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The diaries of Georges Vanier.

"The man's a saint," is an expression everyone hears. It needs no explanation. Even an atheist knows what it means.

Yet sanctity is paradoxical. It is both common yet rare. Common in that countless people, stirred by the love and grace of God, quietly strive to please Him, resulting in lives of obscure sanctity. Rare in that the number of saintly people actually canonised is small.

Take Georges Vanier, a young Montreal lawyer who joined the 22nd Regiment (known as the VanDoos) and served in France with great courage at Passchendaele and Vimy until he was grievously wounded at the end of the First World War. In August 1918, Vanier was shot through the chest and legs. Yet he continued to serve, taking command of his beloved Van Doos in 1925.

From there, with his gracious wife Pauline, the daughter of a judge, whom he married in 1921 and with whom he had five children, he moved into diplomacy.

As a diplomat, Vanier served first as military representative in the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations, and later at the Canadian High Commission in London. After the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940, he represented Canada to Charles de Gaulle's Free French in London. Still later, Vanier became Canadian ambassador to Paris from the Liberation in 1944 until 1953.

Yet few Canadians had ever heard of him until, in 1959, John Diefenbaker named him governor-general. At 71, Georges Vanier became the second Canadian and the first French-Canadian to take the post. As governor general for the next eight years, Vanier was the exemplar of service and duty and courage--the great military virtues he embodied and honoured. In constant pain from his war wounds and in increasingly ill health, Vanier did his job superbly, with the ongoing support of Pauline. From presiding over government functions in Ottawa and opening garden shows in Saint John, N.B. to reviewing graduation parades at the Royal Military College and presenting colours to historic regiments, he spoke to both rich and poor in perfect French and perfect English, extolling the joys and duties of being Canadian.

"There were few governor-generalities from him," declared MacLean's magazine. "And Canadians across the country loved him." Even when he was dying, and he knew it, he carried on, turning up to an annual skating and tobogganing party at Rideau Hall in 1967 on a toboggan and wearing a toque. "It was a very emotional moment," recalls one journalist. "It was his last public appearance. Within weeks he was dead. He had a sense of duty or obligation that was, and is, quite remarkable."

"He set his sights on the goal of giving to Canadian public life a sort of supplement for its soul, an infusion of high patriotism, even of pure and simple spirituality," said Quebec journalist Claude Ryan. While I doubt Georges Vanier ever considered such lofty intentions, they came about anyway by the grace that permeated his life.

Such unconscious grace is evident in his cheerful and loving letters from the Front. Here, against all odds, Vanier confesses his deep and ongoing happiness, his love of his friends and his gratitude for simple gifts from home of maple sugar and chocolate.

Here also, in the most horrific of circumstances, his deep religious faith sets him apart. "I believe in God and in the Holy Catholic Church," he wrote in April, 1916 in Flanders. "I believe in eternal rest and divine mercy. Without fear I entrust my soul to our Lord Jesus Christ. I renew all the promises and vows made at my baptism and my confirmation. I believe in the sanctity of our cause and in the triumph of justice. I believe in the future of French Canada ... Pray for me."

For the next two years, despite the slaughter all over Europe, Vanier fought unscathed, reassuring his parents of his safety in early August 1918: "What you wish to know above all I can tell you at once. I am well-in fact I do not think I have ever been quite so well in body and in spirit. I have been protected in a special manner during the last three days. I have seen so many narrow escapes myself that I am beginning to think that one should not worry much about possible eventualities." A month later, he lay in Boulogne severely wounded: "By this time, you will have received reassuring cablegrams and field postcards and possibly letters from friends of mine," he wrote his parents from his hospital bed. "First, to be frank, I will admit that I have not been in fit condition to write a coherent letter ..." Vanier had just lost his leg.

So who was this man who found himself wounded but still managed to comfort those around him? Who was this officer who chose to rejoin his battalion, rather than return to Canada, out of a simple sense of duty? Who was this soldier who wrote to his mother in May 1919 that "I am happy that God gave me the strength of body and of mind to do my duty under fire"?

"My father in many ways was a soldier all his life," says Dr. Therese Vanier, 78. "He did things that no Canadian could do now: being in the army, being out of the army, then being back in the army again and always with this tremendous devotion to people he'd lived with in the trenches--the so-called ordinary soldiers. He admired them and respected them and he loved them in that appalling carnage they all lived through." Georges Vanier seems always to have been noticed for his ready smile and obvious goodness, but was he openly religious?

"The development in him was gradual, as it is with most people," his daughter says. "The striking thing about him is the way he integrated his spirituality and his public life because that is not very common. He never imposed anything about religion or bored people with proselytizing. But he never minced his words either about what he felt was right. In the last years of his life, when he was governor general, for instance, I think it was pretty widely known that he had a little room turned into a chapel in the house and whenever he was there, the celebration of the Eucharist took place. He would never miss going to Mass if he could possibly avoid it and this was simply accepted by people in public life because if he was travelling around Canada -- and he did an awful lot as governor general--this had to be fitted into the schedule. It was a very important part of his life. That deep peace he exuded was combined with very considerable charm."

That pure and simple faith was something Georges and Pauline passed on to their children. "We were a happy family," says Therese, a retired physician, and the couple's eldest and only daughter. Four sons followed: Benedict, a monk for the past fifty years, living in the Trappist monastery in Oka; Bernard, an artist living in France, southwest of Paris; Jean whose L'Arche in France has become an international movement of small communities where the mentally handicapped live and work with their caregivers; and Michel, a retired teacher living in Montreal. "When we were children, we travelled around with my father's career," Therese Vanier recalls. "In the first year of the war, my father was the Canadian minister in Paris and he didn't want to be separated from his children. Nobody quite knew what was going to happen. The boys were at school in England and I was at the Convent of the Holy Child in France. And I had to get out of France which was a fairly traumatic experience."

This meant a harrowing journey for Therese, travelling with other refugees to get a boat from Bordeaux to London. Then it was on to Montreal where she took a secretarial course and learned to drive military transport vehicles. But soon she was back in England, where she was sent to work with the Free French in Gloucester-shire and then the Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWACs), first in London and then in Paris, where her father was ambassador. After the war, she went on to medical school. "One of the striking things was the freedom we were given in doing the things we wanted to do," Vanier says. "For example, for parents to let an 18-year-old daughter go off to the mechanised transport corps, when there were all the stories of bombing in London, I think that was pretty remarkable."

Nor was Georges Vanier's attentiveness restricted to his daughter. "Even more extraordinary was that Jean, at the age of 13, made an appointment to see my father at his office where he told him he wanted to join the British navy. My father took him very seriously and found out exactly what he had in mind. And in those days, the naval training college in this country took boys at school age--13 or 14. Eventually, they felt certain that if that was what the child--which is what he was--wanted to do this and if he got in, that he would eventually make a naval officer and that he should be allowed to go."

In the end, Jean Vanier did get into the navy, serving first in the British Navy and then in the Canadian Navy. Later, during a visit to his parents in France, Jean Vanier decided he wanted to study philosophy, eventually earning a Ph.D. from the University of Paris.

To what does Therese Vanier attribute this strong sense of vocation that runs through the entire Vanier family? "The extraordinary seriousness with which he took his children in terms of listening to what they had to say," she says. "Not so much in being serious with them because he was always tremendous fun--he had a lovely sense of humour, a custard-pie sense of humour and one's memories are of always having a lot of fun--but the seriousness with which he took his children's wishes. He did what he felt was right for them and allowed them to do what they thought was right for them."

Her mother shared this view. "He was an introvert, she was an extrovert and they made a tremendous team," Vanier recalls. "Wherever we were it felt the same. It was always home and people cared about us and huge attention was paid to us." Clearly, the faith and love that galvanised the Vaniers was no accident. Indeed, its seeds are evident even in Georges Vanier's thrice-weekly letters home from the front. "We had the terrible misfortune to lose our chaplain Father Crochetiere of Nicolet who was killed by a shell on the 2nd of April (1918)....The priest's death had a marked effect on the men whose friend he was," he wrote in April 1918. "Many of the men could not keep back their tears. It is particularly unfortunate because he was the last man in the world who should have been killed--he was a man of peace, not of war, which he hated with all his heart and soul. He was a very saintly man and I am sure he looks down and protects the 22nd Battalion from on High."

"What strikes me is how characteristic his letters are of the characteristics my father developed through his life," says Therese. "In his late 20s, he was already somebody extraordinarily sensitive to other people, respectful of other people, doing everything he could to minimize their troubles, yet he was also so very human."

Georges Vanier died in 1967, the year of Canada's great centennial. After her husband's death, Pauline Vanier went to France and helped her son Jean until her death in 1991. The couple are now candidates for canonisation. In 1998, Maclean's magazine published a list of Canada's 100 Most Important Canadians. Georges Vanier was at the top of the list, far ahead of Maurice Richard, Terry Fox, Roberta Bondar and Anne of Green Gables.

"He is Canada's moral compass," MacLean's proclaimed. "A man of courage and sacrifice, in war and peace, he exemplified the best in his countrymen." Indeed, his simple abiding faith and quiet prayerful habits had made him "The Most Important Canadian in History."

What a life. What a lesson. +

The Wartime Letters & Diaries 1915-1919 of Georges Vanier, edited by Deborah Crowley, Dundurn Press, Toronto, 2000, $32.99 Cdn, 240pp.

Paula Adamick is our London, England, columnist. Her column appears five times a year.
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Title Annotation:the late Governor-General of Canada, canonization candidate; book The Wartime Letters and Diaries 1915-1919 of Georges Vanier
Author:Adamick, Paula
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Bibliography
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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