Jean Vanier Made Us All More Human

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The late founder of L’Arche showed the church how disability, vulnerability, and weakness bring us closer to one another and closer to Jesus.

Jean Vanier, who died Tuesday morning at age 90, lived much of his life beside death.

“Over the last forty-two years we’ve had many deaths, and we’ve spent a lot of time celebrating death. It’s very fundamental to our community,” he wrote, referencing his experience in L’Arche community of Trosly-Breuil, France—where Vanier began the first of an international network of communities for people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities to live together in faith and friendship.

As he recounted in his book Living Gently in a Violent World, “To celebrate death is to gather around and talk about the person—about Janine, for example, who died recently. We gathered to say how beautiful she was, how much she had brought to us. Her sisters came, and we wept and laughed at the same time. We wept because she was gone, but we laughed because she did so many beautiful things.”

Likewise, those of us who have been formed and inspired by Jean Vanier have hearts heavy with both grief and gratitude as we celebrate the beautiful things we learned from a leader who helped us all to become more human.

We don’t often find people born into privilege and status, and highly educated, who then follow the downward path of Jesus. But as founder of L’Arche International, Vanier spent decades in community with people with and without intellectual disabilities and embraced the joys, complications, and demands that go along with such a life.

The fourth of five children, Vanier was born into a deeply Catholic family with prestige and prominence in Canadian society. He served in the Navy for a number of years but was continually drawn to community life and spiritual practices. …

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