Jean Vanier — a Catholic philosopher and humanitarian who was most famous for founding L’Arche, a global network of communities for people with disabilities — has passed away at age 90.
At a time when the intellectually and emotionally disabled were often simply locked away in institutions and forgotten, Vanier decided to help them with a different approach: To live with them, grow with them, and, by doing so, to respect and acknowledge their God-given human dignity.
Vanier, who was born in 1928, left an eight-year career in the Royal and Canadian navies to devote himself to theological and spiritual pursuits, but didn’t know exactly what to do after he left the service. But it all started making sense to him after he met with a chaplain at an institution for the disabled.
There, he said in a 2015 interview after winning the Templeton Prize, he said he saw “the whole world of people with disabilities, humiliated and depressed” and was compelled to do something.
“I had never even imagined that people were being treated like that,” he said in the interview. “I just felt that I should do something … the only thing I could do was maybe welcome two.” So that’s what he did.
Vanier’s movement of communities for people with and without disabilities began in France in 1964 when he invited two intellectually disabled men to come and live with him as friends. It would later grow into a flourishing network of worldwide communities that boasts 149 locations throughout 38 different countries.
“For many years, these wonderful people were seen as ‘errors,’ or as the fruit of evil committed by their parents or ancestors,” Vanier said in 2015. “They were terribly humiliated and rejected. Today we are discovering that these people have a wealth of human qualities that can change the hearts of those caught up in the culture of winning and of power.”
Put simply, L’Arche (which is French for “The Ark”) brings together people with and without disabilities to live together as fellow community members as they grow together through their shared lives.
“Each community member is encouraged to discover and deepen his or her spiritual life and live it according to his or her particular faith and tradition,” explains a document outlining principles for community life. “Those who have no religious affiliation are also welcomed and respected in their freedom of conscience.”
“Today L’Arche is among the most luminous examples of what it means to live Catholic social teaching and Gospel values in the modern world,” writes Sohrab Ahmari at the Catholic Herald. “It’s also the most powerful counter-witness to the culture of death and the eugenic revival that has some countries boasting of having ‘eliminated’ Down’s syndrome.”
Last year, the story of how Jean Vanier walked away from a career in the Navy to eventually find his calling among the disabled was chronicled in the documentary “A Summer in the Forest.” That documentary and Vanier’s accomplishments were highlighted on a May 2018 Episode of “The Capitol Hill Brief,” which can be found below.