My Friend Jean Vanier
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.