The founder of L’Arche, an organisation that fosters cohabitation of healthy people and people with physical and mental disabilities, passed away last night. L’Arche is present in 35 countries with 147 communities. Faith and Light, another association Vanier co-founded to bring together people with special needs, their families and friends, is present in at least 80 countries with 1,800 communities. Pope Francis remembers him, as does a Hong Kong missionary, who worked with him.
Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche (The Ark) communities, died yesterday at the age of 90, spending a lifetime building communities in which healthy people and people with physical and mental disabilities live together.
Born in 1928 in Geneva (Switzerland), Jean Vanier was a naval officer. At some point he abandoned his military career to study philosophy and work as a teacher. In 1963, an encounter with disabled people led him to help abled and disabled people to live together, encouraging individuals who in the eyes of the world are "healthy" and "efficient" to share with those who are seen as more "fragile".
L’Arche is present in 35 countries with 147 communities. Faith and Light, which brings together people with special needs, their families and friends, is present in at least 80 countries with 1,800 communities.
Yesterday, Pope Francis, on his way home from a visit to Bulgaria and North Macedonia, remembered Jean Vanier, expressing his “gratitude for his testimony, a man who knew how to read the Christian strength from the mystery of death, the cross, and disease. From the mystery of those who are discarded in the world. He worked not only for the last but also for those who risk being sentenced to death before their birth. He spent his life like that. Let us thank him and God for giving us a man of such great testimony.”
Father Giosué Bonzi, a PIME missionary, for almost 50 years in Hong Kong, met and worked with Jean Vanier. Fr Bonzi is one of the founders of the Fu Hong Society, a network of family homes where healthy people and people with disabilities can live together.
Before meeting Jean personally, I came to know his spirit and his mission by reading a book that a friend had sent me from Italy, La comunità, luogo del perdono e della festa (original title in French La Communauté : lieu du pardon et de la fête; English edition: Community and growth).
It was 1981: about four years before I started the Fu Hong Society (FHS). I was very impressed and curious to know more of him and his work. In the spring of 1982, during my holidays back in Italy, I visited the Faith and Light community in Rome, where I met its Italian founder, Mariangela Bertolini, who enthusiastically arranged a meeting with her great friend Jean. In 1971 Mariangela had participated in the famous pilgrimage to Lourdes with him and her friend Marie-Hélène Mathieu, along with thousands of people with intellectual disabilities, as well as their parents and friends.
Thus, travelling by train, I arrived in Trosly-Breuil where I stayed for a few days at the first L’Arche community. In addition to Jean, I met his elderly mother Pauline and Fr Thomas Philippe, his spiritual director.
Of course, there were various friends with disabilities around them, in various homes around the first one, which has a chapel for perpetual Eucharistic worship, a converted stable with the original manger and other local fittings.
In such a background conducive to prayers, I frequently met Jean, but I had to wait quietly for more than a day to talk to him one to one. He was extremely busy. I had other valuable occasions for long and pleasant conversations with his mother and Fr Thomas. In such a place, one can breathe in the ambient spirituality, absorb it by "immersion".
The talk with Jean was very warm. I told him about the mandate I had received from Christian communities from various denominations. I invited him to visit Hong Kong. He didn't give me any timetable, but assured me that he really wanted to come and visit us.
In September 1990, Jean finally came to Hong Kong, welcomed by the first local Faith and Light community. In 1990 I was asked to serve as a chaplain of the Faith and Light community (there are three now). Jean began inviting me to the spiritual retreats and training courses he organised in the Far East.
I meet him twice in Korea, in the Philippines, in Taiwan ... In 1994 I was invited to the Faith and Light International Meeting in Warsaw (Poland), then the one in Quebec City (Canada) in 1998, and in Rome (2002). One of the most appealing moments for locals was the celebration of Mass with friends with disabilities from all the continents, as well as and especially the "Fiesta", in which everyone is encouraged to show off the typical costumes of their country and culture.
In the fall of 1999, I was invited to spend a week attending spiritual exercises at Versailles, preached by Jean, specifically for chaplains, Catholic and Protestant, of Faith and Light communities.
During Holy Week and Easter 2001, Faith and Light’s 30th anniversary, I accompanied the Hong Kong delegation to Lourdes, where over 24,000 pilgrims – people with disabilities, family and friends – came together.
I want to thank the Lord for having had the opportunity of meeting Jean Vanier and actively participating in his mission of love and sharing with the "little ones". God granted a tremendous grace when he let us be led by the Spirit of the Risen and living Christ, each one in in our own environment, each with our own community and church commitment, bearing witness to the joy and peace that the inclusion of the weakest in society brings to everyone and to the whole community. This is a true Kairos.
For this reason, all of Jean's friends feel in their heart, at his passing, a very strong wish to say "Thank you!” Halleluiah!