Monday 26 August 2019

Obituary: Jean Vanier

Founder of L'Arche communities, where those with a disability and those without share 'a world where all belong'

Humanitarian: Vanier's initiative was prompted by visits to hospitals for people with disabilities
Humanitarian: Vanier's initiative was prompted by visits to hospitals for people with disabilities

Jean Vanier, who has died aged 90, was the founder and director of the L'Arche Community, which achieved international fame and admiration for its attitude to those with learning disabilities.

At the time of the foundation of L'Arche in France in 1964, it was not uncommon for people with such cognitive impairments to be incarcerated, often for the remainder of their lives, in large impersonal institutions providing little in the way of therapy or fulfilment.

Vanier offered a radical alternative in the form of small communities in which people both with and without problems of this sort shared a common life. He called the charity L'Arche, the French word for "the Ark", to suggest that all were in the same boat.

Both "carer" and the person with the disability had something of importance to share with the other - "growth begins when we begin to accept our own weakness" - and these communities could generate profound experiences of healing.

"In this communion," he said, "we discover the deepest part of our being: the need to be loved and to have someone who trusts and appreciates us and who cares least of all about our capacity to work or to be clever and interesting.

"When we discover we are loved in this way, the masks or barriers behind which we hide are dropped; new life flows."

Vanier did not, however, scorn medical and psychiatric involvement when needed.

He used the term "communion", and his vision was derived from a critical Roman Catholicism, but others came into L'Arche from various traditions, not always religious but including Islam and Hinduism; the current International Leader, Stephan Posner, is Jewish. Today there are more than 140 communities in 35 countries, together with some 1,400 related non-residential Faith and Light communities in around 80 countries.

Jean Vanier was born on September 10, 1928 in Geneva, the son of Pauline and Georges Vanier, a Canadian soldier and diplomat who went on to be Governor-General of Canada. Georges Vanier had lost a leg while leading an attack at Cherisy, Pas-de-Calais, in 1918.

Jean's education in Paris during his father's time as Canadian Minister there (he subsequently became Ambassador) was terminated abruptly in 1940 when the German army advanced on the French capital. He and his mother made a perilous escape to England and from there to Canada, where he resumed his education in a Jesuit school.

Keen to be involved in the war, he returned to England to enter the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and, with the other cadets, was fortunate to be on leave when the college was bombed. In 1947 he went to sea as a midshipman, serving in HMS Vanguard. He was on-board when the ship took King George VI and his family on an extended tour of South Africa. After this, Vanier transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy, in which he served until 1950.

By this time Vanier was feeling the need to devote his life to "something else" - the nature of which was far from clear. During a visit to Paris he consulted his mother's spiritual director, Father Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest, who became a friend and a strong influence (more than 60 years later Vanier would be "shocked and overwhelmed" when Philippe was accused of having abused young women).

Vanier spent time with an unorthodox Catholic community formed by Philippe to express concern for the poor and to consider the implications of the reforming proposals of Vatican II. This led to his studying Philosophy and Theology at the Institut Catholique in Paris, in preparation for the priesthood, but he eventually abandoned the idea of ordination.

Instead, he completed a doctorate on the thought of Aristotle and in 1962 went back to Canada to teach Philosophy at St Michael's College in Toronto University. He remained in touch with Philippe, who had become chaplain to a small group of developmentally disabled people formed by a doctor at Trosly-Breuil, a village on the edge of the Compiegne Forest, north of Paris.

During this period Vanier visited the asylum of St-Jean-les-Deux-Jumeaux, where 80 mentally disabled men lived in two bleak dormitories, had no work, and occupied their time by walking round in circles. From 2pm to 4pm they had to have a siesta.

A visit to this community led Vanier to believe that something different, with a spiritual dimension and a sense of mutual support, was needed - homes, or foyers, a word with connotations of family life around a shared hearth.

In 1964 he invited Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux from the psychiatric hospital to join him in a house, also at Trosly-Breuil. Friends and former students soon arrived to experience life in the embryonic community, housed simply with beds, a table, a wood-burning stove, and lit by candles.

Between 1970 and 1977 12 more communities were formed in the surrounding villages and "assistants" were easily recruited from among educated young people in Canada, the United States, France and Germany. Those with disabilities would cook, clean, wash up and garden.

The first L'Arche in Canada was started in 1968, and from the early 1970s his sister, Therese, helped to set up the British arm of L'Arche, with the first community housed in a former Anglican vicarage near Canterbury, donated by the Archbishop. The first community in Ireland was founded in 1978 in Kilmoganny, Co Kilkenny and there are now three others as well in Dublin, Cork, and Belfast and another 11 in Britain. Drama and art workshops, bookbinding and gardening are among the activities arranged.

The rapid spread of the movement worldwide demanded a variety of models, particularly in the developing world. Vanier had never forgotten the sight of refugees in post-war Paris "coming off the trains like skeletons, their faces tortured with fear, anguish and pain", and he quickly recognised the need to link concern for the mentally disabled with that of the poor and hungry, believing that "if you are blind to the poor, you become blind to God".

While loyal to his Catholicism and enjoying an affinity with Pope John Paul II, who admired his work, he was critical of the Church's hierarchical structures. His vision was of "a world where all belong" and in 1987 he addressed a synod of bishops in Rome concerned with the role of the laity. The Faith and Light "communities of encounter" developed from a L'Arche pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1971; they were designed to meet the needs of those for whom residential care is unsuitable. They are usually based at local churches in which the disabled, together with their families and friends, meet monthly for worship, fellowship, mutual support and to "celebrate life".

Vanier, who was unmarried, lived at Trosly-Breuil, but travelled widely to establish new communities and nurture the existing ones. He also took to visiting prisons, whose inmates often suffer acute psychological problems.

A figure of considerable spiritual depth, he was, unusually for a layman, frequently called upon to conduct retreats and give counsel; he published a number of books, and in 2017 a powerfully moving documentary film was made about L'Arche communities, A Summer in the Forest. Simplicity of lifestyle found him lacking a suit when invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace, and an old garment once worn by his father was hastily altered for the occasion.

A member of the Legion d'honneur and a recipient of the International Pope Paul VI award, Vanier was awarded the £1m Templeton Prize in 2015 for his contribution to the advancement of religion in the field of spirituality. A year earlier he had been placed number 12 in the CBC List of Great Canadians. He died on May 7.

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