Jean Vanier: Priest, Prophet and King



I have recently been re-visiting some of the documents of Vatican II. I have been focusing on Sacrosanctum Concilium and finding articles that really tease out the ecclesiological underpinnings of this document. It is easy to forget how ground-breaking this document was. In short, Sacrosanctum Concilium calls us to return to the sources (resourcement); it call us to revisit our baptismal promises and very specifically the Anointing with Chrism.

God the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and welcomed you into his holy people. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.

The whole of our Christian Life can be summed up in our call to image Christ as Priest, Prophet and King. It was this three-fold invitation which came to mind for me when I heard of Jean Vanier’s death. I have read many tributes to him and through them all I see a man who lived out his baptismal call with every fibre of his being.


Of huge significance for me is the fact that Jean Vanier wasn’t a priest or a member of a religious order. He didn’t use the well-worn paths of the institutional church to respond to the needs that he saw. In many ways he was operating on the fringes. And yet, there is a sense in which his whole life was Priestly. There are many ways of understanding Priesthood and since Vatican II we have been encouraged to explore the Priesthood of all believers. If you were to ask someone ‘What is a Priest?’ I am fairly sure that a first response might talk of the priest’s role in presiding at the liturgy. L’Arche is well-known for its simple rituals of sharing meals, celebrating important community events, and most especially of foot-washing. Jean Vanier founded a community that developed its own rituals and in this sense I think that we can say that we was a ‘presider’. He presided over the liturgy of people’s broken lives.

Another role which a priests fulfills is ‘one who intercedes for his people’. Jean Vanier’s intercession took many forms. He quietly made visible the lives of the invisible. He was their advocate.  In each small act he made God’s love incarnate.


I have always been helped by an understanding of obedience that I have heard expressed in Jesuit Spirituality: obedience is to want what God wants. Jean Vanier certainly embodied this. A prophet wants what God’s wants and takes upon himself or herself the role of communicating this to the world. The prophet’s role is to help others see the world as God sees it. In biblical terms this has involved speaking and sometimes acting symbolically. In his very being Jean Vanier has ‘spoken’ the values of the kingdom. His gentle presence and child-like simplicity are a powerful message to a broken world. He has also written extensively and in his work we hear the prophetic voice of one who invites us to see our own brokenness and the brokenness of others as BEAUTY. This is a strong prophetic message for our world. I have heard Jean Vanier speak of the spirituality of L’Arche as one of touch. This too is a prophetic message for our world. The pace of technological change is so fast nowadays, we click buttons and goods are deliver to our doors, we click buttons and send messages. It is possible to cut out a good deal of human contact for the sake of efficiency. We have less contact with each other and perhaps less opportunities for physical touch.


Perhaps Kingship is the hardest of the three-fold call for us to grasp. Our direct experience of monarchy will vary so much depending on the country in which we live, our upbringing and perhaps our sense of history. My starting place is the Biblical notion of Kingship. In Ancient Israel the King had the power to shape the laws of society, he had a duty to care for the vulnerable, spoke to God on behalf of his people and he was to ensure peace in his kingdom. Jean Vanier founded a community which was based on inclusion. The ‘laws’ of L’Arche all flow from the desire to include and to build up community. Writ through Jean Vanier’s whole life is his care for the vulnerable and his desire for them to know that ‘they are beautiful.’ I am sure that all L’Arche communities have their ups and downs and ‘ensuring peace’ is unlikely to be something that is easy. By his presence Jean Vanier brought peace into a room. I have heard stories of people who didn’t even need to speak to him, just his being there resolved their hurts.

Jean Vanier has been described as a ‘giant’ in the spiritual life. From what I have read, I think he would certainly have drawn back from this description. And yet, his persona is certainly large for me personally. His life and work speak to me of someone who responded wholeheartedly to his baptismal call. And this response gives me hope too.

Whatever we may understand about life after death, can be sure that Jean Vanier now takes his place among priests, prophets and kings. He has trodden a path that we all can follow.

Sr Miriam McNulty

Image used by kind permission of Latvian Artist, Arta Skuja