Remembering Jean Vanier

Paying tribute to a ’living saint’

A man whom many had dubbed a “living saint” has died.

From CNS:

Jean Vanier, 90, founder of L’Arche communities and co-founder of Faith and Light, died on 7 May. Vanier had been suffering from cancer and was assisted at a L’Arche facility in Paris.

Vanier was the author of some 30 books, a member of the Order of Canada, winner of the Templeton Prize and member of France’s Legion of Honor, but he was perhaps best known as a kind of village elder to the world.

Vanier permanently changed the fate of intellectually disabled people everywhere by demonstrating how the care of a community could open lives to meaning, joy, hope and trust — not just the lives of the disabled, but the lives also of those who live with them and care for them.

“Jean Vanier’s legacy lives on. His life and work changed the world for the better and touched the lives of more people than we will ever know,” L’Arche Canada spokesperson John Guido said in a prepared statement.

Over the past year, Vanier gradually entered into the sort of frailty and weakness natural to his age, before entering palliative care in France in April.

In a visit to Chicago in 2006 to accept the Catholic Theological Union’s Blessed are the Peacemakers Award, Vanier said he had noticed that people who have mental disabilities often have great faith, but they never speak of “Christ” or “the Lord.”

“They always talk about Jesus,” Vanier said. “It’s a personal relationship.”

In L’Arche communities, the disabled residents are seen as the “core members,” and treated as individuals, with respect and love, and nondisabled and disabled residents alike learn to live together.

“Our danger is to see what is broken in a person, what is negative, and not to see the person,” said Vanier. “It’s not just a question of believing in God, but of believing in human beings, believing in ourselves, and seeing people as God sees them.”

That means not relating to them from a sense of power, even if that power comes from generosity.

“Generosity is something that is good,” Vanier said. “When we have more wealth, resources and time, we want to succor those in need, and that’s good. But behind generosity is a notion of power. Generosity must flow into an encounter. We must meet people. It’s not a question of doing for, but of listening to their stories.”

CNEWA has supported the efforts of Vanier’s mission at L’Arche for many years, at various places around the world.

In 1990, for example, we reported on Hope Kindled in Bethany, at a L’Arche community, and described Vanier’s guiding philosphy:

In this international federation of Communities, stretching from Burkina Faso to Brazil, handicapped people and those who help them work and share their lives together.

According to its charter, the members of L’Arche also believe that “a person who is wounded in the capacity for autonomy and in the mind is capable of great love which the spirit of God can call forth, and we believe that God loves each one in a special way because of this very poverty.”

Unfortunately, many of the handicapped are rejected, without work, without homes or are shut up in psychiatric hospitals. In addition to providing care, L’Arche seeks to develop in society “a greater sense of justice and brotherly concern toward all.”

For L’Arche assistants, living and working with the handicapped is a lesson in love, an experience from which they have as much to gain as the needy they help. According to Jean Vanier, “We discover the immense joy God wants for us by meeting Jesus in the poorest, the weakest and the most broken.”

That mandate remains close to the heart of all of us at CNEWA, wherever we find ourselves seeking to serve those in need and give to them light, dignity and hope.

We lift up our prayers today for all those who were touched by Jean Vanier’s remarkable legacy, and we pray in gratitude for the great gift he gave to so many, including to us.

May his memory be eternal.


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