Early in the morning on May 7, 2019, Jean Vanier slipped away from the human form in which he'd given such great solace and hope to people, especially those suffering from developmental disabilities. He will be greatly missed for his genuine humility, profound leadership, and values drawn directly from the Beatitudes — values that bless the poor and the poor in spirit. He has been an inspiration to all of us at Spirituality & Practice for decades and will be greatly missed, even while we continue to benefit from his teachings and a felt sense of his ever-living presence.
Vanier was born in Geneva while his father, the 19th Governor General of Canada, was on diplomatic service in Switzerland. During his childhood, his family lived in Canada, England, and France, fleeing Paris right before occupation by the Nazis during World War II. In 1945, Vanier and his mother assisted victims of a concentration camp; their suffering moved the Vaniers profoundly. In 1964, at age 36, Vanier dove even deeper into his true calling by moving in with two men with intellectual disabilities who had been living in an institution. Their home became the first L'Arche community.
It was followed by an international federation of communities in more than 37 countries, welcoming people of all faiths, abilities, and traditions. Together with Marie-Hélène Mathieu, Vanier subsequently founded Faith and Light, which also works with and for people with disabilities around the world. He has received numerous awards, including the French Legion of Honor and the Templeton Prize.
After becoming aware of the plight of people with developmental disabilities who were institutionalized — marginalized, depressed, and alone — Vanier opened his home to them in what was to become his lifelong ministry. "People with disabilities have called forth the child in me," he observed. "They have taught us all in L'Arche how to rest in love and mutual caring, how to celebrate life and also celebrate death, to speak about death, to accompany people who are dying."
Jean Vanier's radical view of the spiritual practice of hospitality took within its embrace strangers, outcasts, those who are different, the shadow sides of ourselves, and our enemies who have their own burden of pain. Loving, forgiving, and opening our hearts, he believed, is an alternative to the world's divisions and weapons.
- Rich and broad understandings of the spiritual practice of hospitality
- A vision of the common good based upon relationships and community
- Interpretations of biblical sayings about humility, vulnerability, and reaching out to strangers