Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier CC GOQ (September 10, 1928 – May 7, 2019) was a Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian. In 1964, he founded L'Arche, an international federation of communities spread over 37 countries,[1] for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. Subsequently, in 1971, he co-founded Faith and Light with Marie-Hélène Mathieu, which also works for people with developmental disabilities, their families, and friends in over 80 countries. He continued to live as a member of the original L'Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, until his death.[2]

Jean Vanier

Vanier in 2012
Born(1928-09-10)September 10, 1928
DiedMay 7, 2019(2019-05-07) (aged 90)
OrganizationCatholic Church
Known forFounder of L'Arche
RelativesGeorges Vanier, father
Pauline Vanier, mother
Thérèse Vanier, sister
AwardsOrder of Canada, 1972
National Order of Quebec, 1992
Legion of Honour, 2003
Humanitarian Award, 2001
Pacem in Terris Award, 2013
Templeton Prize, 2015
Military career
Service/branchRoyal Canadian Navy
Years of service1941–1950
RankMidshipman, naval officer

Over the years he wrote 30 books on religion, disability, normality, success, and tolerance.[3] Among the honours he received were the Companion of the Order of Canada (1986),[4] Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec (1992),[5] French Legion of Honour (2003), Community of Christ International Peace Award (2003), the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award (2013), and the Templeton Prize (2015).

Early years and background

Vanier was the son of Canadian parents, Major-General Georges Vanier, who became the 19th Governor General of Canada (1959–1967), and his mother Pauline Vanier (née Archer). He was born in Geneva, and was the fourth of five siblings (including sister and brother Bernard Vanier), in his youth Vanier received a broad education in English and French, first in Canada and then in France and England. During World War II, Vanier and his family fled Paris just before the Nazi occupation. He spent much of the War at an English naval academy. From age 13 he trained for a career as a naval officer at the Dartmouth Naval College (later renamed Britannia Royal Naval College).[6][7]

In early 1945, Vanier was visiting Paris, where his father was Canadian ambassador; he and his mother went to assist survivors of Nazi concentration camps. Seeing the emaciated victims, their faces twisted with fear and anguish, was a profoundly moving encounter for him, which he never forgot. He served in World War II with the Royal Navy and then with the Royal Canadian Navy. In 1947 as a midshipman, Vanier accompanied the Royal Family on their tour of South Africa aboard HMS Vanguard.[8]

In 1949, he joined the Royal Canadian Navy, at the carrier HMCS Magnificent. However, in 1950, feeling a strong inner spiritual calling to do "something else," he resigned his naval commission. Vanier travelled to Paris to study as an undergraduate. He eventually went on to complete a PhD in philosophy from the Institut Catholique de Paris, with a doctoral thesis on Aristotle which was published in 1966 as Happiness as Principle and End of Aristotelian Ethics; this was his first published work. He went on to write over 30 books[9] during his career and taught philosophy at the University of St. Michael's College, University of Toronto.[7] He left academia in 1964, seeking a more spiritual ministry. His research lives on at the Jean Vanier Research Centre located at King's University College in London, Ontario, Canada.[10]

Foundation of L'Arche

In 1964, through Vanier's friendship with a priest named Father Thomas Philippe, he became aware of the plight of thousands of people institutionalized with developmental disabilities. Vanier invited two men, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, to leave the institutions where they resided and live with him in Trosly-Breuil, France. Their time together led to the establishment of L'Arche at Trosly-Breuil, a community where people with disabilities live with those who care for them.[11][12] Since that time a network of 150 L'Arche communities have been established in 38 countries.[9] A governing philosophy of the communities is Vanier's belief that people with disabilities are teachers, rather than burdens bestowed upon families.[13]

Until the late 1990s, Vanier carried the responsibility for L'Arche in Trosly-Breuil in France, and for the International Federation of L'Arche. He then stepped down to spend more time counselling, encouraging, and accompanying the people who come to live in L'Arche as assistants to those with disabilities. Vanier established 147 L'Arche communities in 37 countries around the world which have become places of pilgrimage for those involved.[1][2]

Later life

In 1968, Vanier gave a Faith and Sharing retreat in Mary Lake, Ontario, the first in his movement of retreats where people from many walks of life are welcome.[14] The retreats continue today as part of the Faith and Sharing Federation.[15]

As of 2013, there are 13 communities in North America that organize annual retreats and days of prayer.[16] Faith and Sharing member Bill Clark, SJ, explains: "There is then a two-fold movement in Faith and Sharing: an inward movement towards God hidden in the depths of our own vulnerability, and an outward movement towards our brothers and sisters, especially those who are more poor and in need." [14] The organization's records are housed at the John M. Kelly Library, University of St. Michael's College.[17]

In 1971, Vanier co-founded Faith and Light with Marie-Hélène Mathieu. This is an international movement of forums for people with developmental disabilities, their family and friends. Today there are over 1,500 Faith and Light communities in 81 countries around the world.[18]

Vanier continued to live in the original L'Arche community of Trosly-Breuil, France, until his death in 2019. He continued to travel widely, visiting other L'Arche communities, encouraging projects for new communities and giving lectures and retreats.[19][20] He was the 1998 Massey lecturer, focusing on the theme of "Becoming Human".[21] During one of his lectures he touched on his distaste for barriers around people with intellectual disabilities, a motivating philosophy behind L'Arche: "We must do what we can to diminish walls, to meet each other. Why do we put people with disabilities behind walls?"[13]

In 2017, Vanier narrated and appeared in the documentary Summer In The Forest[22], filmed in the L'Arche communities in Trosly-Breuil and Bethlehem and featuring many of the residents of both communities with whom he worked. Writing in the New York Times, critic Ken Jaworowski observed that "just watching the residents leads you to confront and change many of your own preconceptions."[23]

Vanier died on May 7, 2019. A week before his death, Pope Francis called Vanier to personally thank him for his years of ministry and service.[24] Following his death, Pope Francis, who was flying back to Rome from North Macedonia, told a group of journalists, "I want to express my gratitude for his testimony" and stated Vanier could read and interpret not only the Christian gaze on "the mystery of death, of the cross, of suffering", but also "the mystery of those who are discarded by the world."[25]

Among those he influenced were the Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian Henri Nouwen who came to join the L'Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

Awards and honours

He received numerous awards for his work, including the Companion of the Order of Canada, the Legion of Honour (France, 2003)[26] and many awards from faith groups, among them the Paul VI International Prize, the Community of Christ International Peace Award, the Rabbi Gunther Plaut Humanitarian Award, and the Gaudium et Spes Award, named after the Second Vatican Council's Gaudium et spes document.[27]

In 1993, he received the Loyola Medal from Concordia University.[28] In 1999, he won the Writers' Trust of Canada's Gordon Montador Award for Becoming Human.[29]

In November 2004, a CBC poll ranked him as number 12 in a list of Greatest Canadians.[27]

In 2010, the asteroid 8604 was officially named Vanier in his honour.[30][31]

In 2013, he received the United States-based Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, established by the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa.[32]

In March 2015, Vanier was awarded the Templeton Prize in recognition of his advocacy for people with disabilities and his contributions to a broader exploration of helping the weak and vulnerable.[33][2]

On September 27, 2016, Jean Vanier received The Peace Abbey Foundation (USA) International Courage of Conscience Award in Trosly-Breuil, France, for his lifelong commitment to building a world of inclusion for individuals with disabilities.[34]

Schools named after Vanier

Schools have been named in his honour in Whitehorse, Yukon; London, Ontario; Scarborough, Ontario; Collingwood, Ontario; Richmond Hill, Ontario; Welland, Ontario; Sherwood Park, Alberta and, most recently, Milton, Ontario.[35]



  1. ""L'Arche – Worldwide"". Retrieved June 20, 2017.
  2. "Templeton Prize" (PDF).
  3. "Jean Vanier: Philosopher who dislikes the 'religion' of success wins £1.2m Templeton Prize for promoting spiritual awareness". The Independent. March 11, 2015. Retrieved June 2, 2015.
  4. "Order of Canada: Jean Vanier, C.C., G.O.Q., D.Ph". The Governor General of Canada website. Retrieved June 1, 2015.
  5. "Grand Officer, National Order of Quebec". Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  6. Freeman, Mac (February 3, 2008). Jean Vanier (online ed.). Historica Canada. Retrieved March 11, 2015.
  7. "Brief Chronology". Jean Vanier – Becoming Human. Retrieved January 14, 2015.
  8. "Templeton Prize bio of Varnier" (PDF). Retrieved June 20, 2017.
  9. "Obituary: Jean Vanier died on May 7th," The Economist, May 16th, 2019.
  10. "Jean Vanier Research Centre at King's". Retrieved August 28, 2019.
  11. "Pensamientos de Jean Vanier: JEAN VANIER y El Arca". Pensamientos de Jean Vanier. Retrieved June 20, 2017.
  12. "Notre histoire | L'Arche en France". (in French). Retrieved June 20, 2017.
  13. Scrivener, Leslie. "Canada's disciple to the disabled". Retrieved July 28, 2015. He is wary of institutions. The theme in last night's lecture was his fear of the walls that separate people. 'We must do what we can to diminish walls, to meet each other. Why do we put people with disabilities behind walls?'
  14. "The Grace of Faith and Sharing" (PDF). Faith and Sharing Federation. July 1988. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
  15. "Faith and Sharing Federation". Faith and Sharing Federation. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
  16. "L'Arche, Faith and Sharing, Faith and Light" (PDF). Faith and Sharing Federation. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
  17. "Faith and Sharing Federation fonds". John M. Kelly Library Archival and Manuscript Collections. University of St. Michael's College. Archived from the original on October 7, 2014. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
  18. "Overview, Faith and Light". Retrieved June 20, 2017.
  19. "Entering into Silent Prayer, Jean Vanier & Laurence Freeman – YouTube". YouTube. Retrieved June 20, 2017.
  20. Saint Vincent College (January 29, 2009), On Retreat with Jean Vanier, retrieved June 20, 2017
  21. Nagy, Elizabeth. "The 1998 CBC Massey Lectures, "Becoming Human"". CBC. Retrieved July 28, 2015.
  22. "Summer In The Forest". Retrieved September 11, 2019.
  23. Jaworowski, Ken (March 22, 2018). "Review: 'Summer in the Forest' Captivates With Questions of Humanity". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved September 11, 2019.
  24. "Pope Francis called Jean Vanier to thank him before his death". National Catholic Reporter. May 7, 2019. Retrieved May 8, 2019.
  25. "Pope pays tribute to Jean Vanier". Vatican News. May 7, 2019. Retrieved May 8, 2019.
  26. "Awards to Canadians". Canada Gazette. Archived from the original on April 30, 2012. Retrieved February 2, 2012.
  27. "Top 100 Greatest Canadians". Archived from the original on July 22, 2010. Retrieved February 2, 2012.
  28. "Jean Vanier". Concordia University. Retrieved August 17, 2017.
  29. "Montador award winners named". North Bay Nugget, May 27, 1999.
  30. The citation and more information are found by entering this number or name in the JPL Small-Body Database.
  31. "Asteroid (8604) Vanier | RASC". Retrieved June 20, 2017.
  32. Deirdre Baker (June 17, 2013). "Award presentation to be in France". Quad-City Times. Retrieved August 6, 2013.
  33. "Current Winner". Templeton Prize. John Templeton Foundation. March 11, 2014. Retrieved March 11, 2015.
  34. DeMarco, Donald (August 21, 2017). "Jean Vanier… To Love And Be Loved". The Wanderer Newspaper. Retrieved May 8, 2019.
  35. "Board Announces Name for New Catholic Secondary School in Milton". Halton Catholic District School Board. March 6, 2013. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
  36. Expanded edition released July 2018; Living Gently in a Violent World (InterVarsity Press, 2018).
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