Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

The Practical Theology of Jean Vanier:
Faith in a Vulnerable Community


October 13, 2016
Presenter: David O. Jenkins

The theology of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche and Faith and Light, continues to be formed within intentional communities of adults with intellectual disabilities and those who share community with them.  The particular daily practices of these communities reveal theological convictions about the vulnerability of humanity and the vulnerability of God, about the location of faith itself, and about the significance of individual and communal bodies for revealing our capacity for transformative relationships.

Sponsored by the School of Theology and Ministry and generously supported by the Pyne Endowment Trust in memory of Professor Margaret E. Pyne, a lifelong advocate for persons with disabilities.


David O. Jenkins is associate professor in the practice of practical theology, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

Click here for a transcript of this presentation.

Audio only podcast

About Jean Vanier...  For more than fifty years Jean Vanier has lived in community with adults with intellectual disabilities.  Son of the Governor General of Canada, Vanier took a transformative turn when he joined a center for lay Roman Catholic formation and met a French priest named Father Thomas Philippe.  

Through Father Thomas, Jean was introduced to the residents of an institution for men with intellectual disabilities in the rural village of Trosly-Breuil, the village where Jean still lives.  On another visit to a large psychiatric hospital near Paris, he met Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, and soon thereafter invited them to share a home with him in Trosly-Breuil.  L’Arche (the ark) was born of these unlikely friendships.  Jean reflects on that first year in community with Raphael and Philippe: “Essentially, they wanted a friend.  They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being. What was clear … from the very beginning was the aspect of “living with” people who have [intellectual disabilities], a desire to create family with them.”  

As former students and personal friends visited Jean, Raphael and Philippe in their home called L’Arche, they began to extend this intimate vision. When L’Arche expanded to India, then Canada, its Roman Catholic foundation was contextualized in Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods, in ecumenical and interfaith settings.  L’Arche now finds a home in 147 communities in thirty-five countries, eighteen of which are in the U.S.

Jean Vanier, approaching 88, is the author of thirty books and was the recent recipient of the Templeton Prize.  He was friends with Mother Teresa, Brother Roger of Taize, and was the one who called Henri Nouwen into L’Arche where he spent the last ten years of his life.  Yet the friendships that continue to shape Jean’s theology and his heart are the day-to-day friendships with the women and men with intellectual disabilities – and their assistants – who share community in L’Arche.

Read more about L'Arche Community here.