Editor's Note: The print issue of Commonweal (March 2020) in which the following review appears went to press two days before it was reported that Jean Vanier sexually abused six women. We regret that the magazine's production schedule did not allow either the editors or the reviewer to take this news into account before the review was published. Michael Higgins has since written an article for Commonweal about the revelations of Vanier's misconduct. That article is scheduled to appear in the magazine's April print edition.
When Jean Vanier died in May 2019, he left behind 153 L’Arche communities in 38 countries on five continents, comprising 10,000 members with and without “intellectual disabilities” (the L’Arche term). He also left behind “Faith and Light,” an international movement, cofounded with Marie-Hélène Mathieu, to develop bonds of friendship among people with intellectual disabilities, their families, friends, and others drawn to help. He had given hundreds of speeches and retreats, authored thirty books, and received scores of awards, including the Paul VI Prize given by Pope John Paul II in 1997 and the Templeton Prize in 2015. In 2016 he was named Commander in the Legion of Honor—France’s highest decoration.
All this was possible because Vanier was, as Anne-Sophie Constant indicates in the subtitle of her book, “a free man,” a man “who knew how to become himself, who knew how to free himself from restraints and prejudices.... He knew how to free himself from this great current in which we all swim, because he knew how to listen to his own inner voice—the conscience, which Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us is not just the ability to distinguish between good and evil, but a force that pulls us toward liberty, justice, and light.”
Constant’s “portrait” is based on interviews with Vanier and on a careful reading of his books. It comes in seven chapters, organized chronologically. The first three deal with his life before L’Arche. His father Georges joined the Canadian military in the Great War, became a career officer after the war, and then a career diplomat, starting as Canadian representative to the League of Nations. He married Jean’s mother Pauline in 1921. Jean, born in 1928, was the third of five children. In 1939, Georges Vanier was appointed Canadian ambassador to France and brought the family to Paris in April, a month before Germany invaded. They fled to England, made their way to Montreal, and remained there the rest of their lives. The Vanier household was well-off, cultured, and oriented toward civic service. It was also very Catholic, providing Jean with the faith needed for what would be a circuitous path to his vocation.
At the age of fourteen, in 1942, Jean Vanier enrolled in the Royal Naval College in England. By the time he had graduated, the war was over, but he stayed on in the Navy and was promoted to lieutenant of Canada’s only aircraft carrier. In spite of his success, “he felt an increasing pull toward something else.” This impulse was cultivated by his religious practice and his reading of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Catherine de Hueck Doherty, whose Friendship House in Harlem he visited in 1950 when his ship docked in New York. Soon after, Vanier resigned from the Navy and, at his mother’s suggestion, joined Eau Vive (Living Water), a community of students in Soisy-sur-Seine, near Paris. There he met Fr. Thomas Philippe, OP, leader of the community of eighty young students from twenty countries. Philosophy, theology, the spiritual classics, daily Mass, gardening, silent prayer: Vanier drank it all in while receiving direction from Fr. Thomas. When the priest was suddenly transferred, Vanier was asked to lead the community but got caught between factions fighting for control and left in 1956. Eight years of wandering followed: a Cistercian monastery, a house in Normandy, a cottage at Fatima, a rental in the Swiss Alps, back to Paris to finish and defend his dissertation on Aristotle at the Institut Catholique, then to St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto to begin teaching in the fall of 1963. But at the end of that academic year, Vanier resigned his tenure-track position and returned to France.