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Jean Vanier, Christian advocate for the intellectually disabled, dies at age 90

Jean Vanier
Jean Vanier, a Catholic philosopher who helped found a network of homes for intellectually disabled individuals, passed away on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. |

Jean Vanier, the Catholic founder of two community organizations for those with intellectual disabilities, has passed away in Paris, France. He was 90 years old.

L'Arche Internationale, one of the two networks Vanier helped found to benefit those with special needs, announced his death early Tuesday morning on their Facebook page.

“We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of Jean Vanier. He passed away peacefully today Tuesday, May 7 at 2:10 am in Paris surrounded by some relatives,” noted the organization.

In a statement, L'Arche noted that days before his death, Vanier reported that he was “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,” said Vanier in his last message to supporters.

Born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1928, Vanier was the son of a Canadian diplomat. In his youth, he served in both the British and Canadian Royal navies until 1950.

Vanier studied philosophy and taught the subject in Toronto. He seriously considered becoming a Catholic priest, though eventually decided not to.

In the early 1960s, when visiting a Dominican chaplain in France, Vanier witnessed the poor conditions for the intellectually disabled in the asylums.

In 1964, Vanier invited two disabled men, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, to live with him in in Trosly-Breuil, France rather than remain in a French institution.

“There, in that small home in Trosly-Breuil, Vanier’s initial urge to ‘do something for’ Raphael and Philippe grew to become a commitment to ‘being with’ and ‘friend to’ these two men,” noted L’Arche USA.

“With that shift in heart and consciousness, a core belief of L’Arche emerged: that strength is revealed through weakness and human vulnerability, which given room to grow in trust, creates community.”

Taking its name from Noah’s Ark, L’Arche grew to include 154 communities in 38 different countries. Faith and Light, another community-based support network for the disabled that Vanier founded, has 1,450 chapters in more than 80 countries.

“The secret of L’Arche is relationship,” explained Vanier, “meeting people, not through the filters of certitudes, ideologies, idealism or judgments, but heart to heart; listening to people with their pain, their joy, their hope, their history, listening to their heart beats.”

In 2015, Vanier won the Templeton Prize, an award given to those who have made an important contribution to the spiritual dimension of life through various works.

Other Templeton Prize winners include King Abdullah II of Jordan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Charles Colson, and the Rev. Billy Graham.

“When those ingrained in a culture of winning and of individual success really meet them, and enter into friendship with them, something amazing and wonderful happens,” stated Vanier at a news conference regarding the Prize, as reported by the Washington Post.

“They too are opened up to love and even to God. They are changed at a very deep level. They are transformed and become more fundamentally human.”

Other honors bestowed upon Vanier include the French Legion of Honor, the Rabbi Gunther Plaut Humanitarian Award, and the Blessed are the Peacemakers Award from the Chicago Catholic Theological Union.

Vanier authored many books, including the popular Becoming Human, which was republished on its 10th anniversary in 2008.

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