Christian Humanitarian and Author Dies at 90, Takes Last Breath Praising God

May 07, 2019May 07, 2019

Prominent Catholic Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche and Faith and Light communities, has passed away. Vanier's foundations support people with disabilities and their families.

Vanier died in the early morning of May 7 at age 90. The author and humanitarian was surrounded by his family at the nursing home where he'd been living since mid-April.

According to reports, his last words were to praise God. The holy man came to death with peace and faith.

He said, "I am deeply peaceful and trustful. I’m not sure what the future will be but God is good and whatever happens it will be the best. I am happy and give thanks for everything. My deepest love to each one of you.”

Vanier "inspired countless people with his simple message that people with disabilities are teachers," according to America Magazine. Vanier was a naval officer and professor before he quit those professions to start his community.

The L’Arche community has people with and without disabilities live and work side by side. His goal was to help people learn to love by climbing down the social ladder rather than up it.

“He found a lot of answers through discovering, with joy, relationship with people at the bottom of society. And realizing that they have something which was on offer to him and in a sense hadn’t been on offer to him at the top of society, which is a kind of ability to be truthful about being human and not needing to put on the act of importance and authority," said Randall Wright, the director of “Summer in the Forest,” a 2017 documentary about Vanier and L’Arche.

He continued, “And so I think what Jean did was declare that he was going to give up his life; he’s going to sacrifice for those people. He’s going to look after them his whole life. And when he did this, he had no idea that it would lead, in a sense, to success. He had no idea that people would be talking about this years later. It was just a way of declaring how the world should be,” Mr. Wright said in a phone interview.

Vanier was born to a prominent Canadian diplomat in 1928 in Geneva, Switzerland. He lived in France until 1940 when his family fled the Nazi Invasion. The family returned to Canada where Vanier joined the British Royal Navy at the age of 13.

At that young age in World War II, Vanier served with the British Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy. In 1945, he joined his mother volunteering at the Paris railway station where survivors of the Nazi concentration camps arrived after their liberation.

He later recalled the experience of meeting those who had recently been freed from concentration camps: “I’ll never forget the men and women who arrived off the trains—like skeletons, still in the blue-and-white striped uniforms of the concentration camps, their faces tortured with fear and anguish. That, and the dropping of the atom bombs, strengthened a feeling in me that the navy was no longer the place for me, that I wanted to devote myself to works of peace.”

Vanier served for five more years before resigning in 1950. He attended college in Parish and discerned whether he would become a priest, but ultimately decided to pursue a doctorate in philosophy.

He spent many years trying to discern God's path for him. After visiting a French mental institution where patients lived in harsh circumstances and were dismissed as “idiots," he was convicted with a need to help them.

Vanier to purchased a small house in Trosly-Breuil, a town in rural France. In August 1964, Vanier invited two developmentally disabled men, Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux, to live with him. 

L’Arche, named after Noah’s Ark, has today expanded to 149 communities in 35 countries on five continents. These houses and daytime communities follow Vanier’s philosophy that everyone, regardless of ability or disability, should be given opportunities to grow and learn.

While Vanier’s Catholic faith prompted him to star the communities and shaped the first L’Arche house, the communities around the world are largely ecumenical.

In addition to his humanitarian work, Vanier wrote more than 30 books. He was also awarded numerous awards including the Order of Canada, the French Legion of Honour, the Pacem in Terris Award, and the Templeton Prize. 

Please pray for all those who are mourning his passing. May God give them solace. Also please pray that the communities that he founded continue to do good for decades to come.