This article was originally published on La Croix International on May 17, 2019.
Vanier’s friends, who wanted to honour his memory, did so by highlighting various aspects of his life that touched them.
An intimate funeral for Jean Vanier took place on May 16 at Trosly-Breuil in the Oise region where he founded l’Arche in August 1964.
Watch footage from Jean Vanier’s funeral here.
Jean Vanier, who died at the age of 90 on May 7, loved the colour blue. He loved to laugh with the other members of his household Val-Fleuri. He loved to sing “Jesus, we adore you” and listen to the birds too as he looked out of the window of his room during his final months.
All the things that he liked had a place in the celebration of his funeral on Thursday May 16 at Trosly-Breuil in the Oise region, where he founded the first L’Arche household nearly 55 years ago with two people suffering from a mental disability.
Vanier’s friends, who wanted “to honour his memory,” did so by highlighting various aspects of his life that touched them, and “which continue to represent him somehow,” as noted by Hazel, an English woman and early member of the community.
The whole world at Trosly
Vanier, founder of L’Arche and initiator of a genuine revolution of love for disabled people, had told his friends of his desire for an intimate celebration in which they would be fully involved.
The movement, which now has 152 communities in 37 countries, has spread across the planet.
But for his funeral, “Jean Vanier brought the whole world to Trosly,” as one member of his Val-Fleuri household observed.
Despite this, Vanier’s desire for an intimate service was fully respected, taking place in a community room for the “parties” that Vanier so loved to enjoy.
The room was decorated with arches painted or embroidered by members from Haiti, India and Palestine.
Invitees were seated not in order of “importance” but rather to foster mixing.
The presence of leaders from various Christian faiths and the introduction into the liturgy of prayers and gestures from other faiths all translated Vanier’s faith and heritage.
During the offertory procession, leaders from La Ferme welcome centre carried a broken pot as a “sign of the vulnerability that allows the light to pass through.”
Rose, the leader of the Ugandan community, brought bread and grapes in reference to “the meal table that unites us.”
Brother Alois, the prior of the Taizé ecumenical community, carried an “icon of friendship” showing Christ with his hand on the shoulder of his friend Menas.
More unexpected was a bowl of oranges, which commemorated the orange peel fights that Vanier liked to start at the end of a meal.
The little ones are the most important
However, it was the gesture of the washing of the feet by his friends at the end of mass, a gesture that Vanier placed at the centre of community life, which perhaps best illustrated the personality of this giant of the Gospel and the singularity of his work.
“The little ones are the most important,” noted Archbishop Pierre d’Ornellas of Rennes, who represented the Catholic Church at the service, in his homily.
“L’Arche is truly itself when its members wash each other’s feet.”
It is a gesture that “disturbs certain cultures and traditions but everyone can understand it,” commented Hazel, who lived for many years in a L’Arche community in India and who helped found other communities in Japan and the Philippines.
“You need to know how to go beyond words when working with people with disabilities,” she said.
We will miss you, Jean
“To be together, here, with people from around the whole world is truly a precious moment in these trying days,” said Mahera Jhareeb, the leader of Bethlehem’s L’Arche community.
“We feel that we are part of a large family,” he added. “Even though he has gone, Jean continues to unite us.
“That is why I am not concerned for the future. He has planted deep roots,” he emphasised.
In a short testimony at the end of the celebration, Patrick and Annissette, both with disabilities, each said a few words that expressed the mixed feelings of those present.
“Now you are with Jesus. We will miss you greatly, Jean. Sometimes, I am happy and sometimes I am sad. There, I will be happy!” said Patrick.
“I was happy to know Jean because he helped me,” added Annissette. “Jean, he is no longer here, he is in heaven but we will continue on the path. It is important!”
By Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner, reproduced with her permission and La Croix International.