Since the death of Jean on May 7th there have been countless tributes and eulogies circulated in the press and on social media. I don't not want to replicate so much of what has already been said. Instead I want to focus on what Jean meant to us here in Australia as members of L’Arche and Faith and Light.

Jean’s first visit to Australia was in April, 1977. He had been invited to attend a retreat in New Zealand and he came via Australia because I had recently returned from two years in L’Arche Winnipeg and Jean wanted to see what signs there were for beginning L’Arche in Australia. In an excess of enthusiasm, I had written to him the previous year offering to support the planning of his visit and his response was, "I leave it all in your hands!".

Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier. PICTURE: Kayte Brimacombe

 

"It was typical of Jean that he entrusted people with a lot of responsibility when he had the sense they were capable of rising to the occasion. I often had the sense that Jean would look at a person and see in them qualities and capacities they barely believed they had and he would call them to the exercise of those latent gifts. In that way, he was an instrument of spiritual and human growth for many of us."

It was typical of Jean that he entrusted people with a lot of responsibility when he had the sense they were capable of rising to the occasion. I often had the sense that Jean would look at a person and see in them qualities and capacities they barely believed they had and he would call them to the exercise of those latent gifts. In that way, he was an instrument of spiritual and human growth for many of us.

The first retreat Jean led in Australia was at Morrisett, near Newcastle, and that brought together a group of 200 people from all around the country. It was a hopeful time following Vatican II, and there were many present who were searching or engaged in social justice movements including Dick and Margaret Bromhead who were searching out the possibility of responding to the needs of people with disabilities in Canberra. People drank in Jean’s words, as he opened the Gospels in a way that spoke directly to the lives of people and inspired them to go home and grow communities of hope, whatever form they took.

In Canberra, a couple of nights later, Jean encouraged the Bromheads to form a group to pray and reflect with them about beginning a L’Arche community. He then turned to me and said, "And you’d better form a board". I was surprised he would make such a poor decision – clearly Dick and Margaret had the contacts and experience to form a board and I had lived experience of L’Arche. We were all being asked to dig deep and grow!

A year later, Jean returned to lead a retreat at Morning Star, a disused reformatory at Mornington. Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Frank Little had asked me to prepare the retreat for "people already living in small communities with a commitment to people on the margins, and for those who, by participating in the retreat, might be inspired to make a similar commitment".

Conditions were spartan, and spirits were high with anticipation as Jean spoke his opening words: "We are gathered these days on sacred ground, because people have suffered here". He was always sensitive to where he was, to the people around him and to the stories which had shaped them.

Dick and Margaret Bromhead had bought Lyn Hodgson, the first person welcomed in L’Arche in Australia. Jean never forgot Lyn; he booked a breakfast date with her on his next visit in 1984 and asked me about her a couple of years ago when we were recalling those early days. Countless numbers of people with an intellectual disability around the world had the experience of an enduring friendship with Jean.

On the second night of the retreat Jean invited "anyone who might be interested to learn more about Faith and Light" to meet with him. In a large room with lots of people, I watched, fascinated, as he proceeded to form Faith and Light groups in six states and the Australian Capital Territory within an hour! Things happened more easily in those years, especially when Jean was the instigator! In later years he, and the members of the international council, recognised that more careful discernment was needed in establishing new foundations. In 2016, he asked me how big did I think the Federation of L’Arche should grow – would 170 communities, for example, be enough?

It was during his visit to Bundeena community in 1977 that Jean discovered the word "covenant" as a way of describing the relationships that Jesus calls us to when we are invited to share our lives with those who are vulnerable, humiliated and oppressed. He came to recognise that his invitation to Raphael and Philippe to begin L’Arche, and their response to him, was an expression of covenant.

By 1984 when Jean next visited Australia, the communities of Faith and Light had participated in the international pilgrimage to mark the 10th anniversary of the first pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1971, and the communities of L’Arche were preparing to celebrate the 20 years of L’Arche. Both L’Arche and Faith and Light in this country arrived relatively early in the history of both organisations. Despite the challenges of geography – and at times because of them – we have shaped communities which reflect our own identity and way of living the mission. 

In 1984, Jean led a retreat at the Nunyara Retreat Centre in the Adelaide Hills. By then he was saying that he would not come often to our part of the world as we have a lot of resources and he felt the need to respond to countries where the needs were greater. Despite his less frequent visits, there are many here for whom he was a faithful personal friend and mentor for many years despite the distances. His short hand-written notes are treasured, and some of us became expert at deciphering that handwriting!


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Jean returned again in 1991 when the retreat was held at St Greg’s at Campbelltown; in 1996 for a retreat at the Australian Catholic University campus at Strathfield; and finally, to the Meroo centre near Richmond, New South Wales, in 2004.

These last two retreats I co-led with him. It was always a challenge working with someone as highly intuitive and flexible as Jean. He would sometimes base a retreat talk on a conversation he had with someone in the preceding hour. I would try and get him to at least identify which texts he would use so I could choose others and have something to say.

Speaking to the same Biblical text after Jean Vanier did not give a lot of room to add to what had already been said. People on the team at the Strathfield retreat were a little astonished and amused when I put my head into a meeting they were having with Jean and asked what text he was going to use in the next talk. He was suitably vague – it might be this or it might be that...and I replied, "Fine, just keep away from Mary Magdalene"!

In the days since Jean’s death, we have all been touched by the many messages of esteem, of love, of gratitude for his life, which have been sent to our communities and published more widely. At his funeral in Trosly, the leader of L’Arche, Stephan Posner recalled Jean’s words that he was not so much the founder as the first to arrive and that the work of carrying forward the mission of L’Arche and Faith and Light is in our hands. It is the responsibility of each one of us, and in this new time, after Jean we need to find a new voice and new means of carrying the message to the world. 

I want to give the last word to a newcomer in the community of L’Arche Genesaret in Canberra. When we gathered as a community to pray on the night of Jean’s death, I was particularly touched by the way people with disabilities spoke of Jean: "He loved us, he was our friend, he understood our life..." Tina, who has arrived only recently listened to these memories and then pronounced, "He was a good bloke"! 

Indeed, he was - a good bloke! We mourn him today and honour his life as a disciple of Jesus and give thanks for all the hope and healing, that came into the world, and particularly into this country, through his life. We pray that the church of our time will be open to his discovery that those who are poor and rejected have the power to heal us when we live together in faithful friendship.

This is the edited eulogy given by Eileen Glass, a member of L'Arche in Australia and a former vice international leader of the organisation, at a memorial service for L'Arche founder Jean Vanier at St John the Evangelist in East Melbourne on 25th May, 2019.