Catholic News Service

Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities,
is pictured in a June 16, 2008, photo. Vanier, a Canadian
religious figure whose charity work helped improve
conditions for the developmentally disabled in multiple
countries over the past half century, died May 7 at age 90.
CNS photo/Nancy 

Jean Vanier, Canadian writer, philosopher and humanitarian who died May 7, was a champion for people with intellectual disabilities and touched countless lives through his constant message of love.

"The message of the Gospel," he once said, "is to become men and women of compassion. If you become a man or a woman of compassion, you will be like Jesus." 

It was that quest to be a man of compassion that led Vanier to leave a comfortable university teaching post at Toronto's St. Michael's College more than half a century ago and move to France. Living in a dilapidated house in a town north of Paris, he was introduced to two men with mental disabilities and was moved by the experience. 

"I discovered a whole world of pain, of brokenness," he once recalled. 

The natural reaction for many people would be to turn away from pain and brokenness. Vanier embraced it. He invited the two men to come live with him, not as wards or even roommates, but as brothers, as family. 

At age 36, the accomplished Catholic university professor was a student again, learning about purpose and life and seeing the Gospel message in an entirely new light. These two men, shunned by a world that was unmoved by their disability and indifferent to their humanity, opened Vanier's eyes to what it means to be a true disciple of Christ, to not just preach love and compassion, but to actually live it. 

"The wonderful thing is that when we live with people with disabilities, not only are they transformed, because they discover they're loved, but we also are transformed," Vanier once told an interviewer. 

From that discovery, L'Arche was born. From a single ramshackle home north of Paris, today there are 152 L'Arche communities in 37 countries around the world. These are not institutions for people with disabilities. They are living communities of people with and without disabilities in which, through mutual care, respect and compassion, all the residents -- those providing support and those being supported -- are inspired to reach their full potential. 

"That is the secret of the philosophy of L'Arche -- that we transform each other in helping each other to become more human and more like Jesus," Vanier said. 

It pained Vanier to recognize that, in a culture which tends to measure success by degrees of wealth, fame and power, the weak and vulnerable often were "put aside." Doing so is arrogant and prideful, a contradiction of our shared humanity and the Gospel. But Vanier's embrace of the disabled showed him mankind's path back to humility could be found through sincere relationships with those who have been humiliated. 

Vanier leaves behind vibrant L'Arche communities, but his real legacy is the model of love and compassion upon which they were built.