Vaniers exemplify ideals of Catholic marriage in action

Georges and Pauline Vanier are candidates for sainthood.

Georges and Pauline Vanier are candidates for sainthood.

October 3, 2011

The year 1959 is a couple of generations ago - hardly a blink of an eye in the gaze of history. But on Sept. 15, 1959, Georges Vanier took office as governor general of Canada with words few leaders would speak in public today.

"My first words are a prayer," said the old soldier. "May almighty God in his infinite wisdom and mercy bless the sacred mission which has been entrusted to me by Her Majesty the queen and help me to fulfill it in all humility. In exchange for his strength, I offer him my weakness.

"May he give peace to this beloved land of ours and, to those who live in it, the grace of mutual understanding, respect and love."

A new biography of Georges and Pauline Vanier by Mary Frances Coady tells the story of their lives lived in tandem, driven by high ideals and understood as a spiritual enterprise.

Georges and Pauline Vanier: Portrait of a Couple covers a century of history in which Canada emerged from a semi-colonial backwater to become a modern nation. But rather than a march through two world wars and into the Cold War, Coady presents this history through the intimate lens of a marriage.

The Vaniers make great heroes.

"The more that I know of them, the more I see them as exemplars of the Christian life in brokenness, in imperfection," Coady said in an interview. "Each of them learned from the other. In one sense, each of them made up for what was lacking in the other."

Precisely because they lived the sacrament of Marriage so completely, there is a cause for their sainthood. Father Roger Quesnel, who has assembled five volumes of research in support of the cause, has complained recently that the process is going rather slowly.

But Coady didn't set out to write a hagiography, or push the couple into sainthood. She spent five years researching her 283-page book, digging through old love letters, interviewing family and friends, looking for the human frailties and struggles behind their glittering career together as a diplomatic couple and then occupying Rideau Hall.

"As a writer you like complexity. You like nuance," said Coady.

She found plenty.

Ten years younger than Georges, Pauline Vanier was haphazardly educated but could rely on her stunning looks. She brought with her into marriage a sentimental, emotional piety and all the scruples that could go with it.

"She perceived herself as being vain," said Coady. "Certainly in her earlier years, when she was very beautiful, she loved beautiful clothes."


She was haughty, jealous and loved to be the centre of attention. But throughout her marriage, raising six children, Pauline Vanier worked at her spiritual life in annual retreats with the Carmelites and spiritual direction from various Jesuits.

Georges had his faults. He was a rigid moralist whose notion of Christianity didn't extend much beyond a long list of rules. He saw religion as a duty to be accomplished. In his years as a military officer and a diplomat, Georges was easily angered over breaches in protocol, or anything out of order.

"Georges Vanier, without his wife, could have remained a kind of strict moralist," said Coady. "A nice man, but not with the kind of spiritual depth that developed over the years of his marriage."

Ideals drove the Vaniers. Before they had met, Georges lost his leg in the First World War fighting to preserve France and its patrimony — something he regarded as a sacred cause. As a young woman, Pauline agonized over whether or not she had a calling to live life as a cloistered nun.

Mary Frances Coady is author of Georges and Pauline Vanier: Portrait of a Couple.


Mary Frances Coady is author of Georges and Pauline Vanier: Portrait of a Couple.

In their marriage, the Vaniers' ideals complemented one another. During the Second World War Georges was a lonely voice in the diplomatic corps speaking up for the Free French and General Charles de Gaulle. As the war progressed the Vaniers found themselves in Algiers keeping up contacts with French Resistance fighters, waiting for the fall of the Vichy collaborators with Nazi Germany.


That most of the French bishops had acquiesced to Vichy rule and even condemned the resistance from the pulpit shocked and pained the Vaniers. But it didn't shake their faith.

"They were so rooted in the mystical tradition that that is where their ideals came from," said Coady.

They passed those ideals on to their children — Therese who became a doctor, Bernard who became an artist, Byngsie who became Father Benedict at the Benedictine monastery in Oka, Quebec, and Jean who founded L'Arche.

By the time Georges and Pauline took up residence in Rideau Hall they had become anxious about the state of Canadian families. They saw teenagers dropping out of high school, families torn apart by drug abuse and alcoholism and an economy that demanded men go where the jobs are without regard to their family commitments.


"They foresaw that the economy was going to place a lot of pressure on the family," said former Vanier Institute CEO Alan Mirabelli.

In 1964 they called sociologists, economists, writers and doctors to Rideau Hall for a conference on the family. By 1965 they had founded the Vanier Institute as a kind of permanent Royal Commission on the family.

"What they really wanted to emphasize was less structure and more the nature of the commitment people make to each other," said Mirabelli. "So the values mattered."

In Mirabelli's view the values the Vaniers held dear still do matter, which is why a biography of the couple is an important, timely contribution.

"To have a biography like this come out and speak about a man and a woman who had a particular view of their role in the community and in society in war time and times of hardship — all of that can allow people to draw elements that inspire them," Mirabelli said.


"So if you're reading the biography of the Vaniers, they're there as signposts for the development of character."

Georges died in 1967 and Pauline lived on another 24 years, 19 of them in the L'Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France.

"I see her as a very heroic person in those last 19 years, moving into old age with all the aches and pains, plus the psychological stuff going on with her," said Coady. "But still she's determined to tie her shoes and so on."

Sainthood, with its canonical requirements for miracles and documentation, is a long and uncertain process. But for anyone who has sensed that the Christian life and marriage can amplify one another, Coady's portrait of the Vanier's will illuminate and inspire.