My Friend Jean Vanier

Source: The Star

I first met Jean Vanier in Montreal at a conference for Theology students in 1966.  This was the year I was ordained to the priesthood.  I was 33years old and Jean was 37.  He was one of the two main speakers and the other was William Stringfellow, a protestant theologian and radically committed activist with a powerful  message.

However it was Vanier and his words about what he had been living in a community he called l’Arche with people with learning disabilities that most deeply touched my heart.  I knew that when I would be in Europe for my final year of Jesuit training I needed to go and spend time with Jean and his community.   The two and a half years I lived and work there before returning to Ontario were truly transformative.

Since then I have been able to return to that original l’Arche community almost every other year.  I cherish the image of Jean with his warm smile and outstretched arms welcoming me “home”.  I know that he truly considered me as his friend, but I also know that he made everyone who met him feel respected and valued.

The week before Jean died I was able to exchange a few words with him by phone thanks to Christine McGrievy the community leader in Trosly.  We had arranged that I would call her on her cell phone while she was there in the palliative care home.

Jean was hardly able to speak but with the help of Christine I understood Jean’s deep gratitude and his peace of heart and his trust in what was ahead for him.

Jean was a man of tenderness and compassion.  He was also truly a wise and daring leader, attested to by the extraordinary expansion of l’Arche throughout the world in close to forty countries, and not just Christian but interfaith communities with representatives of all the great religious traditions.

Jean’s spirit continues to infuse these communities with his vision that each and every human being whatever their gifts or limitations are a valued precious child of God that can contribute to the well being of our world.

Bill Clarke, SJ, is a member of the team of spiritual directors at Loyola House of Ignatius Jesuit Centre of Guelph and continues his commitment to L'Arche.

  • Vicky Chen
    Posted at 06:37h, 26 August Reply

    Thank you, Bill, for sharing the inspiration of Jean Vanier’s life through your friendship with him. We all must go back home, but to leave in gratitude and in peace is seamless and joy-filled. May he continue to pray for those of us not yet reached the shore.

  • Sharon Walters
    Posted at 08:19h, 26 August Reply

    Truely the message of community is one that is much needed in today’s world. Thank you.

  • Bernard Carroll, SJ
    Posted at 08:46h, 26 August Reply

    Thanks Bill. You have described Jean and your friendship with him with such warmth and tenderness! What a gift!

  • Kevin Burns
    Posted at 10:32h, 26 August Reply

    Thank you, Bill.
    Readers of this reflection will surely be interested in your insightful book on L’Arche: “Room Enough for Joy – The Early Days of Jean Vanier’s L’Arche” (Novalis, 2007)
    Your book is an important foundational work on Jean Vanier and the development of L’Arche. It also contains a heartfelt introduction from Jean Vanier.

  • Maria Skarzynski
    Posted at 12:09h, 26 August Reply

    Beautiful tribute to a man whose life I have admired and cherished for years. There was talk of his parents being proclaimed saints at one time – now the son should be added as well. Thank you.

  • Connie Shaw
    Posted at 15:29h, 26 August Reply

    Thanks Bill. Your article and personal insights are so rich. Jean has influenced so many people, who like you are passing on the gift to others. Thanks for you and the way you shine the light.

  • Louise Anstett
    Posted at 16:22h, 26 August Reply

    Thanks Bill for sharing your friendship with Jean Vanier. It was a beautiful friendship. The last time I saw Jean Vanier, he asked me about you.

  • Mary Jane kelley
    Posted at 12:44h, 29 August Reply

    Thanks so much Bill

  • Peter Oliver
    Posted at 17:05h, 27 June Reply

    Dear Bill,

    I am searching for a way to understand Vanier in light of the scandal that emerged after his death. I haven’t found anything that provides the needed insight. Have you written anything?

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