Launched in the fall of 2007, Teaching Communities Week is a series of events—workshops, lectures, conversation, and worship—that explore the nature of Christian leadership for reconciliation. The basic idea, says Rice, is to bring together a living witness whose life exemplifies the Christian vision of peace and a theologian who can help provide insight and understanding into that life in a way that has meaning for the church. (Last year, for the inaugural event, Teaching Communities featured Mississippi pastor-activist John Perkins and Charles Marsh, professor of religion at the University of Virginia.)
“Through his extraordinary life journey and his witness as founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier is the ideal person for us to bring to campus for this fall’s Teaching Communities program,” says Rice. “He helps us to see how we can connect with places of hope that are living amidst the brokenness. Together, he and Stanley will help us to view L’Arche as a powerful lens for seeing what it means to be church.”
As Rice suggests, Vanier’s life—at least the 80 years so far—has indeed been extraordinary.
A French Canadian, born to a world of privilege and power, Vanier as a young man walked away from promising careers in the military, the church, and the academy to commit his life to people with intellectual disabilities. His father, Major General Georges Vanier, was a distinguished soldier and diplomat, leading troops in combat—and losing a leg—in World War I. He later served as Canada’s minister to France, delegate to the Paris Peace Conference, ambassador to France, and representative to the United Nations. From 1959 until his death in 1967, Vanier was Governor General of Canada, the British Crown’s official representative to Canada.
Growing up in a series of European countries where his father was serving as a diplomat, Vanier as a child fled Paris with his family in 1940 when the Nazis invaded France. At age 13, after receiving his father’s permission, Vanier returned from Quebec to enter the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England, and serve in the Royal Navy. After finishing his education in Great Britain after the war, he joined the Canadian Navy and served as an officer on an aircraft carrier.
But increasingly, Vanier felt called elsewhere. In 1950, he left the navy and began a spiritual and philosophical search, spending a year with a Catholic lay community in France, where he was mentored by Father Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest. For several years he studied for the priesthood, but just short of ordination decided against that path. Along the way, he had begun work on a Ph.D. at the Institut Catholique de Paris. He completed the degree in 1962 and taught philosophy at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. His Ph.D. studies were to prove formative for his work at L’Arche. His dissertation was on Aristotle on friendship and happiness, which Vanier defined as “loving and being loved”—four words that could easily be L’Arche’s mission statement today.