September 10

The Birthday of Jean Vanier, September 10, 1928

I am going to do a series on the Ten Greatest Canadians of the Twentieth Century, in no particular order. I may cheat a bit, as you will see. Since today is the birthday of one of those worthies, let us begin with him.

For many excellent reasons, Canada does not have a President. Our head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, and in her absence, a Governor-General who opens Parliament, hands out awards, and carries on all the ceremonial duties, while mere Prime Ministers and politicians do the grubby business of actually running the country. By universal accord, the greatest of our Governors-General was Georges Vanier, a splendid figure of a man with a heroic mustache, a chest full of medals, and a long record of service to his nation as a soldier and a diplomat. His wife Pauline was beautiful, pious and serene; together they helped refugees and founded the Vanier Institute of the Family. But perhaps their greatest gift to the world was the birth of their son Jean.

Jean Vanier served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and was a career officer in peace time with the Royal Canadian Navy. He resigned his commission to become a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, publishing works on Aristotle. When he was 36 years old, a friend showed him the horrible living conditions endured by people with mental disabilities. The result of this visit was a life-long dedication to serving the helpless and oppressed. He began a small community of the disabled and their helpers called L’Arche or The Ark, in a village in France, which blossomed into a world-wide movement with 147 homes in 35 countries. Vanier died recently at age 90, still a resident of his ‘’Arche community in Picardy.

It is a safe bet that before too long Vanier will be canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church, a fate that probably awaits his parents as well.

Well, all the above was written in 2019. Since then Vanier has been credibly accused of a tawdry sort of sexual misconduct. Under the guise of spiritual direction, Vanier seems to have manipulated a number of women, including nuns, into a sexual relationship. He was posthumously stripped of honours and schools once named after him were renamed. It is a safe bet his canonization will not take place any time soon.

“The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” Future generations will have to weigh Vanier’s undoubted contributions against the harm he did to those 6 women.

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