Why has Jean Vanier been so important ?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love. ” -Jean Vanier

Humanitarian, theologian, philosopher, Jean Vanier is a Swiss-born French Canadian who is the son of an ambassador and who himself served in World War II in the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy. After the war in 1950, however, Vanier felt a spiritual calling to work in a humanitarian way and resigned his naval commission. He travelled to Paris to study where he completed a PhD. in philosophy at the Institut Catholique de Paris. Afterwards, he taught philosophy at University of Toronto. Still, he sought more spiritual work.

It was his friendship with a priest called Father Thomas Philippe which most affected Vanier's life as with him Vanier visited an institution where people with developmental disabilities lived. So moved by their plight was Vanier that invited two of the men to come live with him in Trosly-Breuil, France. From this beginning, Vanier founded L'Arche (the Ark), an institution where the developmentally impaired live with caregivers.

Later, in 1968 Vanier gave his first Faith and Sharing retreat for people of all walks of life who are altruistic. From the overwhelming success of this first retreat, Vanier co-founded with Marie-Helene Mathieu an international movement for people with disabilities; now there are over 1,800 Faith and Light communities in eighty countries around the world. Even now, at the age of 85, Vanier travels extensively as he visits other L'Arche communities. There he lectures, holds retreats, and encourages projects for new communities. 

Among his many awards, Jean Vanier holds the French Legion of Honor, the National Order of Quebec, and the Humanitarian Award of 2001.