To describe Catholic humanitarian Jean Vanier as a saint is to place him on a pedestal he likely wouldn’t want to be on, say some friends and supporters.
Vanier, friend of the disabled and founder of the international L’Arche and Faith and Light movements, died in Paris May 7. After his death, many described the 90-year-old as a holy man whose canonization was imminent, but supporters of Vanier at a memorial in Vancouver June 27 did not use those words.
“I think there’s danger in thinking of Jean Vanier as a saint. It makes it easier for us to say: ‘I could never be like him,’” disability advocate Al Etmanski told 250 people gathered in Vanier’s memory at the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral that day.
Vanier was not an extraordinary figure with superhuman strength and wisdom, Etmanski said. He was an ordinary man who befriended people with intellectual disabilities and came to play a large role in deinstitutionalization, improving accessibility, and crafting a blueprint for safe, welcoming communities that can now be seen in at least 38 countries across the globe.
“Vanier didn’t look like a saint – not the ones I got on little holy cards when I was going to school,” Etmanski said.
Vanier was a tall man, with hunched shoulders, a wrinkled face, and often seen wearing a navy-blue windbreaker. “He kept his hands in the soil of ordinary life,” said Etmanski.
United Church pastor and L’Arche member Louise Cummings said Vanier did not set out with a “great, grandiose vision” to change the world. “It started simply with him not being able to stand the suffering he saw when he went to visit people in the psychiatric hospital and in meeting people who were adrift and abandoned. He couldn’t stand it and had to do something.”
In 1964, Vanier invited a few men with intellectual disabilities to live with him in his home, “with no idea at the beginning that it would be touching the lives of you and I, these many years later and across the ocean,” said Cummings. “They were just going to live together. Jean, when asked about it, said: ‘I thought we might have fun.’”
Now, L’Arche communities where people with and without disabilities live together number 10,000 members and can be found on five continents.
“In front of such a life as this, such a person, it’s tempting for us to say, ‘Well, that’s Jean Vanier. He could do grand things because he’s a special person,’” Cummings said. “It can be a way for us to not pay attention to the gifts God gives us and the call each of us has.”
Holly Card, a member of the L’Arche community for more than 30 years, agreed that while Vanier’s message was powerful, it was simple. “Jean’s vision was to create a world where we care for one another, thereby creating a more compassionate society, where everyone belongs,” she said.
With Vanier’s death, there is a danger his communities will mourn not only the loss of their leader, but the loss of the work he set out to do.
“Honouring him means taking his message and living it out in our own circumstances. The realization of his dream depends on each one of us.”
During the memorial, people were invited to come forward to receive a blessing taken from words Vanier would often repeat: “You are more beautiful than you dare to imagine.”
Near the close of the event, Christ Church Cathedral rector Peter Elliot, United Church pastor Gordon How, and Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, prayed together for Vanier, his friends and supporters, and the communities he founded around the world, especially in Greater Vancouver.
“Gracious God, you hallowed your creation with the gift of Jean Vanier, who became our friend and a friend of the world,” said How. “We thank you for the blessing of his life. We pray that even though we can no longer see Jean, we can still hear the music of his message and still know the joy of his friendship.”
Archbishop Miller offered thanks for the presence of L'Arche in Greater Vancouver and prayed for “courage, strength, and resources” in realizing its dream of growth. Locally, L’Arche is expanding and seeking to raise $30 million to build a brand-new, three-storey community in Burnaby.
“Grant that with the help of your grace they may continue to be luminous sign of hope as they seek to grow and be a place of belonging for an increasing number of people in our city, and keep alive in us and stir up in us a desire to assist them in bringing their dreams and plans to fruition,” said the archbishop.
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