No one perhaps since Mother Teresa of Calcutta has been so universally acclaimed as a living saint as Jean Vanier, who died this week after devoting his life to improving the lot of developmentally disabled people.
Vanier, the founder of L’Arche community, died of cancer at the age of 90, at which point testimonies began pouring in regarding what the man had meant to the world.
First among them was Pope Francis, who said he had been kept informed about Jean Vanier’s failing health by a religious sister and had called him by phone a week before his death.
“He listened to me, but he could barely speak. I wanted to express my gratitude for his witness,” the pope told reporters aboard the papal plane returning to Rome from the Balkans on May 7.
“He was a man who was able to read the Christian call in the mystery of death, of the cross, of illness, the mystery of those who are despised and discarded,” he said.
Francis also highlighted Vanier’s pro-life work, saying that he had stood up for those “who risk being condemned to death even before being born.”
“Simply put, I want to thank him and thank God for having given us this man with such a great witness,” the pope said.
Vatican News reported that Jean Vanier had given up a career in the Navy “to follow in the footsteps of Christ,” founding two international organizations for people with intellectual disabilities: “L’Arche” and “Faith and Light.”
“He advocated for marginalized people for over five decades, highlighting the profound teachings and the gifts that they offer,” Vatican News said.
Vanier once described the mission of his community as reaching out to “a world of extreme weakness, poverty and suffering, people who have often been rejected.”
“L’Arche is a place of reconciliation where people of very different religions and cultures can meet and this transforms the lives of people with disabilities, but also transforms the volunteers,” Vanier said.
He called his community “a place of celebration” that highlighted the importance of people with disabilities, who have been “chosen to be the great witnesses of God.”
Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit joined the pope in praising Vanier, saying that the founder of L’Arche was able to see Jesus in every person, especially the weakest.
“Jean Vanier joined the Lord Jesus, whom he never ceased to see in people with mental disabilities. ‘What you did to one of the least of my brothers, you did to me,’” the archbishop said in a statement.
Describing a recent visit to Jean Vanier at Jeanne Garnier hospital, Aupetit said that Vanier “was bright and happy, all abandoned into the hands of God, like a child going to the Father’s house.”
“His life was dedicated to witnessing the beauty of every man in this world and first of all the most wounded. I share the sorrow and hope of his loved ones and I bless with affection all the members of L’Arche and ‘Faith and Light,’” he said.
The president of the French episcopal conference, Bishop Georges Pontier, also released a statement, calling L’Arche a “magnificent work,” whose communities “radiate a joy, friendship and human depth that we so badly need.”
Jean Vanier was a man “touched by human frailty and in particular that of people marked with disability,” Bishop Pontier noted, saying he wanted to join the many others in “paying tribute” to him.
The head of the Knights of Columbus, Carl Anderson, said that Vanier “lived a life dedicated to the simple but inviolable belief that each of us is created in God’s image and that every single life is sacred and deserving of respect, protection, and most of all, love.”
For Vanier, “human life was beautiful from beginning to end,” Mr. Anderson said.
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