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Canadian churchperson of the year

Abbot Peter Novokosky

In the more than 30 years that the Prairie Messenger has named a Churchperson of the Year, it seems odd that Jean Vanier was never honoured.

Vanier was born into a family of privilege. His parents were George and Pauline Vanier. His father was Canadian ambassador to France in the 1940s and later the 19th governor general of Canada, the first French-Canadian to hold this office. Pauline was a respected humanitarian. Their cause for sainthood has been introduced.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the L’Arche movement Jean began in humble and unpretentious circumstances. At the age of 36, looking for something meaningful to do with his life, this Canadian philosophy professor from the University of Toronto invited two intellectually disabled men to come and live with him in a dilapidated stone house in the French village of Trosly-Breuil, north of Paris.

The story of L’Arche is well-known. Since 1964, it has spread to 38 countries and provides a home to more than 5,000 core members. There are several communities in Canada. The movement started by Vanier has changed the way society treats developmentally disadvantaged people. The Sept. 17 PM celebrated L’Arche’s anniversary with a centrespread.

In that issue, Michael Swan wrote: “Jean Vanier started something in the French countryside that has made the whole world think about what it means to be human, what we owe to our humanity and how we care for the broken and fragile among us. Fifty years of kindness and care, hope and humanity is worth celebrating.”

One of the men Vanier invited to live with him was Philippe Seux. After his parents died he was placed in an asylum. In a later interview, he described his reaction to living with Vanier:

“When I came to L'Arche, there was no electricity, none. We used candles for lighting; it was fun! There were no toilets or showers, but I felt like I was exploding with joy — phew! I was so happy to be there. Previously, for me, it had been no life at all: all day long, sitting in a room. There was nothing to do, we never went out, we were bored stiff, there was no life. I even cried. I was not at all comfortable there. Little by little, at L'Arche we settled down and things were sorted out.”

Vanier’s own conversion to a new lifestyle began when he visited people with intellectual disabilities in asylums and psychiatric hospitals. “I discovered a vast world of suffering of which I had previously been ignorant,” he says. “I had lived in a world of efficiency in the navy, and of intellectualism during my studies. Now, I was confronted by the world of suffering, and I was deeply moved.”

Our view of disadvantaged people has changed over the past half-century. But Vanier has also changed our view of ourselves. In his book Becoming Human, Vanier wrote: “Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.”

In another reflection, Vanier wrote: “We are born in extreme fragility, and we die in extreme fragility. Throughout our lives we remain vulnerable, and at risk of being wounded. Each child is so vulnerable, so fragile and without any defenses!”

Among the honours Vanier has received are the French Legion of Honour in 2003 and the 2013 Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award. In November 2004, a CBC poll ranked him as number 12 in a list of Greatest Canadians.

The Prairie Messenger honours him in this anniversary year as the Canadian Churchperson of the Year.