May
07
Author
Jennie Pollock
“To welcome two people.”

Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, has died at the age of 90. L’Arche Communities, where people with and without learning disabilities live together and share their lives together, exist across the world. Over three and a half thousand people with learning disabilities are currently being supported in countries from Belgium to Brazil, Uganda to the USA. There are a dozen Communities across the UK.

Yet this mighty work grew from small beginnings. In 1964 Vanier, then aged 36, visited a friend who was working in an institution for men with learning disabilities. Vanier was “disturbed by conditions in which 80 men did nothing but walk around in circles” (BBC), but knew he couldn’t move in and change the institution. Yet, “I wanted to do something,” he told Amy Morone in 2018, “and so the idea came to welcome two people.”

Vanier bought a small house nearby and invited Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux to leave the institution and live with him.

He quickly learned that while he had intended to help and minister to these two men, they were giving just as much back to him, and teaching him more than he could ever hope to teach them.

“‘God has chosen the weak and the foolish,’” he told The Tablet in 2017, “‘to confound those caught up in their heads.’ Raphaël and Philippe were enabling him to live from his heart, to escape ‘the tyranny of normality’, to laugh like a child. They were, he says, ‘teachers of tenderness’.”

Reading the online tributes that have been flooding in since his death was announced on Tuesday morning, it is clear that Vanier was a special man. The Dean of Southwark Cathedral said, “When I met him I knew I had held the hand of a saint.” The Archbishop of Canterbury said:

“His love for Christ overflowed into every relationship with abundant grace. To meet him was to love him, to be loved – and in turn to love all others he loved. Such a luminous goodness was combined with humour, wisdom and practicality.

“I had the privilege of spending time with him on several occasions, and always came away with a sense that here was someone whose whole way of being spoke of the goodness of God.” 

The L’Arche website’s pages about Vanier explain that, “He learnt through the dailiness of community living the need to go beyond the generous serving of those in need, to the joy of being in communion with them.”

But perhaps the most important words we can ponder at this time are not those said about him, but those said by him:

“The most important thing is not to do things for people who are poor and in distress, but to enter into relationship with them, to be with them and help them find confidence in themselves and discover their own gifts…

“Loving someone does not mean simply doing things for them… To love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth and their importance.”

Jean Vanier didn’t start his ministry with the idea of transforming thousands of lives, or creating communities across the world, or being known by Archbishops and Popes, or being celebrated and loved by thousands. He began by saying, “I can welcome two people”, and he let God grow his heart, his capacity and his ministry from there.

 

“The King will [say], ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” – Matt 25:40

Jean Vanier, 1928-2019