May 9, 2019 — On May 7, the founder of L'Arche, Jean Vanier, passed away in Paris. This “giant of God’s kindness,” as the Vatican stated, touched the heart, among others, of several Canadian Jesuits. Here is more about his life and his work which influenced others all over the world.
Fr. Bill Clarke, SJ, (left) with Jean Vanier
The Jesuits of Canada had solid ties to Jean Vanier and L'Arche, including through years of collaborative work, such as the Gesù’s Christmas Crèche, which was created by members of L'Arche-Montréal. But also personal relationships such as with Fr. Bill Clarke, SJ, who knew him for over 50 years:
“As so many others, I was deeply saddened by the passing of Jean Vanier. I met Jean for the first time at a conference in Montreal in 1966, the year I was ordained a priest. This meeting led me to go to Trosly in 1968 where I stayed for nearly 3 years. Jean and L'Arche certainly shaped my life. I had the privilege of speaking briefly with Jean on May 2, thanks to Christine McGievy, the person in charge at Trosly, who was with Jean at the hospital in Paris. The L'Arche and Foi et Lumière communities continue to bring Jean’s fortifying influence to several individuals, communities and countries.”
You can learn more about Fr. Clarke's experiences with Vanier in this podcast recently released by the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.
Fr. Pierre Bélanger, SJ, also knew Vanier for a long time and had the fortune of reporting on him in 2003.
“As a teenager, I had the opportunity to go to a Faith and Light meeting at the Parc des Expositions in Quebec City. This was my first encounter with Jean Vanier. I still remember some images and especially the "tone" of this gathering: it was as if I had heard the voice of the Gospel, at the same time sweet and firm. He had his own way of challenging, of drawing attention to the essential, of making us turn to people who are forgotten but who conceal treasures of humanity. The interpellation encourages the examen; Jean Vanier forced us, each time we heard him, to assess the quality of our relations with the little ones. The radicality he lived in his commitment was, however, accompanied by a tenderness and a smile that were signs of God in the heart of the world.”
For Fr. John Meehan, SJ, he was an authentic prophet of our time:
“As the founder of L'Arche, not only did he have a lasting impact on the lives of so many people with physical or intellectual disabilities, but he taught us all what it means to be human. At L'Arche, the assistants were transformed as much as “the friends.” I would not have become a Jesuit if I had not been to L'Arche in Trosly (France) in 1989-1990 where I met the Jesuits for the first time. That is where I truly experienced a Christian community, learning what it is to be vulnerable as a human being. Vanier taught us that our humanity is not rooted in our productivity or efficiency but rather in our ability to love and to be loved. He leaves us a great legacy and challenges us to promote a society based on compassion rather than competition and on inclusion instead of exclusion.”
A Canadian born in Geneva in 1928, Jean Vanier was a marine officer, a graduate of the Sorbonne and then a professor of philosophy. In 1964, he founded in Trosly-Breuil (a city north of Paris) a small community in which he lived with adults with an intellectual disability. By doing this, “he did not renounce his past,” says Fr. Pierre Bélanger, SJ, “but transformed it into a stepping stone that nurtured a clear source of humanity.” Such a philosophy and commitment quickly attracted other people, including young generations. So much so that today, there are more than 5,000 members in nearly 150 interfaith L'Arche communities spread over five continents.
One comment made frequently about L'Arche is that those who go there to help persons with disabilities are often helped themselves by the residents. All human beings that live in those communities help each other in such growth. As Fr. Bélanger points out, “what allows us to grow, to be happy, to smile for real, is to love and to know that we are loved. Providing this opportunity to individuals who have always felt that they were not loved because of their disability is to allow oneself to challenge one’s own limits and to experience the joy of being loved in return.”
L'Arche was not Jean Vanier’s only vocation. He founded other organizations such as Foi et Partage in Canada, besides publishing several books and giving conferences. A recipient of various prestigious prizes, welcomed by Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis, he always remained humble. One of his qualities was knowing how to surround himself with good people over the years. For L'Arche is not the result of an individual effort but of a collective one.
“If each person opens their heart to the weak, a source of goodness and compassion awakens in them and forms their core identity. To bring joy to who those who are suffering or who are isolated directs our lives towards serving others.” These words, spoken by Jean Vanier, an “exceptional soul,” resound very deeply within the Society of Jesus and invite us to help the marginalized even more. As Fr. Bélanger states: “L'Arche is solid because it is also rooted in the truth of the Gospel, the same as put forward by Pope Francis: compassion, proximity to the weak, openness of heart.”