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Jean Vanier's model for inclusiveness

  • 09 May 2019


Jean Vanier (1928-2019), sailor, academic, companion and man of boundless hospitality, died on 7 May, leaving behind him not only many communities in grief but also a model for how a world free of discrimination might look.

Jean was born to the Canadian Governor Georges Vanier and diplomat and Privy Councillor, Pauline Vanier, both renowned for their saintly lives, with their causes for canonisation having begun. When he took office as Governor-General, Georges prayed a prayer that might have been a premonition of his son’s life:

'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.'

After the young Jean resigned his commission in the Royal Canadian Navy in 1950, he felt driven towards something more. He studied philosophy in France, published works on Aristotle and briefly explored the possibility of becoming a priest. 

Vanier found his true calling in his 1963 encounter with two young Frenchmen with intellectual disabilities, Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux. These men's need for companionship and empathy touched his heart when he visited the institution in which they were confined. Vanier realised that the first response of society, when confronted with people with disability, was to shut them away in fear. His response instead was hospitality.

He invited the two men to live with him in a home he had bought, beginning the first L'Arche (The Ark) community in Trosly-Breuil in Picardie. In return, the men opened his own heart to a greater understanding both of what people cast onto the margins of society could offer by way of love and a broader understanding of all of humanity as limited, powerless, vulnerable and in need of mutual support.

Today, L'Arche has 154 communities and 21 community projects in 38 countries on five continents. While the philosophy of the movement is grounded in Vanier's Catholic faith, it is open to all and eschews discrimination on any grounds. Although the exact structures differ from place to place, 'core' members (with an intellectual disability) live with others ('assistants') in homes which offer mutual support and friendship.


"All of us begin life incapacitated — unable to speak