that the Dominican had sexual connection to two women who were getting spiritual direction from him, and suspended him from ministry after investigation confirmed their claims but the tribunal kept the reason secret. This allowed him to molest an undisclosed number of other women as demonstrated by a canonical investigation much later.

Missing was the information about Jean being greatly inspired by the community of Friendship House in Canada founded by Baroness Catherine de Heuk Doherty and the Little Brothers and Sisters of the Poor, both exercising the "living with" ministry rather than political social action and agitation.

A whole sub-speciality in Psychiatry has since started in the Anglosphere and spread wider now of mental disease in the intellectually handicapped; and the intellectually impaired are far less likely to be put in asylums or gaols now.

This is Christian charity acting as a leven, working from the grass roots without fanfare.

Barry Sullivan
2 weeks 4 days ago

Thank you for this fine summary of an amazing, Christ-inspired life. His life inspired (and continues to inspire) many others, including my favorite, Henri Nouwen.

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Monsieur Jean Vanier - he served humanity with dedication and distinction. RIP.

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