Like many people I was deeply saddened by the recent death of Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche and Faith and Light. Perhaps I was wrong to be sad because Jean was blessed by God with a long and fruitful life. He was 90 years of age. Yet it is not often that the world is blessed with the gift of someone graced with such transparent goodness and holiness. Jean had a deep love for God and for his fellow human beings and a very special love for the disabled. He made it his life’s work to befriend them, provide them with a place of refuge and lovingly care for them, This is why he gave the name L’Arche to the community he founded at Trosly-Breuil in the Oise region of France in August 1964. L’Arche translated from French means The Ark. This is what it became and from its humble beginnings it spread throughout the world. Today there are 152 L’Arche communities in 37 different countries. With characteristic humility Jean preferred not to be referred to as the movement’s founder. “I am the messenger, but not the message” he said. “People say I was the founder, but I was just the first to arrive.”
Several years ago, while I was parish priest of Bicester, in Oxfordshire, I was privileged to meet Jean. He was the spiritual director of one of my parishioners and she kindly invited me to join her and a close friend on one of their annual visits to see him. I spent less than an hour in his company and we talked about many things, including the fact that we had both served in the Navy, but his natural warmth and kindness coupled with a delightful sense of humour touched me very deeply. He had a remarkable ability to make you feel that at that particular moment you were the most important person in the world! This was why he was ideally suited to the work that God entrusted to him. In his homily at Jean’s Funeral Mass the Archbishop of Rennes spoke of how Jean reminded people of “the infinite beauty of each person”. There are few people in life who are capable of doing that, but Jean was someone who did.
Jean had requested a very simple funeral but the Mass was broadcast so that whoever wished to share in the celebration could do so without the need to be physically present. Jean’s body lay before the altar in a simple pine coffin with rope handles which had been constructed for him by the L’Arche community. Placed upon it was a small ark and lots of flickering votive lights. The venue was a makeshift chapel and the liturgy was (shall we say) “relaxed” with a degree of informality attached to it! No-one present was given a more important place than anyone else. All were treated as honoured guests and sat side by side. It was beautiful in its simplicity and admirably reflected the deep love and respect that everyone felt for Jean coupled with sincere gratitude for his remarkable legacy.
In an interview he gave in 2002 Jean touched upon the subject of death. “I’m not frightened of death” he said. “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. There are quite a lot of people living, but they are as sad as death.”
If this amazing man has not gone to Heaven already then I am confident that his journey to the Father’s House will be a remarkably short one! Earlier today I celebrated a Requiem Mass in the chapel of the St Barnabas Society for the repose of his soul although I was left with the distinct feeling that our prayers for him are probably much less important than his prayers for us. He always seemed to live as if he had one foot in this world and another already in the world to come. Such was the depth of his friendship with Jesus Christ.
It was St Irenaeus who once said: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” It is a fitting epitaph for that faithful servant of the Lord, Jean Vanier, who has now passed to his eternal reward.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.
And let perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace. Amen.