Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, the international community for people with learning disabilities, has died at the age of 90.
In his final message, he said: "God is good and whatever happens it will be the best. I am happy and give thanks for everything. My deepest love to each one of you."
In a statement L'Arche said: "It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Jean Vanier, our founder. Jean died on the 7 May in the Maison Médicale Jeanne Garnier in Paris."
Alessandro Gisotti, interim director of the Holy See press office, tweeted: "The Holy Father has been informed of the death of Jean Vanier. He is praying for him and for the entire L'Arche community."
The testimonies that given by religious, spiritual and other leaders around the world were evidence of his impact and enduring legacy.
Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said: "At our gathering in Valladolid, we heard with deep emotion of the death of Jean Vanier. For over half a century he has inspired an entirely new appreciation of the gift of people with learning disabilities and revealed the most profound heart of human community. We pray for him and his beloved Arche communities at this moment of loss. May he rest in peace."
Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin said: "Rest in peace, Jean Vanier, and thank you for your inspiring, compassionate presence among us.
Jesuit Schools UK said: "With sadness we hear news of the death of Jean Vanier (1928-2019) and with great joy we celebrate his life. Founder of L'Arche and Faith & Light. Former pupil of St John's Beaumont. Eternal rest grant to him O Lord. May he rest in peace."
L’Arche International leader Stephan Posner said: "Jean has left an extraordinary legacy. His Community of Trosly, the Communities of L'Arche, Faith and Light, many other movements, and countless thousands of people have cherished his words and benefited from his vision."
John Sargent, national leader of L’Arche UK, said: "Jean’s death is a great sadness. His vision was one of radical welcome, inclusion and joy, where each person is valued and celebrated. "He will be greatly missed by people from all walks of life who have been influenced and changed by the witness of his life and his teachings, which remain as relevant today as ever. "We are committed to continue to live out his vision in our L’Arche and Faith & Light communities.”
Vanier founded L'Arche in 1964 in response to the treatment that people with learning disabilities faced in institutions. There are now more than 150 L’Arche communities in 38 countries around the world, where more than ten thousand people with and without learning disabilities create places of welcome and celebration, sharing in life together.
There are 12 L’Arche Communities in the UK.
In recent decades, after he retired from his role at L’Arche, Vanier focused on his work sharing a message of unity, dignity and diversity. In addition to his work with L’Arche, Vanier co-founded Faith and Light, and inspired the creation of many other organisations. He published about 40 books on how people with learning disabilities can contribute to building a more humane society.
When he was 88, two years ago, Vanier had a stent fitted in a blocked artery after he suffered the heart attack.
In an interview with Maggie Fergusson for The Tablet, discussed what might happen to us when we die: “When you die, you fall asleep. And you wake up, and there’s a very gentle peace. You feel well. And then you discover the face of God coming through that ‘wellness’. Of course, we are outside time, so it’s not sequential. Seeing Jesus’ face, we suddenly have a feeling of having hurt him – we realise we could have done much better, we’ve done wrong. We are not being judged, we judge ourselves.
"But then comes the realisation that we are loved just as we are, in our darkness. So there’s a meeting with God, who loves us in our poverty – and this we can hardly believe. That meeting brings an immense desire to be closer. That desire becomes a place of desire – I think of Purgatory as 'the place of desire' – and it’s painful. When you have desire and not the object of desire, it’s very painful. But then the desire augments, and consequently the pain augments, until there is a moment of explosion, and then we’re in communion with God.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said: “Jean Vanier lived the Gospel in such a beautiful way that few who met him could fail to be caught up in it. I join countless people around the world in deep sorrow at his death, and great gratitude for his life. His generosity of spirit and Christian hospitality embraced the whole world — supremely those with learning difficulties.
"His L’Arche communities were places for the so-called weak to teach the self-perceived strong. His love for Christ overflowed into every relationship with abundant grace. To meet him was to love him, to be loved – and in turn to love all others he loved. Such a luminous goodness was combined with humour, wisdom and practicality. His goodness was also combined with learning; his lyrical commentary on St John’s Gospel is the most beautiful piece of writing.
"I had the privilege of spending time with him on several occasions, and always came away with a sense that here was someone whose whole way of being spoke of the goodness of God. In 2016, Jean led the Primates of the Anglican Communion in a time of prayer and reflection at Canterbury Cathedral. At the end of it, he invited us to wash each other’s feet. It was a moving experience for each of us – and a powerful reminder of the example that every disciple has been set by Jesus. He did the same at the 2008 Lambeth Conference. Jean’s life was shaped in response to that example.
"The L’Arche movement, where people with and without learning disabilities live and share in life together, is a legacy and gift that he leaves to the Church and the world. I pray that we will be challenged and inspired by his example for generations to come. The heart of his profound discipleship was to foster communities that Jesus would have recognised: communities of love and fellowship where people carry each other’s burdens, accept each other’s gifts and limitations – and find belonging, joy and healing. In a world where individualism and competition can seem to have the upper hand, his vision, his teachings and his example were a powerful reminder that as human beings we are called to something infinitely more precious. It is fitting that one who lived so thoroughly with and for others, and who helped so many find new life, should come face to face with Christ in Eastertide. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”