By Ann Marie Foley - 08 May, 2019
Tributes have been paid to the late Jean Vanier, who died on Tuesday 7 May 2019, aged 90. Through the interim director of the Vatican Press Office, Alessandro Gisotti, Pope Francis stated that he “prays for him and for the whole L’Arche community”. Jean Vanier had met with Pope Francis on 21 March 2014, and said he was a man of smiles and encounter.
Irish bishops also paid tribute, among them Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, who said: “Rest in peace Jean Vanier and thank you for your inspiring, compassionate presence among us.”
Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick offered his condolences to L’Arche and the Faith and Light communities around the world, “knowing, however, that they will be full of gratitude for the great example Jean Vanier was for them.”
Bishop Leahy said that as a student in UCD he was part of a group helping during a retreat-mission that Jean Vanier led in the College in 1978. “I met him several times during that week and admired greatly his humility, wisdom and penetrating words. I met him briefly on other occasions over the years. His prophetic example, his untiring focus on helping us recognise the value of vulnerability and otherness, and his constant underlining of the importance of community have always influenced me. We have much to learn from his life.”
Bishop Fintan Monahan of Killaloe said that “Jean Vanier was a true inspiration, a pastoral and spiritual giant.”
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said that “For over half a century he has inspired an entirely new appreciation of the gift of people with learning disabilities and revealed the most profound heart of human community.”
L’Arche Ireland and Northern Ireland in a statement expressed sadness at the passing of Jean Vanier and stated that in recent days, while remaining very present, he had quickly declined.
“We all know Jean’s place in the history of L’Arche and Faith and Light and in the personal stories of a great many of us. Jean’s life has been one of exceptional fruitfulness. First and foremost we wish to give thanks for that,” they stated.
They said that Jean Vanier was instrumental in founding L’Arche in Ireland and added that “He visited Ireland on numerous occasions, notably … Belfast where he encouraged reconciliation, and gave many retreats and talks across Ireland.”
L’Arche Internationale stated that his funeral will take place in his community at Trosly. This will be a private ceremony for his community, close friends and family and representatives of the Federation of L’Arche as well as of Faith and Light.
Jean Vanier set up his first L’Arche community in 1964 by welcoming two intellectually disabled men into his home in the town of Trosly-Breuil in France. Today, L’Arche has grown into an international organisation of 147 communities in 35 countries. Its aim is to create homes, programmes and support networks with and for people who have developmental disabilities. These are places where “normal” people share family-sized houses with men and women with intellectual disabilities.
Jean Vanier’s sister, Thérèse, opened the first L’Arche house in the UK, in Kent. There are now communities in Inverness, Edinburgh, Preston, Liverpool, Manchester, Brecon, Bognor Regis and Ipswich. In Ireland and Northern Ireland there are L’Arche communities in Kilkenny, Dublin, Cork and Belfast.
Jean Vanier was also very ecumenical and L’Arche has always welcomed people of all faiths and none. The current head of L’Arche in France, Stephan Posner, is Jewish, and in India many in L’Arche are Hindu.
Jean Vanier has stated that people with intellectual disabilities are a force for ecumenism, as they have an instinct for communion and cannot be divided over questions of dogma and belief.
In his 90th year Jean was diagnosed with cancer and had to spend longer in hospital. Speaking became difficult for him, but still he strove to communicate. In a letter to friends he wrote:
“I am living a time of peace. I would like to live every moment in love without any other project … I know that new weaknesses, new forms of poverty and new losses are waiting for me. It will be the descent into what is essential, that which is most hidden in me, deeper than all the parts of success and shadow inside me. That will be all that remains when the rest is gone: my naked person, a primal innocence which is awaiting its encounter with God.”
Jean Vanier is author of over 30 books including the most recent: A Cry is Heard: My Path to Peace and We Need One Another: Responding to God’s Call to Live Together.