The death has taken place of Jean Vanier, the pioneering Catholic theologian and philosopher who helped to fashion egalitarian ways of accompanying people with developmental disabilities.

Having battled serious heart problems for two years, the 90-year-old bachelor died early this morning in a Paris hospital surrounded by friends from the l'Arche community.

The announcement was made in a statement issued from the French headquarters of the L'Arche Community north-east of Paris where, 55 years ago, Mr Vanier bought a run-down cottage and began living with two adult male inmates who he had rescued from an overcrowded psychiatric hospital in the French capital. 

One, Raphael Simi only knew 20 words and didn't speak very much," he recalled later. "Whereas (the other), Philippe Seux, spoke too much. The great thing about people with intellectual disabilities is that they're not people who discuss philosophy ... What they want is fun and laughter, to do things..." 

The fourth son of Georges, a Canadian diplomat, and Pauline a mother-of-five and Red Cross volunteer, he was born in Geneva where his father was posted. Both parents were deeply committed Catholics. 

Reflecting later on his early highly successful wartime naval service, he said his "adolescent years were taken up in the world of efficiency, controlling and commanding others. I was a technician of destruction." 

His training in theology stopped short of entering the priesthood when his mentor was recalled from ministry to live for a period in Rome for an as-yet-unknown, but evidently serious, transgression (of which more later).

For a while he lived as a hermit in an effort to discern what God wanted of him. But running his modest bachelor pad with two "retards" as they were know at the time in France, the 36-year-old was at peace at last, confident that he had found his pathway to living in according to gospel values.

Today, his version of Noah's Ark (L'Arche) has become home to over 10,000 members in more than 150 communities in 38 countries around the globe.  

Since 1978, it has developed four communities in Ireland which are home to almost 60 people with disabilities and the network also provides day services to over 100 others.

According to the organisation's statement, Mr Vanier's vision was to provide homes and workplaces in L'Arche communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities would live and work together as peers.

They would also create inclusive communities of faith and friendship while also transforming wider society through relationships that span social boundaries.
 
The statement underlined that L'Arche "continues to welcome people with and without disabilities from diverse religious and cultural contexts". 

"Jean has left an extraordinary legacy, said L'Arche International Leader Stephan Posner, adding that his original community of Trosly, outside Paris, where he continued to live until shortly before he died, the other communities of L'Arche ... and many other movements, and countless thousands of people "had cherished his words and benefited from his vision".

He also co-founded Faith and Light, an organisation in 1971 for the families and friends of people with disabilities.

Irish reaction to death

Offering his condolences to L'Arche communities around the world, Bishop of Limerick, Brendan Leahy said he knew that they will be full of gratitude for the great example Jean Vanier was for them.

The bishop recalled that, as a student in UCD, he was part of a group that helped to provide a retreat mission which Mr Vanier led on the Belfield campus in 1978. 

"I met him several times during that week and admired greatly his humility, wisdom and penetrating words," Dr Leahy said in a statement, adding that this was the first of a number of encounters none of which was as prolonged.  

"His prophetic example, his untiring focus on helping us recognise the value of vulnerability and otherness, and his constant underlining of the importance of community have always influenced me. We have much to learn from his life," Dr Leahy wrote. "I'm sure that in death he will have heard the Lord say to him, 'well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord'."

But in the past five years, scandal enveloped the movement when Mr Vanier's spiritual director and mentor through the early and middle days of L'Arche, the late Father Thomas Philippe, was found by a Catholic Church investigation to have sexually abused over a dozen women, many of them associated with the community and some dating back to the 1970s. Its leadership is adamant that no people with disabilities were abused. 

Vanier background

The young Jean Vanier led a peripatetic life spanning Switzerland, France, Canada and England.

His father Georges served as Governor General of Canada from 1959 to 1967 and prayed twice daily in a chapel built on the grounds of his official residence.

In 1942, at the age of 13, Jean persuaded his father to allow him cross the torpedo-littered Atlantic Ocean to enter the Royal Navy College in Dartmouth. The eight-year naval career which followed, first under the British flag and later, the Canadian, forced him to grow up quickly. 

His official biography says he left the high seas in 1950 because he felt called to follow Jesus and began a spiritual quest which led to a deepening his Catholic faith. 

His parents introduced the 21-year-old to the Dominican scholar, Fr Thomas Philippe. A respected theologian, he became his teacher, the rector of his student residence and his spiritual father. 

The L'Arche account continues: "Two years later (1952), Father Thomas, for reasons undisclosed, was forbidden by Rome to carry out his pastoral ministry. Jean's move toward the priesthood was shattered, without however destroying his filial level of respect for Father Thomas. During the ensuing years, Jean continued his training in theology at the Catholic Institute of Paris and started to teach in Canada.

"In 1964, Jean visited Father Thomas in the mental institution where he was chaplain. This encounter with people suffering from intellectual and psychological difficulties incited Jean to make a commitment to them. Father Thomas confirmed the spiritual nature of this call. He encouraged Jean to follow Jesus in this way..." 

"Father Thomas ... died in 1993. However, in 2014, adult women, without disabilities, testified that they had been victims of sexual abuse" at the hands of the priest during spiritual accompaniment. 

"The leaders of L'Arche requested a canonical (internal church) enquiry, which was immediately carried out by the accompanying Bishop for L'Arche International, and during which the victims were able to tell their stories and the facts were confirmed. L'Arche International strongly condemns these acts and stands alongside the victims, conscious of the gravity of the impact of the abuse on their lives."

The actions taken by L'Arche to address the scandal are detailed in www.larche.org/news/-/asset_publisher/mQsRZspJMdBy/content/-pere-thomas

There is a marked contrast between Mr Vanier's first and second public statements on the Thomas scandal.

In May 2015, he wrote "a few years ago, I was told of certain acts, but until now, I remained totally in the dark as to the depth of their gravity." He praised the priest's key role in supporting the growth of L'Arche and then spoke of being "at peace, without searching to know more ... that said, in thinking of the victims and their suffering, I want to ask forgiveness for all that I did not do or should have done..."

However, in October 2016, he opened his letter to the International Leadership Team in Trosly as follows: "Dear friends, More than one year has passed now since my letter written in May 2015 concerning revelations about Père Thomas. Some of you have expressed regret for what you consider to be my silence concerning his conduct and his sexual abuse. They read into this letter a lack of clear condemnation. 

"I would like to repeat my condemnation for these actions, whose gravity I was able to determine during the canonical enquiry and thereafter. I have mourned Père Thomas as I knew him. I ask the forgiveness of the victims for not having measured soon enough the extent of their traumatisation and for not having been sufficiently sensitive to their suffering."

Legacy and future

In today's statement, the L'Arche Community noted that Jean Vanier had published some 40 books, including writings on how people with intellectual disabilities make essential contributions to building a more humane society.

The eminent English psychiatrist, Sheila Hollins, whose son Nigel has a learning disability, believes the "transformative" L'Arche model of small homes has endured because of its emphasis on relationships and continuity.

"Many of the assistants stay for years in the homes and there's a sense of belonging for all those living there," she said. 

Dr Hollins, who  is a former member of Pope Francis' Commission for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Adults, will be as anxious as thousands of others whose loved ones have learning disabilities to ensure that the shadow of abuse that haunts L'Arche and some of its former female assistants can soon be dispelled.  

The organisation Assistance to Victims of the Drift of Religious Movements in Europe and their Families is critical of the community's response to date.

"Words are not enough," says AVREF's  leader, Aymeri Suarez-Pazos. "The victims must get reparation; recognition of the responsibility and reparation.  Only with that can healing at every level begin."

Jean Vanier is to be buried on 16 May at Trosly.