Jean Vanier’s lessons can continue to inspire us, writes Fr Fergal Cunnane
Over the last few weeks there have been many tributes paid to Jean Vanier, from people of faith and conscience throughout the world. But you know the best tribute ever paid to him was from a beggar he encountered one day in a train station in Paris. Jean was heading to catch his train when he noticed this man and they began to speak.
When the time came for his train to depart, he apologised to the man for having no money. The man simply replied: “I was here all day and nobody looked my way but you did; you looked and you listened.” Jean Vanier was above all a man who looked and listened.
In 1964 there were many other good people who had visited the asylums, institution where people with disability were locked away. Jean Vanier saw something others didn’t see and heard a cry that others missed. He noticed in these men and women, underneath the outer signs of violence and anguish, a longing for friendship. They seemed to be asking: “Why am I Iike this? Will you love me? Will you be my friend?” And he realised the only way he could response was by doing something practical and concrete.
He bought a dilapidated house and welcomed two men, Raphael and Philippe. They laughed together and fought together, shared meals and prayed together. And this former naval officer, discovered that those he had come to serve were in fact also helping him; they were forming his heart.
Thus he began what would rightly be described as a Copernican revolution in the way we look on those who are marginalised. “The poor will evangelise you if you open your hearts to them,” he often said.
Four years later Camille and Gerard, parents of two special needs children, came to visit to Jean Vanier. They shared their feelings of isolation and the sense of rejection they felt by society and even the Church. Jean looked and he listened. He was attentive to the struggles of these parents and affirmed their beautiful children.
Together with Marie-Helene Mathieu they began the Faith and Light movement – offering support and encouragement to those with special needs, their families and friends.
Jean Vanier was often described as a living saint, and it is true he was an inspiring figure who touched many lives. People who attended his talks and retreats had a feeling that he was speaking to them personally. Others were touched by his writings and brought his insights into their own vocational journeys. We need to be careful, though, of putting Jean Vanier on too high a pedestal.
As Michael Gannon, a young man with down syndrome who travels to L’Arche on retreat each year reminded me on hearing of his death: “Jean was our hero. We are sad and we will miss him but we need to realise we are called to live as he did.”
When I met Jean Vanier for the first time in 1992 it was in very ordinary circumstances. I was part of a L’Arche holiday group who had come to Trosly, and took residence in la Forestiere, a few doors from where Jean lived. One day I saw this tall silhouette passing through the house. It was Jean calling to see Mary Jo. She was one of the first people he had welcomed to L’Arche. She was now too frail to travel with her friends on holiday and couldn’t move from her room. Jean used to visit each day, sit with her and hold her hand.
Jean always stressed that in the end it was not about the big things but the small gestures: just sitting with the person in a nursing home as he did with Marie Jo; looking differently on those society see as a nuisance; seeing beyond the masks we sometimes wear.
Many people wrote to him asking advice about family members who were problematic or caught up in addiction. Jean’s advice was very simple: the first thing you need to do is sit around as a family and begin to talk of your son not as a problem but as a person. The next step is to enter into relationship with that person.
Over the years of the Troubles, Jean Vanier was a frequent visitor to Northern Ireland. During these visits he often invited Protestant and Catholic, Unionist and Republican to take part in a liturgy of the washing of Feet, where each person would wash the feet of the person beside them.
He always stressed that when we meet at the human level, barriers are broken down and differences can be resolved. His message was clear: build relationships and then change will come.
Jean Vanier spoke about God in a simple and beautiful way. People with disability had taught him not too speak so much about Christ or God which can seem too abstract but about Jesus – who invites a relationship. In his retreats and in his books he revealed Jesus as a vulnerable God, thirsting for relationship, a God who cries out with the poor of the world ‘Will you love me? Will you be my friend?’ Jean Vanier always made it clear that it was Jesus who led him to people with learning disability and that his own friendship with Jesus had sustained him through the course of his life. He saw the Eucharist as a privileged encounter with our vulnerable God.
In Jean Vanier, the world and the Church have lost an inspiring and charismatic figure and yet a humble role model we can all aspire to imitate as we walk with Jesus.
Remember, it doesn’t have to be big things, but small. Each one with their gifts and weaknesses can play a part in the struggle for peace.
Fr Fergal Cunnane is a chaplain with Faith and Light. He helps organise retreats with young adults each year at the first L’Arche Community in Trosly France.