Wednesday, February 26, 2014


JEAN VANIER, born September 10, 1928, is a Canadian Catholic philosopher turned theologian, and humanitarian. Beginning with a community in France, he is the founder of  L'Arche, an international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. Among the honors he has received are the French Legion of Honour in 2003 and the 2013 Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award.  Like Mother Teresa  of Calcutta, he is considered a saint within his lifetime

Jean is the son of  Major-General Georges Vanier and his wife Pauline Vanier who were the subjects of a previous blog. As the saying goes, the apple does not fall far from the tree.  When one studies the life of his parents, one can see how he was formed.

He was born in Geneva, while his father was on diplomatic service in Switzerland. In his youth, Jean received a broad education in English and French, first in Canada, and then England and France. During World War II, he and his family fled Paris just before the Nazi occupation. He spent much of the War at an English naval academy, preparing for a career as a naval officer.

In early 1945, Jean, visiting Paris, where his father was Canadian Ambassador, went with his mother  to assist survivors of concentration camps. Seeing the emaciated victims, their faces twisted with fear and anguish, was a profoundly moving experience for him, which he never forgot.

 Shortly after, at age seventeen, with World War II still raging, he served with the Royal Navy and then with the Royal Canadian Navy. In 1947 as a midshipman, he accompanied the Royal Family on their tour of South Africa.

In 1950, feeling a strong inner spiritual calling to do “something else,” he resigned his naval commission. He then travelled to Paris to study as an undergraduate, eventually going on to complete a PhD in philosophy from the Institut Catholique de Paris, with a doctoral thesis on Aristotle. He subsequently taught philosophy at the University of Toronto but left academia in 1964 seeking more spiritual work.

With Mother Teresa

In 1964, through Jean's friendship with Father Thomas Philippe, he became aware of the plight of thousands of people institutionalized with developmental disabilities. Jean  invited two men, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, to leave the institutions where they resided and live with him in Trosly-Breuil, France.

With Catherine Doherty

He expanded his efforts and established L'Arche at Trosly-Breuil, a community for people with disabilities to live with those who cared for them. He helped develop such communities in other places around the world. Until the late 1990s, Jean  carried the responsibility for L'Arche in Trosly-Breuil in France, and for the International Federation of L'Arche. He stepped down to spend more time counseling, encouraging and accompanying the people who come to live in L'Arche as assistants to those with disabilities.

With Pope John Paul II
In 1968, Jean gave the first Faith and Sharing retreat, a worldwide movement of the retreats where people from many walks of life are welcome. In 1971, he co-founded Faith and Light with Marie Helene Mathieu. It is an international movement of forums for people with developmental disabilities, their family and friends. Today there are over 1,800 Faith and Light communities in 80 countries around the world.

Jean still makes his home in the original L'Arche community of Trosly-Breuil, France. He travels widely, visiting other L'Arche communities, encouraging projects for new communities, and giving lectures and retreats.

Some years ago I visited the small farm of L'Arche in Tacoma and was most impressed by the giveness of the staff as well as the joy that permeated the residents. The world could take  lessons from the Christ-like love that Jean Vanier has spread around the world.

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