One day in 1963 a philosophy professor of the Toronto University, former Royal Navy officer, the son of the Governor General of Canada, Jean Vanier, was walking by an institution for mentally disabled people in the north of France. There, behind the walls of the institution he saw two disabled men. Their eyes were filled with sadness and pain. It was as if they were asking, “Can somebody love us?”
The meeting with these men turned Jean’s life upside down. His heart was no longer at peace. After a talk with his spiritual leader Father Thomas Philippe, Jean Vanier left everything he had done before, bought a small house in the village of Trosly-Breuil in northern France, and settled there with two intellectually disabled men – Raphael and Philippe. Thus, the first “L’Arche” community was founded (L’Arche – Fr. “The Ark”.)
Later it was joined by other people, there were opened new houses, where people with an intellectual disability and young assistants shared their life in work, friendship, and prayer. Very soon “L’Arche” spread around the world. From this first community with Roman Catholic roots many other communities have developed in various countries and religious traditions. Today L’Arche is an International Federation of 137 communities in 40 countries on 5 continents welcoming more than 5000 people with special needs.
“Faith and Light”
The precondition of creating “Faith and Light” was the event which happened to Gerard and Camille, who had two disabled children: Thaddée and Loïc. They were refused a possibility to participate in a pilgrimage organized by their parish, since they would allegedly be an obstacle for pilgrims (at that time it was considered that people with an intellectual disability could not participate in pilgrimages because it was too difficult for them, and their presence would be an obstacle for others.) Therefore, they decided to go separately from the parish. This pilgrimage turned out to be not easy: they were not allowed to eat in the hotel dining hall, everywhere they heard they should have stayed at home with such children. They put so much hope in this pilgrimage, but returned home with pain.
In response to an appeal by the parents of Thaddée and Loïc, Jean Vanier and Marie-Hélène Mathieu (a special teacher, founder of the Christian Office for Disabled People in 1963), moved by the loneliness and rejection of many intellectually disabled people and their families, decided to organize a pilgrimage to Lourdes with them. This pilgrimage was being prepared for three years. In order to prepare for the pilgrimage and to get to know each other, they met in groups of 20-30 people.
On Good Friday of 1971 a large group of people set off. There were around 12 thousand participants: people with an intellectual disability, their parents and friends. Three days of the pilgrimage passed in the atmosphere of joy and love. On coming home, people continued to meet in groups-communities. In this way, the movement of “Faith and Light” was born, having people with an intellectual disability at its heart, as well as their parents and friends.
Today there are more than 16 thousand communities of “Faith and Light” in 80 different countries. Members of the communities meet to share hardships and joy, celebrate and pray, support each other, growing in friendship, faith and love; participate in summer camps, retreats, pilgrimages.
Discoveries of Jean Vanier
During his life journey, thanks to the people with an intellectual disability Jean Vanier made three big discoveries. These discoveries concern friendship, relationship with God, and the gift of weakness. Each of them lies at the foundation of spirituality in “L’Arche” and “Faith and Light” and became a guideline, orientation point for each community.
1. Discovery of friendship. The first revelation of Jean Vanier when he met Raphael and Philippe was the fact that they did not need his sympathy and pity. They needed his friendship. Therefore, Jean did not found a charitable organization, he founded the community based on the relationship of friendship between people.
2. Discovery of relationships with God. The second big revelation of Jean Vanier is that friendship reveals for us relationships with God. It was a radical discovery and it still remains so – people who are the most rejected and unwanted open for us a way to the heart of God. These people who have no higher education, cannot work as others, who sometimes cannot speak at all, can show us the way to God.
3. Discovery of the gift of weakness. The third revelation of Jean Vanier concerns weakness and lies in the fact that it is not enough to put up with our weakness, but we have to accept it as a gift, celebrate it, because it can become for us a source of big blessing.
Jean Vanier discovered in disabled people a special gift of love and simplicity, which is so important for our society today. People with a disability are the way the are – they do not wear masks, do not pretend to be different, they do not need power, might, or wealth. Instead, they are open to love, tenderness, and friendship. They are often not capable of having an intellectual talk with us, but they have a special gift – to touch our heart, our feelings, and to open us for love.
Vocation of “Emmaus”
“Emmaus” Centre draws inspiration from the spirituality of Jean Vanier and seeks to spread his message about the value, beauty, and vocation of people with an intellectual disability.
We believe that people with an intellectual disability really have their special vocation and mission in the world. We want to witness about this in our society, as well as to support people with a disability and their families in fulfilling their mission.
“Emmaus” Centre was founded on the model of the French ‘Christian Office for Disabled Persons’, and shares with it the same beliefs and vision.
“Every person is sacred, irrespective of his/her culture, faith, faults, or weaknesses. Every person is created in the image of God; He gave each of us the heart, ability to love and to accept love of other people.”