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Tenderness, Gentleness and Dignity: Remembering Jean Vanier

Author: Fr Chris Thomas

Picture: The Catholic Universe

Tenderness, Gentleness and Dignity: Remembering Jean Vanier

Chris Thomas shares how the life and message of Jean Vanier impacted him.

In 2006, I sent a quick email to Jean Vanier to ask if he would be the keynote speaker at our Come and See conference in Southport in 2007. I did not think at the time he would accept, but was both delighted and overwhelmed when he did.

I had read so many of this man’s works and had been very moved by experiences with L’Arche, one of the communities he founded. The year passed and, before I knew it, I was picking up Jean from our local station. He got into the car and I was surprised by his gentleness and by how quietly spoken he was.

I spent four days with him and, as those days passed, I discovered a man of great humility and a remarkable sense of humour. He was easy to be with and there was nothing of the prima donna about him.
 
If anything, he was very simple and spent his time with us attempting to serve us in whatever need he perceived around him.
 

The Extraordinary Gift of Presence

What struck me more than anything else was his deep love and respect for humanity. He had the most extraordinary gift of being present to whoever he was with. Whether he was with me in my car, or with the 750 people in Southport’s Floral Hall, he had the ability to be totally present.

It was wonderful to see him with those members of his community who had learning difficulties. It was obvious that he loved them deeply but, more than that, he gave them a real sense of their own dignity.

When he spoke, it was with great clarity and feeling for humanity. He shared powerfully about frailty and the truth that God understands. I watched as people wept around me.
 
He was an extraordinary spiritual giant with a huge intellect and yet capable of touching people’s hearts with an image of God that was tender, gentle and all-pervasive.
 

An Invitation To Love Humanity Radically

 
Over the years, since that weekend, I have recognised at certain times the influence that his presence has had on me. I am more powerfully aware of the invitation the Gospel gives us to love humanity in the radical way in which Jesus loved and cherished humanity.
 
As I listen to Jean these days, and I often do, in the many interviews and reflections he gave, I find myself sensing the call to go deeper in my love for humanity. I also sense that need to stretch myself in recognising the dignity of the poor and most broken of the human community.
 
I find myself challenged in the areas of compassion and mercy, and often quote him as I try to minister to others.
 

The World Has Lost An Amazing Man

 
When I heard that he had died, I wept, because I felt the world had lost an amazing man with an extraordinary gift to love, honour and build up humanity-particularly those who are the most broken and the least regarded.
 
I met him for just four days, and never saw him again, although I would often email him and write to him. I always received an answer, which was the measure of Jean.
 
I know that God put this man into my life to build me up, to challenge me and to lead me more deeply into the mystery of humanity and of the tenderness of God. I will be forever grateful. Jean may have left us, but his legacy and his spirit will be with us always.

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