Canadian philosopher, philanthropist, and visionary Jean
Vanier died early in the morning May 7, at age 90, and as soon as word travelled
from Paris, where he spent his last hours, to Canada’s west coast, people were already
calling for his canonization.
“He was always described as a living saint, and I have no doubt about that,” said Father Pierre Ducharme, OFM, the pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Richmond.
“His saintliness comes from his simplicity and his orientation towards the marginalized. He reminds us of the dignity of human life. I think the work he has done is immeasurable.”
Vanier founded L’Arche and Faith and Light, international organizations that stress the inclusion and inherent dignity of people with developmental disabilities. He was a companion of the Order of Canada, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and a Templeton Prize recipient. He was also a devout Catholic, and his beliefs informed his unwavering love and support for the marginalized or suffering.
“He really is for me one of the greatest Canadians ever to live. If we think of what we want Canada to be, he embodies that. He is the best of us.”
Father Ducharme first met Vanier as an undergraduate student in Vancouver in the early 2000s. The encounter made a profound impact on his life and later vocation as a Franciscan priest.
“One of the things he talked a lot about was freedom. Freedom was not doing what everybody else wants you to do and becoming a slave to the world, but rooting yourself in the peace that Jesus offers. This is something he lived by example and with such integrity that it was hard not to be inspired,” said Father Ducharme.
“I can remember a priest commenting afterward. He said: ‘when I was listening to Jean Vanier speak that weekend, I felt like that was as close to the teachings of Jesus I was ever going to get in the flesh.’”
After he was ordained, Father Ducharme visited many L’Arche communities in Edmonton. He would arrive to celebrate Mass and quickly realize he’d learn more than he would teach.
“The L’Arche people really taught me a lot about what it means to be human, and I think that’s a common experience for people. They have a sense of honesty, uninhibited freedom, and joy.”
Peter Meehan, president of St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi Colleges in Vancouver, came to know and admire Vanier from a young age. His parents and family friends were very involved Canada’s first L’Arche community (in Richmond Hill, Ont.), and since he was a child, Meehan was “voluntold” to serve alongside them.
Later, when Vanier (who lived in France for most of his life) would fly to Toronto to visit, Meehan was often the one to pick him up and drive him to meetings, speaking engagements, and daily Mass.
“We talk about diversity and inclusiveness. Vanier brought a sense to these words that transcends the limited political meaning we give them,” said Meehan.
Vanier loved to talk about philosophy and history, and was remarkably in tune with what was going on in the world while also being genuinely interested in everyone he encountered, Meehan said. They never needed to turn on the radio during those drives from the Toronto airport or various appointments.
“He’s one of those people who had a great economy of words. He could say words and ask questions that would get to the very heart of what was going on.”
The international hero didn’t limit his ministry to Catholics; though defined by his faith (and eliciting a look of surprise from priests whenever he appeared at a Toronto parish for daily Mass), he would meet people where they were at and minister to anyone in need.
“Vanier was both a great Catholic and a great Christian, and his movement embodies the best of these traditions,” said Meehan. “For sure this guy is going to be a saint. He should be. People talk about him and Mother Teresa in the same breath.”
After hearing news of his death, Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, called Vanier a “man of great vision rooted in the Gospel of Christ’s love for the little ones and the marginalized.”
Vanier had visited the Archdiocese of Vancouver several times, including to celebrate the 30th anniversary of L’Arche Greater Vancouver in 2004. “The inspiration he provided through the foundation of L'Arche has touched the lives of countless people. The world is certainly a gentler place because of his life and witness,” Archbishop Miller said.
During that visit to Vancouver 15 years ago, Vanier also paid a visit to the Dominican sisters living in Queen of Peace Monastery in Squamish. Sister Claire Marie Rolf, OP, called him a gift from God and a friend of the poor.
“Jean has gone to be with his dearest and most beloved friend, Jesus,” she said. “Jean was a living icon of our Lord, revealing to us the kind, tender, respectful, welcoming, human, loving face of Jesus. What would our world, my world, have been without him? How blessed we have been.”
Denise Haskett, the executive director of L’Arche Greater Vancouver, said in a statement May 7 that Vanier made a profound difference in the lives of people across the globe.
“He was a faithful friend, sending us messages of encouragement even as he aged and grew frail. It was important for him to tell us that he was at peace,” she said.
L’Arche Greater Vancouver is remembering Vanier as “a man of great kindness and wisdom,” as well as a “friend and teacher.”
Vanier offered a last message to his supporters a few days before he died. According to L’Arche International, he said: “I am deeply peaceful and trustful. I’m not sure what the future will be, but God is good and whatever happens, it will be the best. I am happy and give thanks for everything. My deepest love to each one of you.”