Vatican City, May 8, 2019: Pope Francis has paid tribute to Jean Vanier, whose charity work helped improve conditions for the developmentally disabled in Canada and multiple other countries over the past half-century.
The Christian philosopher, writer, humanist and an ardent advocate for the most marginalized by society died on May 7, aged 90.
The Pope expressed his condolences as he traveled back to the Vatican after a three-day apostolic visit to the Balkan nations of Bulgaria and North Macedonia.
“I want to express my gratitude for his testimony,” Pope Francis told journalists aboard the papal flight from Skopje to Rome, as he recalled Jean Vanier, reports Vatican News.
A charity he founded, L’Arche (The Ark), said Vanier died in Paris after suffering from thyroid cancer.
Vanier, son of former governor general Georges P. Vanier, worked as a Canadian navy officer and professor before turning to Catholic-inspired charity work.
The Pope hailed him as a person who was able to read and interpret the Christian gaze on “the mystery of death, of the cross, of suffering,” on “the mystery of those who are discarded by the world.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid tribute on social media, saying Vanier “made it his life’s work to help the most vulnerable, and give everyone a real and fair chance at success,” reports cbc.ca.
“Jean Vanier made it his life’s work to help the most vulnerable, and give everyone a real and fair chance at success. He made our world a better, more inclusive place through @larcheintl, and his legacy will continue to inspire us all.”
A visit to a psychiatric hospital prompted Vanier to found L’Arche in 1964 as an alternative living environment where those with developmental disabilities could be full-fledged participants in the community instead of patients.
Vanier told CBC News at the time that in a world getting more complex and indifferent, it was important that someone give the developmentally disabled a voice.
“What you’ll discover with the mentally deficient, is though they’re deficient mentally, they’re not at all deficient cordially — their hearts — and they’re not deficient spiritually,” he said.
Vanier praised those in his community for their ability to communicate without airs or motives.
“They make you discover what … love and tenderness and mercy and purity really are,” he said.
Worldwide, there are 154 residential communities in 38 countries on five continents.
“He saw people locked up, and he decided to make a gesture, inspired by the Bible,” said Pierre Jacquand, who leads L’Arche’s facilities in France. “He felt a calling to defend the most marginalized.”
He also travelled the world to encourage dialogue across religions, and was awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize for spiritual work, as well as France’s Legion of Honor. He was the subject of a documentary shown at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival called Jean Vanier, the Sacrament of Tenderness.
“Before being Christians or Jews or Muslims, before being Americans or Russians or Africans, before being generals or priests, rabbis or imams, before having visible or invisible disabilities, we are all human beings with hearts capable of loving,” Vanier said in remarks prepared for the Templeton Prize announcement in London.
Vanier handed over leadership of L’Arche decades ago but continued to live in the first community center he founded north of Paris.
Vanier was born in Geneva, the fourth of five children. He received a broad education in English and French, earning a doctorate in philosophy, and living in England, France and Canada.
In a 2006 talk at Concordia University in Montreal, Vanier argued that the Western culture of individualism which values beauty, money and success, also creates a gap between the healthy and the disabled.
“We have a fear of accompanying people who are weak …. They are seen as a financial and social liability,” he said.
He argued that the greatest threat to peace is a widening gap between rich and poor, between strong and weak. But rather than urging people to open their wallets to the less fortunate, Vanier asked them to open their hearts.
“It’s not a question of doing something, but of recognizing that each person has a gift to give.”
Vanier said the responsibility for peace lies squarely with people, not with governments. Conflict, he told the Concordia audience, is a product of the walls we erect to protect ourselves.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby of the Anglican Church said, “Vanier’s vision, teachings and example were a powerful reminder that we are called to something infinitely more precious.”
The Pope said he knew of Vanier’s illness through Sister Genevieve who kept him informed.
“A week ago I called him on the phone, he listened to me, but he could barely speak,” the Pope said.
Pope Francis said that Jean Vanier worked “not only for the least but also for those who, even before being born,” risk being condemned to death.
“He spent his life in this way,” the Pope concluded: “Thank you to him and thank you God for having given us a man of such great witness.”