Vale Jean Vanier. Born September 10, 1928. Entered eternal life May 7, 2019.
I was privileged to spend two weeks sitting at the feet of Jean Vanier, the Founder of the L’Arche communities when he came to Christchurch, New Zealand in the late 1970s. That was forty years ago, yet that visit is still a strong and powerful memory. Jean Vanier had a profound influence on my thinking, attitudes to people and life, and especially my approach to the world of leadership. At that time I was in my late twenties, Jean in his early fifties.
I know, that after that experience, I was never the same again.
Jean Vanier died on May 7, aged 90.
Jean Vanier came to New Zealand to promote the message of his L’Arche communities. As part of his visit, he led a retreat on being a shepherd as the basis of the Christian leadership of our faith communities. A group of about twenty men and women, all with leadership roles in the Catholic Church in New Zealand, sat in a circle around this amazingly personable, charismatic, yet profoundly humble and prayerful man.
Without ever a note, using only his worn, well thumbed Bible as his inspiration for each session of that retreat, he reflected with us on his life journey, on the inspirational foundations of L’Arche and his understanding of the call to Christian discipleship.
With complete openness and vulnerability, he shared his experience, his thoughts and his deeply personal relationship with the person of Jesus. As one recent writer said, Jean Vanier “discovered something that most of us have forgotten – what it is to be human, to be foolish, and to be happy”.
For those memorable days we immersed ourselves with him in Chapter 10 of St John’s Gospel while he painted his pictures and insights of the leadership of the Good Shepherd “who lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:15). When those days came to an end, I knew that I had had my own moment like those early Emmaus disciples “Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
I had not only listened and walked with a humble disciple of Jesus, but in Jean Vanier, I am convinced, I had met Jesus Himself.
At the recent funeral Mass for Jean Vanier in Trosly-Breuil, northern France, Archbishop Pierre d’Ornellas of Rennes, reflected on the Gospel of the “Washing of the Feet” that Jean himself had chosen for his funeral.
Bending down to wash his disciples’ feet, “Jesus makes himself weak before us,” d’Ornellas said. “To touch our hearts and heal them, he uses no other means but presenting himself as weak, as the least of the servants.”
“Through his weakness, he washes our hearts, which are hardened by pride and barricaded in power, security and the certainty of being right,” the archbishop said. “He is ‘master and lord,’ but he lowered himself out of love. He is ‘master’ because of his tenderness and unending forgiveness, which raises us up and sets us back on our feet with trust and joy.”
Vanier, he said, was a “herald” of Jesus’ love, humility and service.
He reminded people of “the infinite beauty of each person,” the archbishop said. Following Vanier’s example, “how can you not be moved by the discovery that each person is infinitely precious? How can you not work so that each person is freed from the chains of injustice that imprison him or her?”
The individuality and preciousness of each person are the core values of the L’Arche message and the life of Jean Vanier. They were not mere words for this man of God. As he lived them out in his own daily existence, so he touched with love and respect, those who were privileged to meet him on the journey of life.
May he rest in peace.
Geoff Officer is the Chief of Operations & Finance for the Diocese of Parramatta.