“People say I was the founder, but I was just the first to arrive.” That was Jean Vanier, quoted at his funeral.
Gathered in a makeshift chapel around a simple pine casket, members of L'Arche communities and Faith and Light groups from around the world mourned the passing of the founder and leading light of L'Arche and celebrated his life, his wisdom, his holiness and humanity.
Bishop Nicholas Hudson, a Westminster auxiliary, read the Gospel. There were many women religious, of different denominations, on the altar, and doing readings.
For the last stretch of his life, Jean could no longer speak, but he continued to communicate by developing clear gestures with his hands. His last “words” were:“Everything is given”.
In a long message read at the funeral, Pope Francis prayed that the L'Arche communities around the world would "continue to be places of celebration and forgiveness, compassion and joy, demonstrating that everyone, no matter his or her disability, is loved by God and called to participate in a world of brotherhood, justice and peace."
Vanier died May 7 at the age of 90.
During the offertory procession, a little Noah's ark was set on the casket, honouring the name Vanier chose in 1964 when he formed a home with two men with intellectual disabilities, launching a movement that would grow to 154 communities in 38 countries.
A large bowl of oranges – and orange peels – was carried forward. Vanier was known to toss peels to or at community members at the end of a meal. Although subdued in the context of a Mass, peels from the bowl were tossed into the congregation, eliciting laughter and applause.
Archbishop Pierre d'Ornellas of Rennes presided over the funeral Mass. The concelebrants included Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and Ukrainian Archbishop Borys Gudziak, who will be installed as head of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia in June.
For his funeral Mass, Vanier had chosen the Gospel reading of Jesus washing his disciples' feet.
Bending down to wash his disciples' feet, "Jesus makes himself weak before us," Archbishop 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?"
Afterwards, Bishop Hudson told The Tablet: "The Gospel was John 13, 1-17: The Washing of Feet. It was read first in French by a sight-impaired Deacon; then in English by me. The passage chosen extended two verses beyond the text given in the Lectionary for Maundy Thursday to include the precept, 'Blessed are you if you behave accordingly.' This reflected Jean’s conviction that Jesus means us actually to wash each other’s feet.