Vol 10 No. 7 Georges Vanier


Dear Friends,

I have been in Ottawa this week representing Canadian Baptists of Western Canada this week in engaging and supporting military chaplains.  It is a place that is complicated and unusual to say the least.  One day we can talk about encounters with Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, Preston Manning, John Turner, Michael Ignatieff and even a meeting with 10 of us with the Prime Minister last year.

We differ from Americans when it comes to the way we describe public figures and their religious faith.  American politicians are highly scrutinized and often hyperbolic in their description of their faith.  Canadian politicians, by and large, hide their faith.  Reasons for these approaches are complicated and not the purpose of this letter except to say, I wish to give you Georges Vanier the nineteenth Governor General of Canada.  I want to show you the profound contrast between the public and “managed” biography of his life as seen in the next entry and the powerful diary entries that he made about his own prayer life.  We find in Georges Vanier what T.S Elliot’s Anglo-Catholic confessor found; a “thoroughly converted man.”

General George-Philas Vanier was 71 years old when he became nineteenth Governor General; the second Canadian to hold the office. He brought to it a distinguished record of service to his country in war and peace.

He was born in Montreal on April 23, 1888.  He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1911. But from 1915 until his death, war and public service occupied the greater part of his life. He was commanding officer of the Royal 22nd Regiment from 1925 to 1928.

He earned decorations and distinction during the First World War. Thereafter he represented his country on numerous diplomatic missions and at important conferences dealing with post-war problems and adjustments.

General Vanier served as Secretary of the Canadian High Commission in London and was Canadian Minister to France when that country fell in 1940. He returned there as Canadian Ambassador from 1944 until his retirement in 1953 at the age of 65.

Despite this retirement, he was frequently engaged in government missions, including delegations to the United Nations and in private business activities. Honours and decorations were showered on him as they had been throughout most of his active life, both at home and abroad.

General Vanier was no stranger to Rideau Hall, having served as Aide-de-Camp to Governors General Byng and Willingdon. A tall, impressive man with great dignity and composure, he moved about with some difficulty due to the loss of a leg in the First World War, but the impairment never hindered the enthusiasm and dedication with which he carried out the duties entrusted to him. On his appointment in 1959, he set out at once to emulate his predecessors in getting to know Canada and its people. In his first year of office, he travelled some 15,000 miles. He worked hard and incessantly for the cause of national unity and to encourage a greater awareness among Canadians of the value and importance of happy, united family units.

A soldier to the end, he valiantly fought ill health in an effort to discharge the numerous Centennial responsibilities of his office, but succumbed on March 5th, 1967; the second Governor General to die in office.

Following a state funeral in Ottawa and a memorial service in Quebec’s historic Citadel, General Vanier was buried in Quebec City with full military honours.

Reference: www.canadahistory.com/sections/politics/politics.html

The passage on prayer appears in Dialogue:  The military journal for those who are Called to Serve, (pg. 14) and is not only instructive when it comes to public and private personas but also gives insight into the life of a devout Catholic brother.  I would further be remiss not to mention Madame Pauline Vanier in her role, along with her husband, in creating the Vanier Institute for the Family.

During his lifetime, Georges Vanier had many areas of interest a sign of his willingness to embrace everything that is truly human.  But it is in his spiritual life that we find the source of what he did and who he was.

During his mandate at Governor General, Georges Vanier visited many areas of Canada in the company of his wife; “They seemed at those times like an ordinary couple, friendly, highly sociable, just wanting to help and meet with people from every stratum of society during their many trips across the country.  And everyone appreciated their cordiality, the warmth of their contact and their desire to serve.”

In his youth, Georges Vanier had considered going into the priesthood.  The Lord, however, called on him to do other things.  During the First World War, “when a lull in the fighting offered some respite to the Canadians, Vanier read some pages of the Imitation of Christ, which a priest had sent him.  The midnight mass on that Christmas Day of 1915 was certainly the most moving he would ever experience. The proximity of death brings every person to live these moments granted by destiny to the fullest.”

The spiritual life of Georges Vanier was a journey.  During a stay in London, “he underwent a remarkable change in his spiritual life […] On Good Friday 1938, his wife took him, somewhat against his will to hear a sermon by Father Stuart on the Passion of Christ. […] After the ceremony, overwrought, he said to his wife; “I didn’t know that God was love.”  For him, this was a revelation and a liberation, an awakening that swept away qualms and feelings of indignity to be replaced by trust and abandonment to God.”  Then, “shortly afterwards, he himself told Father Stuart that the sermon had changed the course of his life.”

His son, Jean Vanier, acknowledges that it was at that moment that his father began to evolve spiritually, that his “life of faith began to deepen.  He began attending communion every Sunday, and soon afterwards expressed a desire to accompany my mother to mass every morning.” Some traces of his spiritual progress are known to us thanks to “some precious notes scratched on bits of paper that were found scattered among his personal documents after his death.” In fact, “deepening his faith by recording his spiritual experiences on paper is a practice he had pursued for many years.”  In addition to daily mass, George Vanier felt the need to devote half an hour a day to worship, a time of personal, silent prayer, defined by Saint Therese d’Avila as “an exchange of friendship, when one communes one on one with God and feels loved by Him.”  His son, Jean Vanier, says of his father that “his worship was fed by the writings of the saints, particularly the mystics, and by books dedicated to the life of prayer.”

For example, “he read the life of Saint Therese de Lisieux no fewer than six times.  He also appreciated the books of Father Boylan and was a great admirer of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Therese d’Avila.” On the importance of prayer, Georges said in 1942: “The force of prayer is much greater than the world can imagine.” And in 1952 he noted: “Our world is in dire need of spiritual elites; no one denies this.  But we can and we must make this clear: more than anything we need an elite of God, namely, spiritual people who have been trained by God, who have been to His school and who, from that time on, are able to radiate his Spirit.  The spiritual followers of God, these are the friends of God, those whom God has invited into His presence, whom he has imbued with his Spirit, these are the contemplative ones, the saints.”  The spiritual life of Georges Vanier also had an impact on those around him.  Thus, Cardinal Roy noted: “Those close to General Vanier felt that there was much more to him than the courage of a soldier and the dignity of a public figure: something more intimate and deeper which, even more than his other gifts, marked his personality.  Beyond the sympathy that he conveyed spontaneously to the poor and underprivileged, beyond his sense of duty, and no less important, his sense of humour, one caught a glimpse of a hidden source from which came the best of himself and whose freshness one felt immediately on entering his circle.  One found there a wellspring of strength, tenderness and joy, a youthful attitude that he retained until the end.”  And, finally, Father Gay said of Georges Vanier: “Those who approached him were deeply impressed by the atmosphere of peace around him of which he was the centre.  God radiated from this man and spread among those who knew him.  Some people leave after them a sense of grandeur.  He left a sense of peace and courtliness, an aura of dignity more than human, even Godlike.”

God be with us all as we pray for those in public service and as we celebrate simple, powerful piety in the person of Georges Vanier.


In Christ,