Tributes and notes of condolence have been pouring in for renowned Catholic theologian and philosopher, Jean Vanier, who passed away early Tuesday morning. He was 90 years old. Vanier was not only a pioneering thinker in Catholic theology, but he was also the founder of L’Arche — a Jesus-centered ministry for people living with disabilities.
“Jean has left an extraordinary legacy,” L’Arche international leader Stephan Posner said in a statement.
The organization described Vanier as “a philosopher, writer, religious and moral leader, founder of communities for people with and without intellectual disabilities… and above all, a follower of Jesus, a peacemaker.”
A quiet trailblazer for justice
Vanier’s life’s work was anchored in a desire to see people with disabilities loved and valued in a way that God would smile upon. Troubled by the sanitized, institutional care homes of the 1960s, Vanier made it his life’s mission to create an environment where disabled people are loved and nurtured with kindness and care.
“The turning point in Jean’s life was in 1963*, with his first visit to an institution for people with intellectual disabilities,” L’Arche explained. “Their profound ‘cry for relationship’ touched his heart. His response was simple: buy a house, and invite a few men with an intellectual disability to come and live with him. This was the start of L’Arche.”
Speaking to Premier UK, Vanier said that the entire ministry was based around “loving people as they are.”
“The whole vision of Jesus is just to ‘love one another as I have loved you,” he explained. “To love people is not to do things for them, but to reveal to them that they have value. There’s a person under the abilities and the disabilities — that’s the heart.”
A gentle and unassuming character, Vanier had an innate ability to win people over with simple kindness. As Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby put it in a statement on his death, Vanier “lived the Gospel in such a beautiful way that few who met him could fail to be caught up in it.”
“I had the privilege of spending time with him on several occasions,” the arhcbishop added, “and always came away with a sense that here was someone whose whole way of being spoke of the goodness of God.”
Speaking to the BBC, Welby said that Vanier was tenacious to “turn society’s assumptions about the strong and the weak upside down.”
He added: “Those the world considers weak, through their disabilities, are those who bring hope and strength lived out in community. Those who are strong discover they need the weak. This is nothing less than the Kingdom of Heaven come to Earth.”
In a fitting tribute to a man who exuded wisdom and grace, here is a collection of some of Jean Vanier’s most extraordinary quotes on community, faith, life, death and everything in between:
- “I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”
- “We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.”
- “Jesus is the starving, the parched, the prisoner, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the dying. Jesus is the oppressed, the poor. To live with Jesus is to live with the poor. To live with the poor is to live with Jesus.”
- “To love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth and their importance.”
- “A Christian community should do as Jesus did: propose and not impose. Its attraction must lie in the radiance cast by the love of brothers.”
- “I’m not frightened of death. Frightened of suffering, of anguish, maybe. But death will certainly be something really beautiful, really gentle. It’s a passage to life. Living is much more difficult than death.”
Do pray for Vanier’s family as they mourn the loss of this dear man of God.