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Jean Vanier's model for inclusiveness



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 Vanier shaking hands with one of the core members of L'Arche Daybreak, John Smeltzer. 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 or see or reason — and most of us, if we are lucky to live so long, will leave it that way: with mental or physical limitations. Limitation and disability is accordingly not something foreign, to be feared or locked away."


One of the great gifts of Vanier and L'Arche has been to subvert the understanding of 'disability'. Vanier's key insight was that:

'When we start helping the weak and the poor to rise everyone will begin to change. Those who have power and riches will start to become more humble, and those who are rising up will leave behind their need to be victims, their need to be angry or depressed ... This is the spirituality of life, that helps people to rise up and take their place. It is not a spirituality of death. Jesus wants those who have been crushed to rise up and those who have power to discover that there is another road, a road of sharing and compassion.'

It is very easy for people without a disability to see those who have one as 'the other', as strange because the workings of their bodies or minds are so manifestly different or apparently deficient. This is particularly so in the case of people with an intellectual disability, where cognitive processes which many of us take for granted may be a foreign territory, leaving them open to exploitation, neglect or exclusion.

The fact is, as Vanier recognised, that all of us are partial, incomplete beings. His '5 Principles of Humanity' include the sacredness of all people, the constant evolution of people, the corollary realisation that maturity comes in working with others, the need for people to make choices for the benefit of themselves and others and the universal search for meaning.

It follows that the myth of the self-made person with flawless body and mind is just that. Vanier pointed out that it is in our very vulnerability and woundedness that we display the form of Christ. Indeed, it is appropriate that Vanier went to meet his God at Easter, a time when Christians celebrate Christ meeting his disciples — and proving his identity and triumph over death in the face of their disbelief by showing them his wounds.

All of us begin life incapacitated — unable to speak or see or reason — and most of us, if we are lucky to live so long, will leave it that way: with mental or physical limitations. Limitation and disability is accordingly not something foreign, to be feared or locked away, but is in fact an essential part of the human condition. What is more, as Jean Vanier has demonstrated in a life lived for others, it is in that limitation which we shall see the face of God.



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: Jean Vanier shaking hands with one of the core members of L'Arche Daybreak, John Smeltzer.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Jean Vanier, disability



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Existing comments

The Star Child by Oscar Wilde. Don't read it unless you what to really know the difference between blind pride and the fruit of true humility: Love

AO | 09 May 2019  

Discrimination is selective (at its worst) and inclusion involves confusion (at its best). Vanier lived a life of profound inclusion and found his best self. What a role model.

Pam | 09 May 2019  

Thanks, too, to Robin Koning SJ for information on Jean Vanier's parents - in particular, the inspirational quote from his father.

Justin Glyn | 10 May 2019  

The social power of one. R.I.P. Jean Vanier.

John RD | 10 May 2019  

Thank you for this concise article about Jean Vanier from whose humility we can all learn.

Nic Vidot | 14 May 2019  

Such a welcome read, thank you Justin. An uplifting article that provides more insight and understanding than the painful rant of power seeking politicians at election time - we can all learn a great deal from the great man Jean Vanier. He is the perfect model of how to translate events from 2,000 years ago into modern times.

Rob Monaco | 14 May 2019  

Great Thanks for this encomium, Justin. Having just returned from Rome, where the St Egidio Communities foster the links between disability and a Catholic spirituality, I cannot but agree with your touching words.

Michael Furtado | 15 May 2019  

Thank you for a most inspiring article on Jean Vanier. Since reading it, I have begun to immerse myself in reading or listening to his thoughts. His humility and deep love for human beings consigned to fringe-dwellers mirrors Jesus Christ. His ability to live his faith and speak about it in a way that is invitational and encouraging in that warm timbre of voice leaves one with no choice but to follow. RIP Jean Vanier. An every day saint of the 20th and 21st centuries. We are better for having known you. Thank you for your legacy of love and service that was modelled 2100 years ago.


Thank you, Justin. I also read another moving tribute on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics site. This was from M.Vanier’s close friend, theologian Stanley Hauerwas. He commented on the radical gentleness of a man committed to accepting others just as they are - not trying to change or heal or convert, just living with them in profound respect. Thanks be to God for this saint.

Joan Seymour | 16 May 2019  

There are few people you can really use the word 'Christlike' about: the late Jean Vanier was one of those. It is quite possible that his family may end up having three saints in two generations, which would be something of a record. He came from an incredibly rich, deep and alive spiritual tradition: that of French Canada, and, through that, of France. It is almost de rigueur in certain circles these days to denigrate traditional Catholic families and traditional Catholic piety. The Vaniers were pious but not bigoted. Their Catholicism was also intellectually alive and they were certainly cultured in the broadest sense. The late Max Charlesworth and his family were about the closest thing to the Vaniers we had in Australia today. Max, of course, spent some years in Belgium and was deeply influenced by contemporary French Catholic thought. He certainly had an immense influence on Philosophy and the study of Contemporary Religion, including an appreciation of Aboriginal Spirituality. I am not sure we, as yet, have developed a rich, deep and effective Australian spirituality of our own. I think it is a work still in progress. Hopefully it will be a truly living spirituality like that of the Vaniers and Charlesworths.

Edward Fido | 23 May 2019  

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